PART ONE: FUKUSHIMA MON AMOUR
Our 2nd Japan Tour will take us to Saitama, Minamisōma, Iwaki, Kōriyama, Kakogawa, Nagoya, and Tokyo. Minamisōma, Iwaki and Kōriyama are three places in the Fukushima prefecture, at distances as close as 25 km from the nuclear disaster plant.
During and after our summer tour of 2013 we already started planning the next one. The experience of playing in schools and hospitals, and in an alternative circuit as compared to the “officially approved” places of classical music worship, led us to further explore the possibilities we have with our Duo.
This smallest of all chamber music formations is just perfect for the way we want to build bridges. Playing abroad, in remote areas, for atypical audiences, demands the utmost flexibility. Flexibility in moving around and in selecting concert programs that are tailor-made for the different kinds of audiences we play for. The flexibility to take in our stride any problems that come our way, and to find quick solutions.
Adopting Patrick Charton‘s B21 “Basse-Partout” travel bass enables us to maximise flexibility. It’s still a big case to move around, but with a regular bass it would be impossible to do what we want to do.
When we were asked if we were prepared to go and play in Fukushima, the decision was relatively easy to make. Only two people, only two opinions to consider. Being aware of the risks is important when considering such requests. The Fukushima situation is far from being under control, and it remains to be seen if it ever will be. I seriously doubt it. Fukushima is a slow motion disaster of such proportions that sooner or later the whole world will suffer its consequences, in spite of the information black-out. So why do we want to go there? After all we’ll be playing for a few hundred people at best. It’s not worth the risk.
When all is said and done, i guess it comes down to gut feeling. Rationally speaking, weighing the pros and cons, one must come to the conclusion that this is a foolish undertaking. On the other hand, life has no sense except the one that we give it. In a way this is, for us, a sense-giving decision. It won’t change or save the world. But it will very certainly change the lives of some of the people there, even if just for a short moment. It will change our lives too. Realising that what we do is just a drop in the ocean doesn’t have to stop us from doing it.
WHAT’S ART GOT TO DO, GOT TO DO WITH IT?
The gigantic cover-up of the disaster and of the ongoing consequences by governments worldwide (not only the Japanese) should not make us forget that we are all part of the problem now. I can’t help but feel that looking the other way is no longer an option. Pretending that everything is OK won’t make any problems disappear. Artists can no longer be content to go on living in their ivory towers. “L’Art pour l’Art” is over. It was a nice and cosy dream while it lasted, but it’s time to wake up and do something.
Sure, there’s only so much an artist can do. It’s up to every individual to see what the possibilities are. In my case, the feeling that art and “Artistic Research” can’t be seen as being isolated from the real world has become very strong. If i want my artistic research to be more than a futile pass-time, i have to give it some real meaning. Knowing that that meaning can only be very limited is no excuse for doing nothing.
Our Japan Tour is a case in point. It’s not going to change the world significantly. It’s not going to solve the (unsolvable) problem of exploding nuclear facilities that go berserk and threaten the entire world population and all life forms, without anyone knowing how the hell to get the genie back inside the bottle.
All we can do with our art, is to bring comfort to a few hundred of the most direct victims, to let them know they are still human and worthy of attention. That they may be forgotten by their politicians but not by everybody.
All we can do as performing artists is to play charity concerts as often as we can, here and abroad, and to inspire people through music and through the way we play.
All we can do is to draw attention to what is wrong with this world by writing and talking about it. Keeping silent sure won’t help anyone.
The only direct value of art and artistic research then, is in its connection to the world around us. Otherwise it’s worthless. What future generations (if there will be any, seeing as we’ve made a seemingly irreparable mess of this planet) will make of our 21st century art and whether they will find other, maybe deeper values in it need not concern us.
Yes, we have thought this over many times. Yes, we know that taking an intercontinental flight makes us guilty of stinking up the earth’s atmosphere even more. We do feel bad about that. Yes, we know that maybe, ultimately, this is just selfishness: that this is only a way of making us feel good and noble for going out and bringing a short glimpse of happiness to a few hundred people.
Guilty as charged.
But we’re going.
Ik heb een steen verlegd
in een rivier op aarde.
Het water gaat er anders dan voorheen.
De stroom van een rivier hou je niet tegen,
het water vindt er altijd een weg omheen.
Misschien eens, gevuld door sneeuw en regen
neemt de rivier m’n kiezel met zich mee.
Om hem dan, glad en rond gesleten,
te laten rusten in de luwte van de zee.
Ik heb een steen verlegd
in een rivier op aarde.
Nu weet ik dat ik nooit zal zijn vergeten.
Ik leverde bewijs van mijn bestaan.
Omdat door het verleggen van die ene steen
de stroom nooit meer dezelfde weg zal gaan.
Bram Vermeulen (1946-2004)
I moved a pebble in an earthly river.
The water flows now in a diff’rent way.
No one can stop the river’s streaming.
The water finds its own bed, come what may.
Perhaps one day, when filled with snow or rain,
the stream will take my pebble on a spree
and leave it, round and smoothly polished
to rest forever in the deep blue sea.
I moved a pebble in an earthly river.
I know now i will never be forgotten,
provided proof that i once had a name.
Because, by moving just one stone
the river’s way will never be the same.
Bram Vermeulen (1946-2004)
(Thanks to generous donations from Egmont Toys and The Grasshopper, we will be able to bring a great quantity of little toys to the children and orphans we will be playing for).
Since touring is also a chance to develop ever further as musicians and as a Duo, we decided to put together a totally new program. Again, we will mix European (ancient) music with Japanese folk music and children’s songs, and European pop music with its Japanese counterpart. And again we will have almost 3 hours’ worth of music from which we will select the different concert programs.
Early stages of preparatory sketches for the Japanese pieces.
We rarely play the exact same program twice, because we play for (sometimes very) different audiences: from schools and kindergardens to music lovers in cultural centres or to monasteries. Changing programs every day also keeps us on our toes as performers. Even in those cases where we have prepared specific programs, we usually change them on the spot: different order, different pieces, different repeats. Or we just ask the audience what they would like to hear. We never know until we see the audience and feel how they respond. This is very different from the usual way classical music is presented, with fixed programs that allow no flexibility to interact with the listeners.
On the European side we’re bringing one of Johann Matthias Sperger‘s Sonatas for double bass and viola. (Last year we played his “Duetto”). The bass, as usual in our Duo, is the 5-string Viennese Violone (gut strings tuned in thirds and fourths, frets). The viola part is played on the Viola d’Amore. As it happens, the main tuning of this instrument (there are many tunings) is in D major. A lucky coincidence because the Viennese Bass is tuned the same. Both instruments together produce a very rich, resonant sound which at times can give the impression of a much bigger ensemble.
This Sperger sonata is one of his most beautiful works. As soon as we started rehearsing it, we just fell in love with it. Very exciting, very fresh and charming, and with lots of humor as well as romance.
We also bring the entire Vanhal Double Bass Concerto in Duo form, for the first time. We had already played the first movement on our last tour, but now we’re going for the full Monty (and no, we’re not taking off all our clothes).
The idea of rearranging a concerto in Duo form may seem original (in the sense of “special”). It may also seem historically incorrect. But Sperger himself (for whom the concerto may have been written, and in whose music collection the manuscript was found) rearranged some of his own Duets as concerto movements. What we did was to reverse this idea, and to imagine Johann Matthias going on one of his tours in the hope of finding a job in some court orchestra. The poor man can’t afford to take a whole orchestra with him, so he asks his Viola d’Amore friend to accompany him in this concerto, that he wants to play for princes and bishops, hoping to impress them enough to give him a steady job.
Playing these important works from the Viennese Classical period, doing the necessary research on performance practice, using “ancient” instruments, even the imagination it takes to come to the decision to try this, these are all elements of “artistic research” that going on tour gives us a chance to explore.
GO DOWN MOSES
Another European work we take on tour is our own adaptation of Paganini‘s so-called “Moses-Variations”. It is every aspiring bass student’s wet dream to play this bravura work for the violin’s G-string, and the number of string players who have slaved to master its difficulties must be well in the thousands.
Personally i am not an advocate of transcribing virtuoso violin and cello music for the bass. It nearly always, inevitably, sounds much inferior to the original so what’s the point? Apart from the admittedly valuable element of personal growth and of a personal challenge, in which case these endeavours should probably be kept inside the study room, i see no benefits in bringing such things before an audience. On the other hand of course, there is undoubtedly an entertainment value in some of these performances, just as there is in a circus act, and virtuosity can provide the thrills some people crave: “vivere pericolosamente” can be addictive. It all depends on the personality of the musician. Some people need to go bungee jumping to feel they’re alive. Others play violin concertos on a double bass. Hey, it’s a free world…
Anyway, we decided to give the piece a new twist. Many vehicles for virtuosic display are, how shall i put it, in rather poor taste (then again we all know that “de gustibus et coloribus non est disputandum”). Musically speaking i rarely find anything interesting about them, even when played on the original instruments they were composed for. So there is no need, in my opinion, to take this music all too seriously or to treat it with too much respect. On the contrary: let’s feel free to change it, to add to it. Let’s see if we can give a different meaning to this music.
So we did. The theme which Paganini uses in his piece comes from Rossini‘s opera “Mosè in Egitto” (Moses in Egypt). He uses the beautiful chorus, the prayer “Dal tuo Stellato Soglio” as the introduction, then moves on to a March with a set of variations, all to be played on a single string. In the original version, this one string is the violin’s G-string: the lowest one. In cello and bass transcriptions it is played on the highest string for obvious reasons of clarity, but as far as pure virtuosity goes, the violin version on the low G-string has more “kudos”.
But it’s the story itself that set me thinking and that gave me some ideas for a different take on the piece. The original Paganini variations have no real connection with the biblical narrative of the Exodus, apart from the Introduction. But i pictured the long trek through the desert, the heat and the sand that slowed down the exhausted people’s March as they climbed uphill, accelerating as the dunes sloped down again towards an oasis – or was it only a fata morgana?
The cry for freedom is universal, and people throughout history have always aspired to be free and have fought bloody revolutions for it. No surprise then that we wove some “freedom themes” into the piece.
Music, like smell, has a tendency to awaken hidden memories in our brains. Fragments of melodies remind us vaguely of other songs. This mechanism is often used by musical comedians who combine the most unlikely pieces from classical, musical, jazz or pop music into one crazy pot-pouri that makes the mind boggle. We submitted Paganini to the same treatment, albeit on a more modest scale as Moses, victim of hallucinations, is having some strange visions…
In our arrangement Paganini himself gets to meet a Viennese composer, named Ditters von D, who helps him rearrange his piece for the double bass, and in the end he has a brief meeting with one of his heroes. Or was it one of his fans?
This new version of Paganini’s Variations for double bass and viola d’amore, which we premiered at a private concert last week, is a work in progress, as is everything we do. In future i guess that other storylines might present themselves and that other musical elements will find their way into this ever-changing arrangement. Artistic research at its best.
By the way, we’re not totally out of style by introducing “foreign” elements into the piece. Paganini himself reputedly used imitations of other instruments, animals, and even the “sighs and groans of lovers” (although, as always in programme music, if you don’t know it you won’t hear it, and if you do know it you’ll still need some imagination).
Another European duo piece we bring is a “Lezione” by Attilio Ariosti for Viola d’Amore and B.C. Haruko will play it on a beautiful little Pochette made by Jacques Grandchamp. It is tuned to A major. The original score is written in tablature form: after all, it is a “Lezione”, meant for students and amateurs.
Jacques Grandchamp’s “Pochette” in the middle. Charton’s bass is seen here with its steel string neck in a 4-string configuration. The Japan Tour will be with the 5-string “Viennese” neck with gut strings and frets, and with a flamed maple fingerboard.
Tablature is a system in which the notation (in numbers or letters which indicate where to place the fingers, or in notes that mimic the place of the fingers as if one were playing on a regular violin, in this case) has no direct relation to the sound. In fact, in the case of a tablature in notes, the notation is totally out of whack with the actual sounding pitches. This makes it hard for a professional musician to dissociate the printed notes from the actual music he hears. If one were to play the written notes as music and not as the “roadmap” for the fingers that it actually is, it would sound utterly strange and unmusical.
Also, since these tablatures are usually meant for people with only rudimentary playing skills, they tend to use the simplest fingerings. Not the fingerings that would actually sound the best (an exception is lute tablature which was used even for very elaborate works).
Strangely, nowadays one can find modern editions for the Viennese Bass that are written in this old-fashioned tablature system. I can’t help but feel that if you want to play in Viennese Tuning, it’s better to just learn it. It’s not exactly brain surgery. Using tablature will make you even lazier than you already are, but more importantly, it obliges you to use the fingerings that somebody else is suggesting. From what i have seen, the proposed fingerings are in most cases not the ones i would have chosen.
Arguably, the original idea behind these editions may have been very constructive and positive: to enable any bass player to use the original tuning. But i would advise to steer away from them and to figure it all out for yourself instead of just accepting what is offered without really understanding what you’re doing. Once you have gained some knowledge of how Viennese Tuning works, it doesn’t hurt to take a look at a tablature edition. It may give you ideas, or it can confirm that your own choices were better after all. Both ways, you win.
So, instead of following Ariosti’s tablature, which was quite unsatisfactory, Haruko re-transcribed the notes into real music, which enabled her to find better, more musical fingerings.
It’s interesting though to reflect on this system: if Sperger had left us his own tablatures (there is no indication that any of the Viennese bass music was ever written in tablature. There was simply no need for that), we would have a better insight in the way he really played. It would be a treasure of information on his individual technique. On the other hand, as in Ariosti’s case, we don’t always know for sure whether the tablature reflects the composer’s own way of playing or if it is a simplified notation for the benefit of amateurs.
Tablatures are still widely used in guitar playing. They can be very instructive because they give valuable hints on where and how to play special effects such as slides or “pulling” notes, for instance. But even in the field of non-classical music some players and teachers criticize the use of tablatures if it only serves to stop you from learning to read music. Bass guitarist extraordinaire Jeff Berlin is one of those. Sensitive readers be warned: Jeff is very outspoken on music education, which earned him the title “Motor Mouth or Musical Genius?” in Bass Player Magazine sometime in the 80’s if memory serves me right…
This kind of research is always fascinating. One has to make decisions, based on historical knowledge and on experience. But as always, in the end the result has to be convincing and has to bring joy, satisfaction, emotion to the player and to the audience. It’s all very well to be as historically accurate as possible, but if the audience falls asleep after five minutes, you have failed as an artist.
Another European piece we have with us is a Telemann Trio for Flute, Viola d’Amore and Basso Continuo. This piece and the Ariosti Lezione II are both part of the program in a “serious” baroque concert that we play in Nagoya with some Japanese baroque musicians.
Since it would be highly impractical to bring two bass instruments on the tour, i arranged the 8ft bass parts for the Viennese Bass. A la guerre comme à la guerre. Historical accuracy can be a lofty ambition, but reality often dictates creative solutions. I stuck with the 8ft register for most of the music, descending to the 16ft octave in a few chosen spots for variation in repeats. The Ariosti will be just the two of us so i have quite some freedom, but the Telemann will have a harpsichord playing along, which means that here i can’t tamper too much with the bass part.
PRIMUM NON NOCERE
It’s quite a challenge to do this stuff on a bass, and i had to be very creative with unorthodox fingerings. The great thing is that experiences like this oblige you to extend your technique and to develop your musicality at the same time: it’s not enough to play the notes, nor to play them well. Your part has to fit in with the other instruments according to the medical adage “primum non nocere”, first do no harm. It’s always better to leave out a few notes than to be stubborn and to “play what is written”, which is probably the most common mistake musicians make throughout their careers.
The other side of the artistic research is of course the actual tour in itself: not only choosing programs, but the actual playing, the interaction with audiences, the personal feedback one generates while playing (Why is it out of tune? Mmm, the people really seem to connect with what we’re playing… Is this tempo convincing, in this concert setting? Maybe next time we have to slow it down a bit. I think we should change the order of the program, let’s not play the 2nd movement now, but rather that Japanese folk song… Oops, Haruko seems to want this a bit faster, i have to concentrate here. We have to check this after the concert).
The last piece from the Old Country is Rossini‘s “Une Larme” (A Teardrop) from his “Péchés de Vieillesse”. Originally for double bass and piano (there is also an original cello version), we gave the piece a Viola d’Amore accompaniment, and we totally disregarded the modern edition’s phrasings and bowings. It’s un unpretentious, charming in-between or encore piece that blends well with the Japanese music we’ve chosen.
As far as European pop music goes, we’re bringing some Beatles songs: “Yesterday”, “When i’m 64” and “All You Need is Love”. As always in the shape of our own home-grown arrangements, and in “suite” form, mixed with Japanese music. We’ll even attempt to sing some background vocals…
We combine and confront all styles in our little suites, we use Leitmotiv techniques to grab the audience’s attention and to connect seemingly disparate pieces, we use classical ostinati underneath a pop song, etc. It’s not very interesting to play “straight”, literal transcriptions. I think it never is. Transcriptions have to follow a different set of rules: different instruments require a different way of playing, they demand to be used in the most effective way so that their strong points appear. Vocal music has to be given an extra dimension to replace the loss of the lyrics and of the voice timbre when played on instruments, and so on…)
LOST IN TRANSLATION
One could compare this to the translation of literature or poetry into a different language. If you want to keep the “soul” of the original poem intact, you can’t simply translate it literally. I made a quick translation of the lyrics to Bram Vermeulen‘s song “De Steen” (in the Introduction to this article), taking care to keep at least some of the inherent musicality of the poem (If it had to be sung to the original melody i would have to make a new translation that respects the “rhythm” of the Dutch lyrics). It’s not perfect, but it does sound a lot better than what Google Translations could ever come up with. The same goes for “translating” music for a different instrument: literal transcription is often clumsy and doesn’t do justice to the music.
The Japanese music is mainly folk and children’s songs, often connected to the cities or regions where we play, but also recent pop songs that the young people are sure to know. Here too we make “collages” out of all these elements. This is very time-consuming work (Artistic Research again). You can’t just paste together anything that comes to mind. The combination has to “work”. Sometimes it works because of similarities. Sometimes it works because of contrast. It takes many, many hours of arranging, writing, playing, testing, transposing, copying, throwing away, starting afresh. And we always play a few try-out concerts before setting off on our tours, so we have a pretty good idea of what works before we leave.
(Photos by Aldegonde Le Compte)
Try-out concert in an art gallery, surrounded by sculptures of Begga D’Haese.
One week later, at the “Made in Japan” charity event in Louvain-La-Neuve.
…and another try-out concert at a friend’s place.
In Fukushima, where we play in schools, we will collaborate with Mrs. Nakahira, an expert in Kamishibai (see the JAPAN 2013 BLOG: (musicbuildingbridges.blogspot.be/p/japan-tour-blog.html) in concerts of Japanese music accompanied by Kamishibai stories. We sent her the Japanese music program we’re playing, and she is now busy preparing the drawings and the story lines. Another little bridge we’re building…
PREPARING THE INSTRUMENTS
Part of this ongoing research is the choice and the setting up of the instruments and bows. The choice of strings, the physical set-up of the Bass and Viola d’Amore, the choice of rosin and of bow hair for a different climate: these are all elements of research.
Through trial and error and through many years of experience i have found out a few things, both in playing technique on the Viennese Bass and in the matter of instrument set-up, that are not mentioned in methods or anywhere else. The Viennese classical period brought us no methods or text books on the Viennese bass whatsoever, and the instrument has only recently started to attract attention from curious players. We are now re-discovering efficient ways of playing, that often differ from modern bass technique.
Thumb position playing for instance, is extremely developed in Sperger’s music. It is only after having played many of his works and of those of his contemporaries that one understands a little more about Viennese Bass solo technique. Thumb position is used on all 4 top strings as far as a fifth above the string octave, which is hardly ever done on the modern bass.
This in turn has a major influence on bass set-up: on modern instruments we tend to have the top strings closer to the fingerboard, and the bottom strings higher. Makes perfect sense on all string instruments. However, on the Viennese bass this should not be taken to the same extremes as on the modern instrument. In fact, it is advisable to have the top 3 strings almost the same height above the fingerboard, i.e. very very low. Whereas typical string heights on a modern bass could be something like 6-7-8-9 mm from the top G to the bottom E (individual preferences can yield both higher and lower standards), on my Viennese bass i have something like 4-4-5-5-6.
The idea that gut strings always have to be raised high above the fingerboard, i consider to be nonsense. It’s just not true. It’s not true for orchestra playing and it’s even less true for solo playing. When you have double stops in the highest register of the bass, not only on the top 2 strings, but also on strings 2 and 3, or even on 3 and 4, there is not a cat’s chance in hell you’ll play them in tune if the strings are too high above the fingerboard. Besides, pressing down a “middle” string in thumb position will lower the contact point with the bow, so that one ends up bowing the two adjacent strings as well.
But in the “normal” register the strings can be quite close to the fingerboard as well. If your strings are too high, it’s not much use adjusting your frets for intonation. Pressing down the string from high above will stretch it, and stretching the string will make intonation go up. Playing in tune then becomes even more impossible.
The proper set-up of a bass depends on many parameters. Fingerboard dressing (giving the fingerboard the right “dip”) requires great skill and sensitivity from the luthier. String height can vary considerably depending on how concave the fingerboard is, lengthwise. The string gauge (thickness) and tension will also greatly influence how close one can bring the strings to the fingerboard surface. But as a general rule, i see little or no reason to automatically assume that gut strings need an extreme distance from the fingerboard.
In modern bass playing, there is much controversy on the topic of string height, or “action” as it is called. Some people maintain that a higher string setting makes for better sound. Others believe that the lowest possible action (as low as it gets without buzzing) is the best option as it avoids energy waste and allows for a more fluent left hand technique. These opinions can be found in the double bass community but also among bass guitarists. John Entwistle of The Who reputedly said he wanted his strings “on the other side of the frets”, meaning as low as physically possible (www.thewho.net/whotabs/gear/bass/bassmisc.html). Cliff Williams (AC/DC bassman) on the other hand wants the strings very high for more sound. In the classical field, Edgar Meyer is an advocate of the lowest possible action. And when i visited the late Ludwig Streicher at his home in the 80’s, he let me play his bass on which i found the action surprisingly high for a solo instrument. I also found interesting insights on the German bass website www.geba-online.de – forum where somebody (a jazz player) wrote that having the strings set very high inspired him to play differently, and that it gave him new ideas.
Edgar Meyer, one of the greatest players in modern times. Very low string action, big dot position markers on the fingerboard, cheap bows: Meyer’s no-nonsense attitude combined with his unconventional approach to playing technique and to music makes him stand out.
Ludwig Streicher, one of the most inspiring bass players in history. High string action, german bow, solid “traditional” technique, deep musicality, utterly convincing in all he did. His influence on the renaissance of the double bass in the second half of the 20th century cannot be overstated.
An original and a master musician.
Generally, many bass players have the idea that gut strings need a much higher action than steel strings. Frankly, in all the years i’ve been playing on gut i have never had that impression. I can imagine that if one plays the same way on gut strings as on steel, with the same bowing strength, “digging in” the same way, one will have some difficulties in obtaining a clean and clear sound. But gut strings need a different approach, with constantly more sensitivity to how the strings behave, with more “Fingerspitzengefühl”. Also, every player has his/her personal way of playing and of producing sound. A strong, muscular man like Streicher probably needed a higher action, even with steel strings. But i would suggest to find out for yourself and not to believe in myths.
Too many myths in music.
Too many myths in life.
Having the Charton bass with all its adjustment possibilities makes it easy to establish the correct height for every situation. With an Allen wrench, i can bring the neck closer to the strings within infinite tolerances. But for Viennese Tuning, i had to take the wood of the bridge itself slightly down on the bass string side, so that i have almost equal string height on all strings. The original bridge shape was “modern”, which means that the lower strings were positioned just a little bit too high.
OH MY GUT!
I love the sound and feel of gut strings, but i’m not a gut fundamentalist. Last year i tried some nylon-wound bass strings before setting off to Japan because i figured the humidity and the heat might cause more trouble than i was prepared to accept. But strangely, the Presto strings i tried (in two different gauges) didn’t match the intonation of the frets nor of the gut strings that i wanted to combine them with. The modern strings were at least a quarter tone off, as compared to gut.
In the past i have used Gut-a-Like strings in baroque settings. These are solid nylon, i believe, and were designed with the Slap-Bass in mind. However, they work fine with the bow if you’re not looking for a very powerful sound. I have found that in combination with a cello (in basso continuo playing) they provide a very nice and warm bottom. As stand-alone strings they lack the definition of the higher harmonics.
Just recently i installed yet another type of strings on my Krattenmacher viennese bass. The Superior Bass Works strings have a Kevlar core with a nylon-like, textured outer covering. So far they seem to work quite well, and they inspire me to explore new territory. As a matter of fact, they stimulate me to review fingerings, to find new solutions to left-hand challenges, and to bow slightly differently. Sound production and timbre are very close to gut with just enough difference to make it really interesting. More insights will surely follow as the tour unfolds.
This is the kind of artistic research that i really love. I think that the ill-reputed “gear slut” syndrome, so common in rock musicians who sometimes own several hundred guitars, can be partly explained by the boost in creativity that a “new” instrument or piece of gear often provides.
Choosing bows is another important element. With the variety of pieces and of musical styles we play, it is critical to find a bow that works with all pieces. Bringing several bows on such a tour is not really practical, although i do carry a spare bow and maybe i’ll need a different type of bow for one of the pieces. Modern bows don’t often combine well with gut strings (and vice versa, which makes half-hearted attempts to play ancient music with period bows on steel strings a bit futile) although i have found that my carbon fibre bow does seem to “understand” the gut rather well. But the bow that matches my instrument better than any other is made out of walnut and is extremely light. (Incidentally, the wood came from an 18th century bed… Imagine the stories my bow could tell).
Bows should be chosen in function of the music one plays, but also with special attention to the other instruments you’re playing with. In our case, the Amore is a very resonant instrument, but it’s not very powerful (i will have more to say about our strange obsession with sound volume, not only in rock music but also in the classical field, elsewhere in this blog. Classical orchestra musicians going deaf from decibel overload, not really normal in my opinion… )
This means that i don’t need a bow for power, but rather one that brings out the subtleties and colours of the gut strings, and that allows me to “speak” the articulations as precisely as possible. Speaking through music, telling a story to the audience, is one of my main interests. A bow should therefore help me to achieve a speaking quality in my playing.
These are just a few elements of what i include under the nomer of “Artistic Research”, and that i discover as i prepare and play concerts. Ultimately, all this research should result in a concert where the audience is given all the prerequisites to be welcomed into our sound world. It’s not so much about the music in the first place. The music is only the means that allows a two-way communication with the listener.
PART 3 : THE PROGRAMS
1/ SPERGER SONATA FOR VIENNESE BASS AND VIOLA
(Trumpf T 40, Schwerin N° 5185, Meier C I/7)
The sonata is in three movements: Allegro Moderato, Adagio, Moderato: Rondo.
Right away it’s interesting to note that in the Viennese Solo Bass literature the indication Allegro is rare. It is nearly always “moderated” by a Moderato.
For third movements, the Rondo form (often with folk-inspired melodies) was à la mode.
As usual in Sperger’s scores, there are many indications of articulations. but strangely, specific articulation signs are conspicuously absent in some places where one would expect them, such as resolutions where normally there is a slur as the dissonant resolves into the consonant final chord or vice versa.
On the one hand, one might be excused for thinking that it was so common to slur such passages that a composer didn’t need to actually write it down. And indeed, innumerable scores contain hardly any articulations or slurs at all because musicians just knew how to play the music. They didn’t need all those indications. In fact, as composers became more meticulous in their notation, musicians felt insulted. They had no need to be told how to play.
On the other hand, i feel there is a contradiction here. Sperger being so precise (more on his articulations in the blog sections on the Vanhal concerto) i find it a bit too strange to think he would have omitted articulations where they were wanted. I think he sometimes deviated from common practice on purpose. In cases such as these where a succession of double stops is seen, it is technically a lot easier to avoid slurs, and it sounds a lot clearer.
Also, bowing direction may be altered from what would be “normal” so as to ensure a clear sound and more solid intonation. The interval of a fifth A-E, played on the 4th and 3rd strings in first thumb position, and later on, the same interval a fifth higher (E-B) in high thumb position on the same two strings, definitely benefits from being on a separated, un-slurred downbow rather than an upbow or a slur (due to the tuning of the top strings in thirds, fifths are hard to play in Viennese Tuning and appear almost exclusively in a very few positions of the instrument, on the 3rd and 4th strings, unless there is an open string available. The A-E is feasible on the top two strings with the open A and sounds good, but the E-B can’t be played that way).
(The ms. has 8va signs over this passage, which places this particular excerpt in high thumb position – due to the specific “Viennese Solo Bass” way of notating the notes two octaves higher than the sounding pitch. This was done to clearly distinguish between “tutti” and “solo” passages).
I think here one sees a pragmatic mind at work, one that bends the rules when necessary. Being a professional bass player and a soloist, Sperger clearly knew his priorities. Far from being exceptional in this regard, i think he shows a typical bass player’s attitude towards music: “Whatever Works”. For centuries bass players have adapted their parts, they have changed and simplified them, they have disobeyed every rule in the book, and they rightfully continue to do so. The bass player is master of his domain, and “whatever works” is his motto. (Intelligent composers and conductors have always condoned this self-sufficient attitude because they know very well that the bassist knows best how to manage his part. It’s only the anal-retentive composer or the insecure dictator-conductor who are unable to see beyond the printed notes).
An interesting article by Stuart Sankey appeared in the ISB Magazine some 20 or 30 years ago: “On the Question of Minor Alterations in the Bass Parts of Beethoven”. I’ll be sure to bring it up again sometime in this blog because it was an eye-opener for me at that time. Coming from such a splendid musician it was a courageous, no-nonsense view of the bass player as a decision-maker who takes up his responsibility to serve the music as a whole by slightly simplifying clumsy bass parts instead of attempting to “play what’s written” and screwing up the ensemble.
2/ VANHAL CONCERTO FOR VIENNESE BASS
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In our Duo arrangement, which was inspired by Sperger (who made concerto movements out of his own Duets) the bass plays the tutti passages as well as the solo part, as was usual in Sperger’s time. This helps give an “orchestral” quality to the piece.
Rather than a “second rate” concerto, our duo version has proved to be wonderfully complete in its own right. The transparency of the Viola d’Amore accompaniment allows the intricate articulations of the bass to speak clearly without forcing. Here, there is no fight with an orchestra to rise out above the sound mass of the accompaniment. No need to paint with a big brush and to change articulations to the kind of international “standard” version we always hear. How exciting it must have been when musicians had a markedly different way of playing in different cities, regions, countries…
I took special care to respect the original articulations and the original octaves, ignoring the numerous added 8va signs in the manuscript. The result is a very different version of this popular concerto than what we have become used to.
In fact, the 8va signs that litter the piece seem to have been added later (by Sperger?) and there seem to be two different handwritings in these indications. It’s interesting to speculate if any of them are originally by Vanhal himself or if they have been added for extra “flashiness” by an over-zealous soloist. Be that as it may, i find most of the octave displacements in less than perfect taste (“taste” again…), and going back to the “original” version – if indeed this is what Vanhal intended – makes for a very different concerto. Less flashy for sure, but also more intimate, more compact, more structured. It puts the focus back on the music itself rather than on the star soloist who wants to show off.
It’s always interesting to reflect on these things and to ask questions, even though we know the answers can never be anything but mere speculation. Supposing that the 8vas were added by the soloist, did the composer approve? Didn’t a soloist have very good reasons to make a piece more “soloistic”? After all, musicians back then had a hard time finding a steady job. Showing off was just another way to impress potential employers. In a way, the “original” version (supposing this was indeed what Vanhal wanted) and the “virtuoso” rearrangement are both equally historically correct. But i think that a new look (or rather, an old look…) at the original was long overdue, because unfortunately modern players invariably go for the cello register on the bass. It’s refreshing to hear the piece in a more restrained version.
Vanhal uses a great variety of articulations in his concerto, often differenciating between similar material in exposition and re-exposition. Most modern versions seem to assume that Vanhal made the “mistake” of writing the same figures in different places of the piece with different articulations. But although there is at least one obvious copying error in the bass part, the differences he makes in all three movements are clearly wanted. They show us what a wonderfully subtle and sensitive composer he was. This is especially clear in the second movement, where the theme is articulated slightly differently in the opening and at the end. It’s such a pity that modern players never even think twice about trying to bring out these differences, because they transform the piece from just “charming” to deeply moving, especially when the two-note slurs are played in the sighing manner that is so often described in historical sources, with the second slurred note almost disappearing. The contrast with the four-note slurs, played in a more legato manner, makes for a subtle yet unbelievably beautiful difference in emotional content and expression.
(However, care should be taken… When examining the whole set of orchestra parts for the concerto, one comes across many articulation differences between all string parts (including the solo bass). It’s never enough to analyze just the solo part. Here too, the most fascinating element of artistic research is to balance all the conflicting information and to arrive at a solution that has some (as much as possible) musical sense. It’s an illusion to think there is one “right” way, that there is one “answer”. There are only questions. How exciting!)
Playing on gut strings, using frets and an appropriate bow, and of course using the original Viennese Tuning, all help in the quest for subtlety. The frets have a major influence on the type of fingering one can use. The strings and the bow allow infinite gradations of dynamics and of timbre. There is a whole range of sound colours that only a gut string can produce, and a palette of articulations that a bow with a modern camber would have a hard time to imitate.
3/ PAGANINI VARIATIONS
Here, obviously, I only use the top string. Playing this piece and giving it a place alongside the other music was a big challenge in many ways. Since I can’t take two basses, I have to use the Viennese bass for everything. Technically speaking, playing a virtuoso work on a single string with a neck full of barbed wire in the form of frets, and with a string length of a whopping 110 cm, let me tell you it’s something else…
First of all, for this piece I raise the string just a couple of millimeters (easy to do on Charton’s bass) because I have to dig in quite a bit more than in the other pieces. The Introduction needs a romantic type of sound (although I can’t help adding a touch of gut-induced “baroque-ness” to it that I find strangely fitting) and a wide dynamic range.
On the subject of Paganini on gut strings: the Japanese violinist SHUNSKE SATO proves not only that it can be done (of course it can, Paganini himself did it…) but that it gives a new – or rather, an old dimension to this music that makes it exciting again.
DON’T YOU FRET, DON’T YOU FEAR
Third, as i mentioned, the frets… Very annoying when you have to change position a few hundred times during a single piece. But one gets used to it, and constantly switching between the fretted and the unfretted parts of the neck is no longer a problem. In fact, for years i used the Variations as an exercise for switching from the fretted to the unfretted fingerboard regions. Taking it up a few notches for public performance wasn’t such a big step.
Intonation is often a question of taste and is dependent on the musical situation and on the function of the notes within a given harmonic or melodic framework. I had to get used to having leading notes a little flatter than i intended. Within the fretted fingerboard this was a problem at first: when i fingered the leading note too close to the tonic, my finger was actually in the tonic’s fret zone and i had two tonics in a row. A dirty one and a clean one. The intended leading note became a dirty-sounding tonic because it was just within the same fret zone as the tonic, but the finger was too far behind the fret to make a clean sound. So i had to learn to finger the leading-note a tad flatter than i wanted and keep it behind the proper fret.
Intonation with another string instrument such as the Amore is also markedly different from playing with a piano. The piano may be constantly out of tune, but at least it is also constant in its deviation, and one quickly adapts to the specific piano out-of-tune-ness. But in our case, it’s almost the reverse: the fretted region of the bass is fixed and there is nothing much one can do, intonation-wise (when the string happens to be too flat, i can pull the notes up by sliding the string sideways, and in slow tempi i can slightly flatten a sharp note by fretting it farther behind the fret. But that’s about all the flexibility i have, and it only works in slow tempi).
This means that the Amore has to adapt to my fretted intonation. Beyond the fretted part, it’s business as usual between two string instruments.
4/ ARIOSTI LEZIONE II
Ariosti‘s Lezione II in A major has an 8ft continuo part, just like the Telemann Sonata. This music was meant for students and amateurs (lezione means lesson) but that doesn’t make it less beautiful. Here too, the bass part when played on a 16ft instrument is quite demanding if you want to stay in the proper register. However, since we’re playing it without a keyboard instrument, i have more freedom in arranging the bass line. The figured bass line from the manuscript provides enough information to fill out the single line with extra chord notes here and there, and in some cases i can take the bass down an octave for variety.
Great care has to be taken when playing 8ft parts on a double bass. Even though it is often technically feasible to produce the right notes, one has to consider whether the timbre fits the piece and whether the part sounds comfortable enough to realise the real character of the music.
With the advances in bass technique of recent decades, we bass players tend to think that we can and must play any- and everything. But technical prowess is far from enough to serve the music. I sometimes find the sound of the soloistic double bass too forced, too artificial and uncomfortable to the ear. One hears the physical effort, and this makes for an unnatural sound experience.
That is the reason why transcriptions of well-known cello and violin works on the double bass are rarely satisfactory (except to bass players themselves, of course…) They don’t sound “natural” in the sense that they were not conceived for the nature of the instrument, and thus lack the breath, the comfort, the evidence that they do possess on the original instruments.
HISTORICAL vs. HYSTERICAL MUSIC
This phenomenon also explains why Viennese solo bass music doesn’t suffer from the same shortness of breath and from the same forced sound quality: this music was written FOR the Viennese Bass, with all its musical and technical possibilities and sound colours. So it sounds “natural” because it has been written INTO the nature of the instrument. As long as we understand how to play it properly: with a Viennese-oriented fingering system, with the proper articulations, in the right tuning, with gut strings and frets, with an appropriate bow, this music will of itself sound comfortable, self-evident and “right”. It will rarely or never sound right on a modern bass in fourths with steel strings. The ridiculously high string tension of modern steel strings in itself chokes the sound of the instrument and forces the player to move to the territory of a sustained legato-vibrato, more “hysterical” type of sound (there are roughly two periods in western music: the Historical and the Hysterical 🙂
As soon as we enter the world of a different instrument, we have to tread carefully. Sometimes one is forced by circumstances to “go against the grain” a little bit. We will play these Ariosti and Telemann Sonatas in Japan, and i will have to use a 16ft bass playing in the 8ft register. I will have to try and be as inconspicuous as possible (primum non nocere) and serve the music as humbly as i can. Under normal circumstances i would rather use a viola da gamba instead of a double bass. At the same time, this is an opportunity for growth and for getting a better understanding of what works and what doesn’t work, and WHY it works or doesn’t work.
5/ JAPANESE MUSIC
Preparatory sketches for the Japanese song suites
Here we have a selection of children’s songs and folk music, and some pop music as well. Last year we also brought film music by Joe Hisaishi, one of the greatest film music composers in the world. Hisaishi started out as a composer of contemporary music, but decided one day to concentrate on real music. So he tore up and threw away his complicated, intellectual modern “avant-garde” scores and started to compose music for cinema. This reminds one of the very similar evolution that Belgian composer Dirk Brossé went through (composer Philippe Boesmans reputedly said that “Avant-Garde is for the army”, see this link: http://www.muziekcentrum.be/press.php?ID=9725)
As Leonard Bernstein once remarked back in the 70’s that the best contemporary music was that of Simon and Garfunkel, i think the best contemporary music now is film music. But that’s just my opinion of course so you don’t have to take my word for it. Or for anything that i write, for that matter.
Anyway, back to our Japanese program.
1. Suite “Dolce-ssimo”
Since our first contacts in Japan were with Mrs. Nakahira of the “Dolce” concert room, we decided to dedicate a little suite to her. It’s a series of children’s songs and playground rhymes, all connected with a repeated “Leitmotiv” that we took from “Mo ii kai”, a children’s hide-and-seek game. The names of the songs probably mean nothing to non-Japanese people, but every Japanese, young and old, knows these things by heart:
Omocha no cha-cha-cha
2. Tonari no Symphony
3. Fukushima Suite “Tohoku my Love”
We wanted to play some music that was specially dedicated to the people of Fukushima. Some of it is folk music, and “Furusato” (Homeland) is a song all Japanese know and that has a special meaning in times of adversity.
In our little Beatles-suite we also use a Japanese song: “Sennokaze ni natte“, as well as a Mahler quote (from his 1st symphony).
Besides, we were asked to bring along last year’s repertoire as well for the children’s concerts. So we dusted off our arrangements of Bun Bun Bun, Tombo no Megane, Okasan, Genkotsuyama, Nada Soso, Turipu, Zoolifant, Inu no Omawarisan, Shabondama, as well as Miagete Goran and Fu Ten…
We thank our friends and families for their generous contributions to our touring projects, as well as the FLEMISH GOVERNMENT, SWDC, Toyshop THE GRASSHOPPER, EGMONT TOYS, and Art Gallery “IMAGINARIUM”.