Bass Blog

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

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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.

Sunday, February 18, 2018

Once more unto the breach

“Of course, you know this piece very well.”

To the naïve or untrained observer, it might appear that the Maestro beginning rehearsals with such a compliment is off to a good start. However, this bit of flattery clangs off the ears of the hardened orchestral musician like a dropped mute, especially when it serves as the prelude to, maybe even an apology in advance for hours, perhaps even days, spent in a painstaking vivisection of the repertoire on offer. Indeed, in this context 'knowing the piece very well' is often coded language for received wisdom, the accumulation of error, or of a misguided tradition, which the conductor is about to sweep away with a number of well chosen words, leaving in its place something cleaner, more authentic, an ur-interpretation of what was once naively thought familiar. The empty promises ring hollow when brought up against the reality of the limited allotment of rehearsal time, not to mention the hubris of feeling oneself capable of knocking down an edifice in order to build a brand new castle-in-the-air during a few hours of rehearsal. Many times, when unrealistic expectations manifest themselves as inadequate preparation, it is this disdained 'knowledge' of the orchestra that saves a foundering performance.

To claim an orchestra knows a piece very well is a multifaceted assertion, but one which essentially boils down to an acknowledgment that the orchestra, as a group, knows how to execute a good performance on its own, with minimal guidance (sometimes even in the face of malevolence or gross negligence) from the podium. Obviously, this knowledge includes each individual player's mastery of their instrument, but further extends to familiarity with the other parts, which, in a practical sense, and in this context most importantly, means knowing what to listen for, how to respond to it, and how to incorporate that into the physical act of performing. This knowledge is pragmatic, visceral as well as intellectual; it is the accretion of all the player's experiences, numerous trials and errors over many years, triumphs, train-wrecks, hours spent in rehearsal, in practice, in listening, and for some, even in contemplation.

Just as merely attending a few lectures on human anatomy, reading a few textbooks, perhaps observing a dissection, might not make a person a good lover, listening to a conductor talk about music is not necessarily the best route to a good performance. The better conductors seem to understand how to balance the mechanistic with the spiritual when it comes to spending precious rehearsal time, acknowledging that, much like one's personal hygiene, the knowledge of the orchestra, in its visceral and practical sense, requires a certain amount of repeated, sometimes unpleasant, usually unglamorous, attention.

At one end of the spectrum is the conductor who relies too heavily on the knowledge of the orchestra, merely waving arms around and accepting whatever happens. Like the charlatan baker, who, having an order for a birthday cake canceled, merely scrapes off the frosted inscription and presents the cake to the next unsuspecting customer, this conductor adds little to the orchestra's store of knowledge, but instead cashes in on the work of others. This Maestro's appearance on the podium is a sort of nightly stage dive, where the orchestra, in possession of a sense of dignity, not to mention professionalism, along with the inability to take spontaneous collective action, catches him or her every time. The antipode of such a Maestro is, at the 'highest level' of the profession, more common, and, by most musicians, considered at least somewhat insufferable, namely, the incessant talker, the Maestro who does not leave enough rehearsal time for the orchestra to actually put into practice the myriad ideas presented. Perhaps as symptom of encroaching age, I find that, although I'm often scratching my head, trying to figure out how what is being said is going to help the week's performance, I have more patience for the talkative Maestro than some of my colleagues. Yes, the boyhood reminiscences, or what some far-flung critic had to say about a long-forgotten performance are odious, but other podium offerings make me happy to 'learn as I earn' - the steps to the ländler, for instance, or the difference between an Austrian and a German military march (or at least the fact that such a difference exists - interesting how many Austrians I've met who are at pains to point out the most subtle discrepancies between themselves and Germans), these may not be the most important things in the moment, certainly not from my particular corner of the orchestra, but they are interesting, and, year in year out, add to the collective wisdom of the orchestra.

The conductor, like the doctor who sees serious malady and does nothing, should be discouraged. Similarly, his counterpart, the well-meaning, overzealous ideologue whose first impulse is to immediately euthanize the patient and set about effecting a resurrection, should be gently dissuaded. Each Maestro who takes the podium leaves a mark, contributing to the orchestra's collective wisdom. The orchestra, out of necessity, and as a survival instinct, prioritizes pragmatism, and in so doing can be somewhat ruthless in dismissing otherwise well-meaning conductors. However, from a player's perspective, the steps to making a positive contribution, and to avoid becoming a cautionary tale, seem to be obvious, yet somehow illusive.


I would like to take this opportunity to thank the various readers of the Bass Blog, both colleagues and people unknown to me, who have contacted me during my lengthy hiatus. Your inquiries as to the fate of the Blog, not to mention my own well-being, have been greatly appreciated. I thank you for your enduring patience with this self-destructive hobby of mine. Of course, due to my contrarian nature, those who expressed pleasure at the disappearance of the Blog, and wished for its continued non-existence, provided the ultimate motivating factor in my decision to resurrect it.

Saturday, March 12, 2016

The {redacted}SO Receives Boos

sort of

1) a churlish, rude, or unmannerly person

1) a person who boos

Sir Mark Elder's talk preceding our performance of the Elgar Symphony no. 1, performed here for the first time in 33 years, was briefly accompanied by an odd noise, which I at first mistook for an audience member having some sort of physical problem, but which was soon revealed to be guttural evidence of extreme disgruntlement. The speech, laudable for its cogent advocacy of this neglected masterpiece as well as its relative brevity, was immediately followed by some lustily delivered “Boos” from a single, loudly dissatisfied customer somewhere high up in the balcony. We have been booed before, certainly, and I've commented on it, a couple times (here, and here, for anyone interested), but always at the end of a musical performance. This was a first, in my experience, where a conductor's remarks prompted a vocal display of displeasure.

Generally, I'm pro booing – the whole freedom of expression thing, you know. Also, it is heartening when someone is moved enough by what we do to break with the convention of offering polite applause to everything and instead chooses to express themselves forcefully, even in the negative. And finally, one of my happiest student memories comes from the Spoleto Festival, where, on my night off, I attended the Opera performance specifically to boo, along with many Italians I hasten to add, every aria sung by the awful tenor who had been bedeviling me all summer.

At an orchestral concert, the post performance boo contains enough ambiguity in its target – the composition, conductor, soloist, one or more of my colleagues, certainly never me! – to give everyone on stage some degree of plausible deniability. It is this ambiguity which also prevents many boos from ever materializing in the first place. Audience members have informed me that, although they might have objected to one aspect of a performance, they refrained from booing out of respect for the innocent. Also, when mixed in with the normal, perfunctory applause, the virulence of any one, or group of booers, is greatly attenuated. With everybody's opinions mixed together, the negative ones are largely drowned out.

The case in question here is a little different. Clearly, Maestro Elder was the sole target of the outburst, as the rest of us on stage were sitting there doing nothing. The content of his remarks, in spite of some florid language describing Elgar and his first symphony, seemed blandly inoffensive to me. However, I admit that, in the current climate where people resort to outrage first and ask questions later (know anyone like that?), I might have missed some seemly innocuous micro-aggression. Perhaps mention of the knighted composer's famous mustache caused some folliclearly challenged person's blood to boil, who knows. If the booer meant to voice a general opposition to pre-performance commentary, a better time to do it might have been the moment the hated microphone made its appearance. The boos, barely covered by the smattering of applause normal after most podium delivered remarks, created an atmosphere of nervous agitation in the auditorium completely at odds with the quiet serenity with which symphony begins, and so did more to mar the coming performance than add any useful commentary on what had come before. The time to boo the composition or the performance, of course, would have been after.

Maestro Elder, an earnest and likeable fellow, qualities it might shock the reader to discover are not representative of every podium climber, seemed briefly taken aback by the unexpected reaction to his preamble, but quickly put it behind him, literally, as he turned to face the orchestra. From there, the performance went on without incident, becoming yet one more in our improbable unbroken string of musical triumphs. After, one of my colleagues reminded me of another time when words rather than music received an audible negative reaction – a Beyond the Score presentation of the Shostakovitch 4th symphony back in 2006, where an audience member with pro Stalinist sympathies grew tired of hearing discouraging words said about the former USSR leader and started heckling. (“I didn't come to hear lies,” or something like it is part of what he called out.) It's possible the same gentleman returned to celebrate the tenth anniversary of his patriotic defense of the motherland, although rumor had it he was declared persona non grata back in '06. The conductor for that performance? None other than Sir Mark Elder. Strange!

Sunday, February 28, 2016

The New Traditionalists

My New Year's resolution: to blog more often, perhaps even on a semi-regular basis. Since I follow the lunar calendar, I don't consider late February to be too late a start.

(click to embiggen the images)

Orchestra musicians exist in a milieu rich with traditions, some of which are ennobling, many of which are stultifying. One of my favorites, and not at all in the sarcastic sense, has to be the way our bass section plays the passage above, which occurs near the end of the Tchaikowsky 6th Symphony.

I've highlighted the 2nd and 4th horn parts, marked fortissimo and gestopft (stopped), which is that brassy, deliciously nasty sound produced by stuffing a hand into the bell. The arrows show the double bass part holding a low F-sharp (which sounds one octave below the written pitch). The first time I played the piece with the {redacted}SO, I was bemused to notice everyone else in the section changing bows during the long note in sync with the horns, perhaps even adding in a bit of sforzato (accent) for good measure. My stand partner, who had already been in the orchestra many years by that point, leaned over and sheepishly confessed that when he got in the orchestra, all of 'the old-timers' played that way, so he joined in and had continued to do so ever since.

Completely separate from the question of whether or not this is a good idea, I find myself thoroughly enjoying doing my part to maintain this unwritten tradition – the parts have never been so marked; and, in fact, 'institutionalizing' such a thing would most probably take all the fun out of it. Since, for whatever reason, our section tends to ideologically skew even more towards the bureaucratically minded than the orchestra as a whole, it is refreshing to see something unscripted see the light of day every now and again.

This week, we came as close as I've ever seen to a conductor acknowledging the practice, and perhaps even encouraging it. Manfred Honeck, filling in for the absent Music Director, had much to say about the Tchaikovsky 6th, too much, if an informal canvassing of colleagues is to be taken seriously. Arriving at the passage in question, he exhorted the horns to play the stopped note more loudly. Then, if I'm not mistaken, he turned slightly to the right and invited the trombones and tuba (who are holding a sustained F-sharp along with the basses) to help out, if they cared too. In the bass section there was a slight stirring among those who were still at that point A) awake, and B) paying attention, with the realization we might also be officially invited to join in, but alas, there was nary a mention of it directed toward us. As far as that passage goes, it's still don't ask, don't tell for now.

The many things performers do to interpret works, from the radical overhauling of the composer's intent, to the mundane, nuts and bolts adjustments needed to make even some of the greatest 'masterpieces' intelligible, makes an for some interesting pondering. I've often thought a novel form of protest, should performers ever need to resort to such a thing, might be a kind of 'work to rule', wherein we played exactly what was in the score and waited to see how long such a thing was tolerated by the listening public.

The sort of lazy literalism one can fall into as a performer was debunked one time in humorous fashion. The composer, Krzystof Penderecki was on the podium, conducting one of his works. (The Polish Requiem? Memory escapes me.) He wanted a certain musician to play something louder. Perhaps momentarily forgetting who was on the podium, the musician replied “But my part says mezzo-forte,” to which Penderecki replied, “But I am still alive!”

Wednesday, October 21, 2015

You're so vain

you probably think this blog is about you

The (poorly taken) photo is from Wall Drug in South Dakota. The sign behind the “Cowboy Orchestra”reads: “Our drugstore musicians ain't heard o' Petrillo. They play just for the thrillo.” (Note how their working conditions were unilaterally changed by management.) This is either a pretty old sign, or an extremely inside joke. I wonder how many folks who look at that know about James Petrillo?

Taken during my sabbatical last year, the photo seems all the more apropos lately since our contract was up for renegotiation this fall. Happily, after a few tense weeks an agreement was reached and everything is all smiles and bonhomie around the concert hall. Contract time is interesting to me mostly for its rhetorical excess – the pleas of poverty from management set against the claims that classical music is a priceless asset, as necessary to human survival as air and water. While the truth most probably lies somewhere in between, I feel that as a musician, albeit a cynical one,  my bet is that the deep pockets are even more unfathomable than the mysterious powers of music. I'm waiting to see the bottom of one, or the top of the other, with no real hope of glimpsing either before my career ends.

It is interesting that (at least at times other than during contract negotiations) management occasionally buys into what I think of as the myth of 'The Transformational Power of Music', which I would describe as the belief that some needy individuals, whether deprived of freedom, opportunity, or even the material necessities of life, might be changed profoundly through exposure to a concert of classical music. Then, of course, the coffers open and the funding flows freely toward such a glamorous and an ennobling end. Certainly not the only instances, but among the more notable examples of an institution getting caught up in that idea are the two tours we've taken to Russia. I think both trips were undertaken, at least in part, as some sort of effort to spread the message of freedom through music.  Although, during our first visit the U.S.S.R. was sounding its death rattle, I'm not convinced our performances had anything to do with its ultimate demise. Furthermore, trotting out an orchestra at some freedom-themed event always gives me a bit of a chuckle. If anything, the orchestra resembles, at best, a dictatorship in miniature (if occasionally even a benign one), and at worst, a dystopian, bureaucratic nightmare. I wonder how many strongmen or plutocrats who attend these concerts secretly lean back in their chairs with a feeling of self-satisfaction, seeing in the orchestra more affirmation than threat. Meanwhile the common citizen, for whom the music might offer solace, a balm against suffering, or even stir the heart to action, is nowhere to be seen, unable to afford a ticket.

When the Berlin Wall fell, with the obligatory triumphalist Beethoven's Ninth staged in the rubble, the cynic in me grumbled that if music really had such a transformational power, why didn't somebody put the orchestra there before the collapse, perhaps bringing it about years earlier? As a performer, it can be frustrating when the tail wags the dog, when symbolism Trumps the music, because musicians know that music really does have a transformational power. The little boy who, upon hearing the Schubert C major Symphony, threw down his crutches and walked, or the dictator who listened to the Missa Solemnis, wept and opened the doors to his prisons – I suppose these sorts of things might actually happen, but with such a vanishingly small probability that belief in them is essentially hokum, like trying to start a campfire by assembling the kindling then waiting for lightning to strike it. The transformational power of music is no myth, but I think it works in more subtle, certainly less direct ways. The showy, symbolic gestures our leaders sometimes fall in love with are wonderful, sometimes expensive, spectacles, which I grudgingly admit also have their place and their function. But music is most powerful as an element of culture when it becomes a part of people's day-today existence. I would go so far to say that music has more power when it is ordinary than when it is extraordinary. And, of course, the orchestra was there long before the Wall came down. The Berlin Philharmonic made its home for many years within a stone's throw of it. The many concerts given there, and the vibrancy of cultural life in the west had more power than any one-off concert could achieve, however glamorous. The real triumph was in the 'mundane' task of supporting a world class ensemble in a difficult environment – paying a wage that would attract the finest players, and making certain musicians would have the wherewithal to provide for the health and welfare of their families. Nothing particularly glamorous or mythical about that.