Bass Blog

Michael Hovnanian formerly played bass with an orchestra located in a large midwestern city.

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Saturday, December 21, 2019

Joy to the World

an argument against happiness

A casual glance at an orchestra in performance usually reveals a group of mostly phlegmatic individuals going about their business. To the untrained eye, stoicism appears to be the order of the day, but the astute observer can mark a variety of attitudes and emotions among the musicians. During a single concert it is often possible to observe everything from rapture to despair, disguised either cleverly, or not at all. Even when the general mood of the ensemble is good and spirits are mostly high, it is almost always possible to find at least one individual who is scowling or otherwise showing signs of being under a dark cloud. Conversely, when spirits are generally low, there is always someone who seems to be happily playing away, either oblivious to, or immune from the general malaise around them.

One entertaining pastime to consider during an otherwise un-engaging performance is to look for the player onstage who seems to be enjoying themselves most of all and then to seek out their counterpart, the one who is suffering. This is easier than it seems at first for, interestingly, these individuals are often seated right next to each other. Having observed this phenomenon over a number of years, I've struggled to determine if this antipodal relationship is causal or correlative. Is this a coincidence? Is it Schadenfreude - a happy individual taking pleasure in the low spirits of another? Or is it something else? Why do individuals in close proximity exhibit such discordant emotional responses to the same performance?

In my experience, the overly happy player is more often than not at least partially oblivious to their surroundings, and therefore probably incapable of experiencing Schadenfreude. On the other hand, the unhappy individual, possessed of a keener sense of discrimination, possibly sharpened by years of discontentment, is more acutely aware, sometimes painfully so, of what is going on around them. Maybe this boils down to something like the bumper stickers you see occasionally that say “If you're not outraged, you're not paying attention.”

For a while I postulated that there might be a limited supply of happiness available during any performance, and the happy player had siphoned off more than their fair share - the “I drink your milkshake” theory. But later on I began to wonder if that viewpoint might have been overly simplistic. The supply of happiness is most probably variable; happiness can be created or destroyed. But is the creation of happiness equivalent to the destruction of unhappiness? This got me to wondering if the happy player, through the reckless enactment of their enjoyment, might actually be creating unhappiness in those around them.

The subject got rolling around in my mind again when I recently came across the term Gluckschmerz, a made up word with a mysterious etymology. Gluckschmerz, while not its exact opposite, is a good complement to Schadenfreude. My small understanding of these two terms is that they both have something to do with a sense of justice and with group dynamics, which make them both apt for talking about the orchestra. More than simply the enjoyment gained from witnessing someone else's suffering, Schadenfreude is the feeling of satisfaction that arises from knowing justice is being done when a transgressor receives their well-deserved comeuppance. Likewise, beyond being suffering caused by the joy of another, Gluckschmerz is the unhappiness felt upon witnessing someone deriving pleasure from something that is ill-gotten, illegitimate, or otherwise undeserved. When an acerbic conductor calls out a certain musician, players may experience Schadenfreude if they feel the criticism to be merited. When the criticism is not forthcoming they might feel disappointment, which, when the undeserving player then gambols and frolics through a concert in an unaware and unconscious state of bliss, curdles and becomes Gluckschmerz.

On the one hand, there is something profoundly depressing when considering how joy and misery are sometimes dependently linked. I can imagine Messrs. Schadenfreude and Gluckschmerz as two grizzled old timers, long time stand partners at the back of a string section in some godforsaken orchestra. Like two petulant children on opposite ends of a teeter-totter, one can only go up when the other comes down; they are hateful of, yet dependent upon the other. Conversely, there is cause for optimism, for as we are especially reminded during the holiday season, we are, all of us, sinners. As such, when we fall, as we all do, inevitably, we might be able to take solace in the fact we might be generating happiness, at least somewhere. At any rate, this dark underbelly to happiness is something to keep in mind over the next few weeks.

Monday, November 11, 2019

Logging Back On

Now that I've gone ahead and redacted myself from the {redacted}SO, I intend to begin blogging again, although the subject matter will probably be substantially different than before. But more on retirement will be forthcoming later. The pressing concern of the moment is a concert by The Growlers: A Double Bass Ensemble, exactly one week from today. Details are below.

I'm very happy to be performing Logs, by Paul Chihara on this concert. It has been a favorite of mine since college days, way back in the late 1970s. Most notable to me is Chihara's use of the 'circular bowing' technique, which produces a very earthy, organic kind of sound, evoking feelings of being deep within a quiet, ancient forest, sensing that trees are truly alive. The inspiration for the piece apparently came from Zen breathing exercises in The Art of Archery. Our performance of Logs will use six double basses, spread out as much as space will allow, hopefully giving the audience the sensation of being surrounded by old trees. Indeed, what is a double bass, if not an old log fashioned into something else?  

Tuesday, October 02, 2018

Probably of Interest to Bassists Only

(the first draft of this post had some unfortunate typos in the examples, hopefully corrected now)

Mozart, Don Giovanni Overture and Symphony no. 40 provided opportunities to trot out a few crusty old fingerings and, thanks to some slow-ish tempos, roll out a few things that had been on the drawing board for years but never battle tested.

Following a somber presage of the Don's ultimate fate, the hastily composed overture (apparently penned after a Kavanaugh-esque night of drinking on the eve of the premiere) moves along at sprightly clip, Allegro Molto it says in the part. Low strings and bassoons join the action with the following passage.

Unlike a lot of things, this is actually quite pleasant to play on the double bass, with open 'A' and 'D' strings to call upon. When the passage returns, a fifth higher, not so much. The problem is really the 'c-sharp' to 'e-natural' – it's either across 3 strings, or a shift (the interval of a sixth is a long way on an instrument tuned in fourths). I came up with the following solution back in college.

'N' stands for thumbnail, or end of the thumb, a nifty way to play fourths. Another way to deal with fourths is to finger them 3-2, which leads to a handy way to take on chords in the first inversion, which you can see in the 5th and 6th bars of the excerpt.

I like this solution so much, I actually used it the first instance of this passage. 

Mozart 40 is one of those pieces that ends up on almost every double bass audition. Over the years, I've come across countless ways to finger the passages in the last movement. At m.49, I use what was once upon a time an innovative approach, but now I think is fairly standard. The little wrinkle at the 5th measure was one of those things I had been working on for a while but never had a chance to try. Beyond flashiness for its own sake, I thought it might be nice to handle the 1st and 5th measures with the same string crossings while avoiding an ungodly open 'G' string. My stand partner gave me a bit of side-eye during this passage, but I'm choosing to take that as a sign of approval. Also, lastly, the traditional 'on one string' approach to this measure looks kind of embarrassing to me when you see a whole section doing it together. Nothing more to say about that.  

Initially, I thought I needed to arrive at the 5th measure like this.

Eventually I found that I didn't need to 'prepare' the thumb position and settled on what is shown in the full example.

Either the tempo was a bit slower by the time we reached m.229, or else I was finally warming up. Anyhow, I felt confident enough to try out the following.

The first measure is a variant I've used off and on (instead of using a fingering similar to m.49). I've added some brackets to show the 'positions' and hopefully make it look slightly less insane. Playing across the strings at mm.3 and 5 was a concerted effort to try and find a way to play these passages more leggero, which is often a thankless, losing battle. Finally, the odd looking half-step, fingered 3-1 (mm.5-6), is for relaxation of the hand, and also to create a larger interval, with the 'F-sharp' sounding (to my ear at least) better on the low side.  

Wednesday, September 19, 2018

The 5,436 Overture

European thought, art, and culture is imported by Americans, who consume it like candy.  So it’s not entirely strange that a piece of music about the victory of a Russian Tsar over a French Emperor would become an American summer staple. The 1812 Overture  possesses many of the elements essential to American blockbuster style entertainment: bombast, triumphalism, religiosity, militarism, shallow spectacle, with a dollop weaponry thrown in.  Beethoven had his chance to dominate the 4th of July circuit but muffed it with Wellington’s Victory.  It is debatable whether we in the USA should be cheering on a Russian victory, either in 1812 or today. Ideologically, I’m not sure who was the good guy in that conflict.  But for the casual listener, I’m sure the piece is merely something vaguely rousing and patriotic, a musical tableau from around the time Canadians burned down our White House, or something. (Many of us would surely like invite them back to repeat the deed, forthwith!)

A trauma during my formative years as a musician left me incapable of appreciating Tchaikovsky’s masterpiece. One of the first things I ever played with a local Youth Symphony was the 1812. A bit about Tchaikovsky’s writing for the double bass can be found here.  For now, it is sufficient to say that in Tchaikovsky, the bass isn’t fully a member of the string family, but gets palmed off on the low brass, as if they needed the help.  At a ‘string sectional’ on the piece, we got to the final page and rehearsed the section, right after the cannon shots, where the strings play those wonderful, swirling passages, tremolando. Of course, the basses don’t play that.  We play the chorale with the winds and brass. So I, along with another unlucky, sallow-faced and unprepared pre-teen bassist, had to squeak and sqawk through the chorale alone, horribly off key, and putrid of tone, while 40 of our comrades snickered.  I’ve found it impossible to enjoy the piece since that day.

The summer season devoted a lot of time to the music of Leonard Bernstein, culminating in two highly successful performances of his Mass - all the more satisfying since I was off both nights.  However, in addition to all of the Americana, there was a suspicious, perhaps even meddlesome, amount of Russian music programmed as well, as if somebody felt the need, musically, to say there are good people on both sides.  Most memorable was a weekend Maria Butina and Wayne LaPierre could only have dreamed about - two Tchaikovsky Spectaculars, back to back, with each night capped off (pun intended!) by the 1812 Overture.  The fusiliers seemed hellbent on using up the their entire supply of gunpowder, each shot louder than the one before, until the final blast at the second performance had me extracting a deeply impacted earplug with a pair of tweezers after the concert.

There is a body of circumstantial evidence of collusion between summer and ‘downtown’ programming.  Year after year, some of the same pieces tend crop up a season later in one place or the other.  This year, suspiciously, the first set of subscription concerts is another all Russian affair.  Also, the annual free “Concert for {redacted}” this week culminates in, yes, the 1812 Overture.  Enough to give any conspiracy theorist reason to persist for yet another season. 

Wednesday, June 27, 2018

Stoppage Time

Billing the concerts last week as the Season Finale suggested we might be entering the realm of Alternate Facts, since many knew the ensemble was scheduled to return for four more performances. The season would really end with the orchestra accompanying a week-long run of Star Wars: Episode IV – A New Hope, yet another of the film night performances sneaking across the boarder between classical and popular music to infest our schedule. Cherubini, Chant sur la mort du Joseph Haydn was an interesting choice in this era of Fake News; the work was composed in reaction to a (failing?) London publication's erroneous report that the revered composer had died. Having survived in spite of Cherubini's request that all copies be destroyed once he learned the error upon which it was based, the star-crossed composition was given an interesting performance here on Saturday evening. About seven measures into the quiet introduction, in response to an inadvertent noise from the stage, the Maestro stopped the performance, turned and excoriated the audience for the disruption. Breaking the fourth wall is often an invitation for the least inhibited among us to open up their own particular jar of crazy, and so, true to form, in the uncomfortable silence following the Maestro's remarks somebody yelled out something, a few people clapped, a few more tittered, none of which did anything but make the atmosphere more tense. With all hope of quickly putting a minor disturbance behind us gone, we started again from the beginning.

There were many theories put forth by musicians to try and explain what had happened. Perhaps the Maestro reacted to some audience members' spontaneous expressions of surprise over the onstage noise, which also had a visual component. Maybe the quick assignation of blame to the audience was a show of solidarity with musicians. The only constant was the poor reporting in the press, beginning of course with the premature pronouncement of Haydn's death, and continuing with both local papers writing up the incident as a concert halted due to 'coughing', a misrepresentation parroted by one of the more popular classical music blogs.

Humans, on either side of the proscenium, occasionally make unintended noises. With training and concentrated focus on the task at hand, most musicians are able to block out whatever the audience is doing, even when it is startling, like someone talking loudly, falling ill, or even a fistfight breaking out in the box seats (the so-called Brawl at the Hall). Unexpected surprises from the stage can be harder to ignore, since (ostensibly) we are paying close attention to each other. Where force of concentration is insufficient, the professional code of conduct keeps most musicians focused on their own tasks when faced with anything from a broken string or dropped mute to someone vomiting onstage (yes, that happened). Lacking the training, not bound by a professional code of conduct, and probably not concentrating as deeply, audience members can be forgiven for spontaneous reactions to something startling or unusual.

Coughs, on the other hand, are often symptoms of a bored or uninvolved audience. A disinterested group of people tends to cough and fidget more. Sometimes the very same audience that coughed a lot during one part of a performance will become riveted later on, and much more quiet. Concerts with superstar performers tend to draw audiences that contain more people who are not really there to hear the music, so these crowds often contain more people who are disengaged from the performance, inattentive, and noisy. But, no matter who is performing, audience behavior is a reflection on what is happening on stage. Becoming irritated with an audience is like yelling at the wind. Asking people not to cough is like telling someone not to think of a pink elephant and then getting upset when they do.