IN THE BEGINNING
Over the years that i’ve been busy with Viennese Tuning, there have been many basses. In the beginning i just used my spare modern bass. Strings were no big problem: the low A and D came from the normal Orchestra Tuning set, the high A from Solo Tuning. For the F# i used the orchestra G, tuned a half-step down. Later, as string manufacturers offered more string gauges, i could get a thicker G-string to better balance string tensions, but i rarely bothered.
I started using gut strings and frets rather late. It must have been sometime soon after the year 2000. For a long time it never occurred to me that gut strings could somehow be superior to modern steel strings. The idea seemed preposterous to the “modern” classical musician i was back then. I still believed in the notion of progress, in the idea that things get better all the time. So why take a step back?
A discussion i had with a musician in the field of Ancient Music (i was convinced that if Bach had had a Steinway grand piano, he would have dumped his old-fashioned harpsichord. But the other gentleman disagreed and gave me much to think about) made me realize that it was time for some personal re-education, and i enrolled as a student in the Ancient Music Department of the Brussels Conservatory, in order to find out what it was all about.
Long story short, i switched to gut strings and frets, and i didn’t even feel like looking back, ever. What a magical trip this was. It was like i discovered music for the first time.
The exams and public recitals were perfect occasions to study “new” repertoire and to re-discover pieces i had played before, such as the Vanhal Concerto.
In 1991 i had bought a “Viennese” bass at the Mittenwald ISB Convention where i played a recital of music for Soprano and Double Bass. Two of the pieces were by Sperger. I had gotten microfilm copies of the manuscripts from the library in Schwerin and had painstakingly made separate parts and piano reductions. I was already using Viennese Tuning back then, and i used the newly bought (but not yet paid for) bass for my recital.
NO GUTS, NO GLORY
Now that i had re-educated myself, i asked a violin maker to replace the ebony fingerboard with maple. I installed gut strings and frets, and this instrument became my main Viennese bass for a while.
Still, it was a four-string instrument (i had a one-tone extension installed), and it was rather small: it sounded sweet but not very loud. In the meantime i had met Stefan Krattenmacher and i was very impressed with his work, so i asked him if he could build a “Viennese” bass for me. I wanted five strings, i wanted it bigger than my current bass, and i wanted a 110 cm string length.
Stefan needed some time to think about it. Every time i asked him about the bass, he said he had to see it in his mind first, he had to build it “mentally” before he could make it.
ON AND OFF THE RECORD
While i was waiting, Haruko Tanabe and i had formed a Duo of Viola d’Amore and Viennese Bass, and i decided to use one of my orchestra basses as a Viennese Violone. This bass by Farcas worked really well in Viennese Tuning, it sounded wonderful. I used it to record the two Ariosti Sonatas on our first CD, and Bottesini’s “Elegie” (in gut-string Viennese Tuning, without frets this time). When the Krattenmacher was ready, i used that to record the Sperger Duetto which is on the same CD, and Hoffmeister’s Quartets 3 and 4.
The Krattenmacher, which incidentally was inspired by a Feilenreiter bass, has an Eb-neck, like most original Viennese Basses. This facilitates playing in the “intermediate” positions in between the fretted territory and the thumb position. Actually there’s so much room i could have an 8th fret there. By the way, Stefan took my wish for a “bigger bass” quite literally. It’s huge.
As you can see in the pictures, i had an extension added to the Krattenmacher’s fingerboard. I need to be able to press down the high “c” (in modern tuning language. In VT it’s a “d”) for some of Sperger’s and Hoffmeister’s pieces.
There were other basses as well. When we discovered Henri Casadesus’ “Symphonie Concertante” for Viola d’Amore and Double Bass (more on this fascinating work – which was not originally for Viennese Bass – in a new, upcoming blog), i used a bass built in the ’50s by Hack from Hannover. It was quite a nice bass, solid wood throughout, in a pitch black “tuxedo-look” with white inlaid bindings. Très chic.
Originally a 5-string instrument, i had it converted to four strings because the fingerboard was really too narrow for bowing comfortably. (I like to have the strings spaced far apart on the bridge). I also had the fingerboard lengthened. It was almost three inches too short.
I fretted the bass, and i used it for our “normal” Duo programs for a while, but later i experimented with different string types (the ones in the photos are “Gut-a-Like” slap-strings. They work OK with the bow but they don’t give a very big sound. The brown ones have a beautiful warm timbre and work well in a Basso Continuo setting with a cello, and i used those in some baroque recordings, on the Farcas bass). In the end i settled for a combination of steel strings and D’Addario Zyex and i took off the frets. Frets are great for baroque and classical music, but for much of the rest the fretless instrument is better.
When our Duo Sweet 17, in the wake of our post-tsunami charity concerts, was invited to play in Japan, i began to have nightmares about traveling with this big bass. Somehow i had to find a smaller instrument. A few years before, i had already flown to Japan with a rented travel bass from Patrick Charton’s atelier. It was a small 3/4 instrument with a detachable neck, one of his earlier prototypes.
When i first stumbled across Patrick Charton’s website, i was immediately intrigued by his work. We soon found out we had a lot in common (our background in rock music, for starters. Patrick had been a drummer, i had wielded the electric bass in a great number of bands. I still miss my Rickenbackers and Fenders…), and when i approached him with the idea for a “baroque” version of his resolutely modern B-21 bass, he was very enthusiastic. We had a few planning sessions in which we toyed with different ideas, and finally came up with the “Basse-Partout”:
Since the bass has a detachable neck, i can change it into a modern bass within seconds: i just replace the entire neck and tailpiece assembly, including the strings. Or i keep the neck in place, and only replace the headstock with its proprietary tailpiece, strings attached. I can switch between 4 or 5 strings, and a 6-string violone neck is planned, as well as more extreme things. Here is the 5-string tailpiece for steel string use, with five Hipshot X-Tenders built in:
The B-21 has been on tour in Japan and works like a dream (see my other posts):
The B21 project is a work in progress. Patrick and i ping-pong each other new ideas, the crazier the better. For instance, i would like a neck with retractable frets, or a neck where i can just exchange the fretted fingerboard for an unfretted one. I’ve also been thinking about installing a so-called passive radiator (which is a loudspeaker without a magnet, that just resonates along with the “real” woofer in a speaker cabinet. We want to find out if it would do the same inside a double bass. If it resonates, and amplifies the sound of the strings, we might be on to something). The radiator would be installed where the side soundholes are now. Next time the bass has to be opened for some reason (actually i hope it won’t), we’ll look into that.
The next logical step is this:
Still very much in an experimental stage, but promising: Viennese Tuning on the EUB (Electric Double Bass). To some, this may sound like it’s too crazy for words. Maybe it is. But i have to admit i like it. I recently bought a second-hand Eminence RN (Removable Neck) bass, gave it frets and gut strings, and played two concerts on it. We played Videogame- and Anime- tunes, but also a Sperger Sonata and another one by Borghi.
I think i’ll bring this instrument to the Amsterdam Bass Convention for our program of Vanhal, Sperger and Lupis. It’s a wonderful challenge for a classical musician to try and make the audience forget that they’re hearing an amplified instrument.
It’s not about the instrument, it’s about the music. With all our “instrument fetishism” we tend to forget that simple truth. It’s never really about the Stradivarius violin, it’s not about the (usually fake) Amati bass. Anyway, it shouldn’t be. This is an anorexic plywood bass, with a tiny amplifier that’s just loud enough to be audible. I’m really curious to see if that is enough to play the great works of the old and new composers in such a way that the music itself can touch the audience and win the day.
It did work last week, with two “uninformed” audiences. These people had no idea the bass was not an old and venerable instrument (some of them asked me how old it was, convinced this was a “real” bass), they never realized it was amplified. They just enjoyed the moment and the music.
But yes, it stresses me out. I’m not familiar with the instrument yet. I miss my fifth string. The string length is too short for my taste. The sound doesn’t really compare to the real deal. Ergonomically, i still find it a bit hard to “get around” the instrument, i miss my habitual reference points. I even land on the wrong fret, once in a while. At times all i can hear is a voice inside my head screaming HEEELP!!!!
And yet, there is a certain “je ne sais quoi” about this experience that inspires me not to give up, something that goes beyond the gimmick. Something that tells me, if this works, if the music can pass through (and i feel it can), then new and exciting possibilities will open up.
Wish me luck, wish me ganbatte.
ANOTHER BOW TO MY STRING
Here is the so-called Sperger-bow:
Well, a copy at least. I never played the original, but i did try a copy. Nothing to write home about, i’m afraid. I can’t believe Sperger can have used a bow like this for the very refined, intricate articulations we find in his music. But i may be wrong. Who knows, once you’re used to it, it might be wonderful.
The bows i love most for Viennese music are actually baroque-style bows, which work very well with the Viennese articulations: nicely arched, no tightening screw, not too long. Something like this beautiful bow by Jérôme Gastaldo:
Jérôme is a great guy and a very good bowmaker. He’s the kind of maker i love because, just like Patrick Charton, he’s open-minded enough not to reject seemingly strange ideas out of hand. These people will never say that something is impossible. I throw the craziest ideas at them, and they will go “Mmm, interesting! Let’s see. How could we make this work?”
I have quite a few of Gastaldo’s bows, and every now and then he shows me his latest creations. Always dangerous, because often the things he shows me are absolutely fabulous and i suffer from BAS (Bow Acquisition Syndrome).
Anyhow, when he asked me to try this one, i told him it was never going to work: too light, i said (so you see who’s being open-minded here…) I never actually weighed it, so i don’t really know how much it is – and i’m not interested in knowing (i don’t believe in the “quantization” of instruments. When trying a bass, resist the urge to know the string length. It will condition your mind. Don’t ask who made it. Don’t ask how old it is. Just play it. Same for bows: never ask how much it weighs, never look at the maker’s stamp. Play it first, without any prior knowledge that will only clutter your mind and push your thoughts and feelings in a certain direction).
Mmm… now where was i? Ah yes, this bow was so light i was afraid if i let go of it, it would float in the air. So i figured, this just can’t work on a bass.
Was i ever wrong… The same day i took it home, i called Jérôme and i bought it. It’s a fabulous bow in every respect: handling, sound, articulation. The wood is walnut, it came from a 200 years-old bed… Jérôme will use any old wood and turn it into a great bow. He’s got the “feel” and instinct of a true artist.
Once again i was reminded of how instrument, strings, bow, playing style etc. must be balanced. There are no hard and fast rules in art, and there is no standard solution that works in every situation. A light bow won’t always work for everything, and neither will the so-called “Heavy Bow” – in spite of its being fashionable at the moment. Fashion has nothing to do with artistry.
The bow’s original frog was quite high for my smallish hands, and just recently Gastaldo made me a second frog, a little lower. The great thing is, i can change frogs without the need for a re-hair or anything. Since the frogs are of the clip-in type, the hair length is fixed. So if you make a lower frog, you’ll have too much hair length. But this guy is clever. He adjusted the frog’s arch so that the hair length can stay the same for both frogs:
…to be continued…
The latest addition to the collection:
Patrick Charton Suit Bass