Bass Blog

Michael Hovnanian plays bass in an orchestra located in a large midwestern city.

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Friday, March 23, 2018

Raising the dead


A few years ago I embarked on a project to record a set of six Sonatas by Benedetto Marcello. A small but very unfortunate accident was a major factor in my never completing the set. The hard drive with six as yet unreleased movements crashed – actually fell off the dolly with all my equipment and shattered on a cement floor – taking with it the final two movements of Sonata IV and all of Sonata V. After such a setback, it was difficult metaphorically as well as literally to pick up the pieces and go on. Also, the recording process, where I would load both of my instruments and all my recording gear into a car and drive to an undisclosed location, usually in the middle of the night, to make the recordings, had become increasingly burdensome, so I went on to other things.

Quite some time ago now, someone informed me the links to the audio files no longer worked, and, indeed, when I checked, the file hosting service I had been using was long ago defunct. I was content to leave it at that until recently someone else accused me of deception or trickery, implying that the disappearance of the audio content had somehow been arranged on purpose, as away to hide my shame. In defense of my honor and, paradoxically, at the risk of losing it again quickly by re-exposing these recordings to public scrutiny, I feel I have no choice but to make them available.

It is natural to occasionally entertain doubts about one's path in life, specifically as related to one's choice of profession. From my perspective, near the top of the list of occupational hazards, right below being forced to look at photographs of myself, would be listening to recordings of my playing, which has made this endeavor particularly difficult.

Below are links to all of the relevant posts, with links to audio files (hopefully) intact.

Tuesday, March 06, 2018

4 + 4 = 7

Some weeks the best strategy is to close one's eyes and to think, if not of England, at least about double bass fingerings.

On background, and for those unfamiliar with the peculiarities of the instrument, apart from its size, the most distinctive difference between the double bass and the other stringed instruments of the orchestra is that, where the violin, viola, and cello tune in fifths, their larger relative tunes in fourths. This seemingly picayune difference actually represents a broad chasm, for although both are classified as 'perfect' intervals, fourths are actually a bit less pure than their 'goody-two-shoes' inversion, the fifth, which can almost do no wrong, harmonically speaking. On the other hand, the so-called 'perfect' fourth, with its checkered past, is actually considered dissonant in some cases. Imagine the dilemma suffered by bassists as they awake each morning wondering whether or not their strings are tuned consonantly or dissonantly! There are a number of reasons that the tuning in fourths became standard for the double bass. Certainly the longer string length made keeping the open strings closer together in pitch an attractive option. The smaller interval between strings makes for less shifting in step-wise passages; unfortunately, in this scheme larger intervals become farther apart. Tradition, or ancestry, might have played an even more important role, as the double bass inherited the tuning, along with some of its physical characteristics, from its forefathers in the Viol family. In fact, the modern double bass owes so much to its ancestors, the gentle, largely forgotten Viols, that while the violin, viola, and cello might truly be considered siblings, the double bass is, at best, a distant cousin. Now that modern science has revealed the persistence of Neanderthal DNA in modern humans, it is interesting to surreptitiously glance at passers-by in search of echoes from our prehistoric past. Prominent brow? Weak chin? Elongated skull? Concert goers might avail themselves of a similar opportunity and glance over at the double basses, making note of the sloped shoulders, flat backs (I'm referring to the instruments here, not the players.), smooth C bouts, and so on, relics from a bygone era, eking out an existence on the fringes of the modern orchestra.

Discussion of Double Bass technique and pedagogy can have all the fun and fascination of comparing the hairstyles of Byzantine emperors. So, for the purpose at hand here, it is probably sufficient to note that most modern-day bassists in the orchestra use a technique where (in the first octave on each string) a 'hand position' spans two semi-tones, in other words, a whole-step. This span, taken across two strings, equals a perfect fifth, across three, an octave.

Intervals larger than a whole-step require a shift, string crossing, or some sort of 'extended' technique. Incidentally, and perhaps counter-intuitively, in my experience one of the most problematic intervals to deal with is the perfect forth. To play this interval, like all those larger than a whole-step, requires a shift, string crossing, or some sort of creative solution, with problems arising from the fact that, as the two notes lie directly across the string from each other, they must be barred (played with the same finger stopping two strings), or the hand angled so that a different finger may be used for each note, or the same finger can 'jump' across the strings (at the cost of legato phrasing), or else a string crossing and a shift can be used in conjunction. Stack two perfect fourths one atop the other and you get a minor seventh. (Yes, in music four and four make seven, one of the more minor annoyances.) The problems playing the minor seventh are those of the perfect fourth, compounded, which brings us to this passage from the latter third of the Finale of the Mendelssohn fourth symphony, measures 222-230. From the audience, you might notice the hands of the double bassists playing this passage on one string suddenly moving in agitated fashion in order to make all of the small shifts, up and down, like the needle of a sewing machine, or something else, altogether more embarrassing.

Apart from requiring many small shifts, the biggest problem here is the minor seventh at m. 223

N.B. If the 'D' is played on the 'G' (top) string, the 'E' on the adjacent string is about nine inches away, measured on one of my instruments – certainly a stretch to aspire to, but beyond the bounds of most normal human anatomy, and a long way to travel between two notes at the rapid tempo of the Saltarello. Of course, taking the two notes on the second and third strings is also possible. This distance measured on my bass at about six inches – a stretch certainly attainable by the average hand – but generating a number of additional problems, not least of which is the muddiness of tone which results from playing high notes on low strings. The solution I arrived at

seems a little less preposterous when taken in the context of what I wanted to do from m. 225

This fingering eliminates many shifts (only one after the third beat of m. 225) while adding a number of string crossings. Lately, I've become enamored of fingerings that let me leave my fingers down as long as possible. In performance, I 'bailed out' early and went back to first position in m. 227

Like certain interpersonal relationships, getting into thumb position is easier than than getting out, so you have to pick your spots carefully.  Here is then is the complete passage, with a decent alternative for mm. 225-226 below.