Bass Blog

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

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Friday, April 29, 2011

My Bad!

After listening to the MP3 files I'd posted, I realized something was amiss. The files were converted at the lowest possible bit rate, rather than the highest. This whole project is a friggin' learning experience for me in the worst possible way. Anyhow, I reconverted and re-upped all the tracks this evening, so they should sound a bit better. Nothing to be done about the out of tune notes, unfortunately.

The links in all the original posts should work for the re-upped files from this point onward. All the tracks can be accessed on one page by clicking below.

Marcello Sonatas

Marcello Sonatas recording project part 04

A few people asked about the equipment used to make these recordings. When I began, I was an absolute novice at recording and used stuff I had accumulated over the years, an odd assortment of mismatched components that included a microphone that cost more than one of the basses, an audio interface that ultimately proved effective at nothing more than keeping my studio door from swinging open, all 'controlled' by a laptop computer so old, rather than by mouse or keyboard, input was by cuneiform tablet, the 'battery', in reality, a grumpy little hamster, running endlessly in a tiny wheel.

So, I'm recording everything on my laptop (I did get a newer one) running Cubase software that came with the Lexicon 'Omega' interface which, before wasting hours of my time, ended up as a doorstop. The “Omega' was replaced by a Presonus 'Firebox', which has run smoothly from the get-go. Close micing of the bass is with a Neumann U47 (which is a story in itself), the room mics were a pair of Neumann K 84s, lent me by a very generous friend, which, after the failure of the Lexicon 'Omega' to even function as a stereo pre-amp, was reduced to to one.

The initial idea was to record in my studio at home. That way, I could record a take whenever the spirit moved me. To record in a small room, I had to place the microphone close to the instrument, about six inches off the bridge, in order to avoid getting nasty reflections from the room. A friend who knows a thing or two about recording came over, took one look at my setup, and told me there was no way I could get a decent sound in that space. So, I've been lugging my instrument(s) and all the gear to 'an undisclosed location' and making the recordings there. Even in the larger room, I still like the sound of the close mic placement, where some of the bow noise is audible. Recordings that are too 'smoothed out' sound fake to my ears and makes me sort of sleepy listening to them.

Editing the finished recordings consisted of mixing the signals from the close and room mics. In the future, I might try moving the close mic a bit farther away. It seems like the farther away from my bass you get, the better it sounds. My family, on the west coast, think my playing is quite good, while my wife, sitting in the next room, is not so impressed. The attached picture shows some of the EQ settings I've experimented with: rolling off the high frequencies to get rid of hiss, the lows, to eliminate rumble.

Of the four movements, this is the one I'm most happy about the recording I ended up with. Right near the beginning, you might be able to hear a very audible gasp for breath, and I'll be darned if I didn't do it again on the repeat as well. Eliminating all sort of noises made while playing, groans, sighs, gasps, and whatnot is actually another element I had to work hard on. Believe it or not, it was much worse before. Never the less, there is nothing quite so pathetic as a middle-aged bassist sweating and gasping over a piece of junior-high level music, but there you have it.

click below to listen

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Marcello Sonatas recording project part 03

Like a good short-order cook, I've got to start knocking these things out a bit faster, or I'll never finish.

The 3rd movement gave me the most problems, and I'm least happy with the final result of the three movements released so far. Predictably, at the outset it seemed to be the simplest, and so got the least amount of practice time.

My original plan for this project was to record the continuo (or accompaniment) part first, and then lay the solo part over it. After a few test recordings, I realized this was more difficult than I had imagined. Making the solo part conform to the less than perfect playing of the continuo line ended up being more difficult than doing it the other way around. In hindsight, it seems obvious; the more difficult part, technically, is harder to be flexible with. So, for the first two sonatas at least, the solo parts have been recorded first, and then I came back and played the accompanying line underneath.

My favorite science-fiction author, Stanislaw Lem, wrote a very memorable short story about a space traveler who, falling into a series of gravitational vortices, encounters multiple versions of himself, in the immediate past or future. In the hands of Lem's sardonic wit, of course the situation turns farcical, with our hero engaging in a series of verbal and physical conflicts with his alter egos. And every time the protagonist deals out a blow or an insult, he finds himself on the wrong end of it as he progresses through time.

Since I'm using two different instruments to make these recordings, and because it has been difficult to reserve time in the room where I am making these recordings, the solo and continuo parts were recorded about 2 weeks apart. After recording the solo lines, I listen to determine if I have recorded any useable takes or not. The biggest lesson learned to date has been that it is one thing to listen to something and think it is good enough, and another to try and play along with it, matching pitch, rhythm, and phrasing. This third movement proved vexing, in that I thought the solo line was pretty consistent, until I took out the other bass and tried to play the continuo part along with it. Then it seemed like the pitch wavered from note to note, and it was a real challenge trying to play an accompaniment that didn't make the solo line sound awful. As in Lem's story, I found myself seriously at odds with, maybe even hating an earlier version of myself.

Playing along with something robotic and inflexible might well be an essential skill for playing in an orchestra. Never the less, making a workable accompaniment for the top line as I recorded it proved trying in the extreme, and I found myself loathing the person I had been two weeks earlier as I struggled to play along.

click below to listen

I encourage anyone interested to pursue the work of Stanislaw Lem. His most well known work, Solaris, would go on my list of 'must read' works for those not only interested in sci-fi, but who share a sense of, if not despair, wariness about what the inexorable march of 'progress' and technology actually mean for the human condition. The Soderbergh-Clooney film version, while not as awful as I feared, is a pale shadow of the Tarkovsky masterpiece, but both, in their own ways miss the point of the original. The adventures of the everyman, cosmonaut, Ijon Tichy, in The Star Diaries, of which the story cited above is one small part, is another essential component of Lem's output.

Monday, April 25, 2011

Marcello Sonatas recording project, part 02

My wife may well have the second movement of Sonata no. 1 in her nightmares. I found this movement particularly difficult to master and spent many hours actually practicing it, to the point where it almost ceased to exist as a piece of music and became simply a way to torture myself with daily reminders of my shortcomings.

This might be a good time to describe some of the equipment I'm using for this project. To make my life a bit more difficult, I decided to use two different instruments, with different tunings, to record the solo and continuo parts. The 'solo' instrument is tuned to more or less standard 'solo tuning' while the continuo uses the common tuning used most often in the orchestra.

solo tuning

orchestra tuning

The odd tuning of the 4th string in solo tuning only serves the function of eliminating a 'wolf note' on the top string, by sympathetic resonance with the second partial of the lower string. In this sonata, there are no notes on the 4th string anyway. In sonata no. 2, the alternate tuning actually made my life more miserable (as you will hear in due course).

A few words of clarification about tunings and transpositions might be helpful at the outset. The double bass is a transposing instrument. When you give a bass player a part that reads

the sound you get back will be

When bassists complain about having to 'transpose' something, take it with a grain of salt – they've been doing it their whole lives! [Don't even get me started on harmonics. There are hours and hours of my life I will never get back, wasted trying to figure out what register a composer wanted a harmonic to sound in. Composers: forget about markings like 'real sound', 'at pitch', '8va', '8vb' and all the instructions about what string and in which position to find the note. Write the harmonic like the rest of the bass part, one octave above where you want it to sound. Any decent player will be able to figure out where to play it...]

The examples of the tunings cited above actually sound one octave lower. In addition, parts written for solo tuning are transposed down another whole step, making for a 'D' transposition (which simply means when a player plays a 'C' it sounds like 'D') To avoid confusion, hereafter, any musical examples cited will be at concert pitch (which is the pitch and in the octave in which they sound). When I publish my arrangements of these sonatas, I will of course make the necessary transpositions so bassists everywhere can play them without (believing they are) transposing.

Some time during the process of practicing these sonatas, I had the bright idea of using a baroque bow. I'm a bit leery disclosing this, because where I work, 'period instruments' might be even more despised than modern music. Never the less, I endeavored to learn to use the baroque bow, and eventually came to love it. Mastering the grip took quite a while before I was comfortable holding the stick in my fingertips without squeezing. Much of the challenge playing these sonatas has been trying to avoid the tendency for the bass to sound lugubrious. For me, using the baroque bow has been entirely worth the effort in the lightness and clarity of the sound it produces.

Baroque bow with grip

This movement contains passages like the following

which will immediately remind a lot of bassists of similar passages in the Mozart, Symphony no. 40. I imagine any bass player with an orchestra job has spent a few hours cutting their teeth on those cross-string passages. At first, after picking up the baroque bow, I became dismayed at the prospect of having to relearn the technique. In the long run, things I learned using the baroque bow paid off on the 'modern' bow as well.

click below to listen

Thursday, April 21, 2011

Marcello Sonatas recording project, part 01

What this is all about.

A major complaint among bassists is the difficulty hearing oneself while playing in the orchestra. Some of this is due to the shape of the instrument – sound-box down near the floor, ears up in the air (unless the bassists' slouch has permanently disfigured the spine) – and some of it due to the dark timbre of the instrument. Another cause, namely the volume at which other instruments play, is the third rail of describing life in the orchestra, which I will not step on just now. So, many notes go by, if not completely unheard, possibly insufficiently scrutinized. At this point, you might wish to consider what can happen to the human voice when the facility of hearing has been lost. Practice time, the obvious answer to this dilemma, can be difficult to come by in sufficient quantity in the midst of a busy schedule of rehearsals and concerts. As an under appreciated student, most of my playing happened in the practice room, where I was painfully aware of my deficiencies. As an highly appreciated professional, on a lot of days I'm lucky if I can get my practice time up to half of the total playing time, which means a fair amount of what I play every day, I don't hear. The result is that keeping tabs on how one is playing, while not impossible, can become challenging.

Over the years, when students have come to me for private lessons, whether for posterity, or to provide themselves with another chance at deciphering the tortured verbiage used by the teacher, they have often asked to record the session. After gaining permission by signing the customary waivers, they unveil one of a number of devices to do the job which have grown in sophistication while shrinking in size, from the 'portable cassette recorder' ubiquitous early in my career (horribly named by present standards at about the size of a loaf of bread) all the way to the digital gizmos of today, some of which are little bigger than a pat of butter. Sometimes I've asked to listen to the recordings, usually while the student packs up their instrument, both as a way to keep up with the technology, and to avoid the awkward chit-chat at the end of a lesson. The student who came to me with techy cred far outstripping ability to play the double bass inadvertently provided me with the much needed wake-up call.

After spending an hour covering a movement from one of the Bach cello suites, de riguer for the college student or other 'serious' aspirant to mastery of the instrument, I spied the tiny mp3 recorder and asked if I might listen a bit. The miniature device excellently captured the poor quality of the playing assaulting me when I put in the ear-buds. This fellow is worse than I thought, I recall remarking (to myself). Of course, the next thing I heard on the recording was the sound of my own voice, proclaiming the student ought to play just like that. Unawares, I'd been listening to my own playing, not liking what I had just heard.

In response to such a rude awakening, I resolved to try and rehabilitate myself by practicing my double bass more diligently. I began by resolving to practice every single day, which I quickly modified to resolving to practice often. In the cool light of reason, I once again modified my resolution and promised myself I would practice occasionally. Since practice without performing is like singing in the shower, and without some sort of end in mind, I knew I would never apply myself with sufficient diligence, I also posed a challenge to myself, using fear as the ultimate motivator.

The basic outline of the project, which I will describe more in detail as it progresses, is to record the 6 Sonatas for Solo violoncello with a thoroughbass for the harpsichord, by Benedetto Marcello, arranged for two double basses (by me). Since the point of the exercise is to see for myself whether or not I can play the instrument, the recordings would be of complete takes of each movement, and I would not resort to any sort of editing, pitch correction, or other digital wizardry to make the end product more palatable to the ear. The only nod in that direction would be the use of overdubbing, which would allow me to play both of the parts, and some EQ to compensate for deficiencies in my equipment and the location(s) where the recordings would be made. The end result would be something of a cross between a studio and a live recording – I would 'perform' each movement for the microphone three or four times and use the best take. If in three or four tries I couldn't come up with a useable take, then it would be back to the practice room to try again another day. Work on the project began in earnest during the fall of 2010, with the goal of finishing the first of the Sonatas by year's end. Obviously, I'm behind schedule for various reasons, some of which were out of my control. Never the less, I am now ready to proceed.

Click below to listen.

Sunday, April 10, 2011

Great Men of Music

My fingers are crossed for the success of this visit by our music director. I don't want to jinx anything by even thinking the wrong sorts of thoughts, so I'll write about something else for now.

Over the past month or so we have been host to some venerable maestros. The floorboards have been groaning under the collective gravitas of these great men of music. Some of the concerts have been pretty good too.

Choral icon Helmuth Rilling led enjoyable performances of Mendelssohn's Elijah in front of thousands of rabid choir directors here for a convention, and for whom the esteemed German maestro could do no wrong. In fact, I think to many of those conventioneers, the instrumentalists were something of a nuisance, or at best, a necessary evil. Of the school I've had passing acquaintance with in the early music world, Rilling seemed used to an instrumental ensemble prepared to fend for itself while he tended to the needs of the chorus. For the most part, we were content to sit off in a corner and play nicely with our toys while the singers did their thing. My memory might be failing me, but this kind of blockbuster choral concert used to be a more frequent occurrence around here. Perhaps they are too tired from the Christmas shows to do more.

Whatever else he brings, Charles Dutoit always seems to pack his suitcase with plenty of excitement when he comes to town. Although this time I wonder if he left his bag unattended for a moment and somebody slipped in a couple of strange items, namely The Enigma Variations, and Sibelius Suite from Karelia, both of which seemed at odds with his francophilic tendencies. This iteration of the Elgar brought to mind the master French chef who holds his nose and whips up a shepherd's pie merely to show how truly awful food from across the channel is.

The Elgar also served as subject matter for another Beyond the Score presentation. Since one of my colleagues all but dared me to write about it, I have to confess to being thoroughly engrossed listening to stories about the dog who jumped into the water, the man who slammed the door on his way out, the sudden thunderstorm, and the lady who took a boat ride (or did she...?!)

Dutoit stayed for another week to lead us in Petrushka, along with the Grieg piano concerto and the aforementioned Suite from Karelia, bringing some elan to the Stravinsky, reminiscent of nail-biters from the Solti era, with 'excitement' as the byproduct of a spasmodic modal expressivity, and the hyperbolic extraneosity of gestural vectors emanating from the vicinity of the podium. Anyone scratching their head trying to follow that last sentence has taken the first small step on the road to empathizing with the occasional plight of an orchestral musician.

The Grieg piano concerto brought to mind an egregious omission from my previous post on the subject of memorable outbursts from the audience. To set the scene: a number of years ago (more than 10?). On the podium, a conductor nicknamed 'Santa' (as in Claus). At the piano, the son of a Russian dissident. After a lackluster performance of the Grieg, from the balcony came lusty booing from a single, very agitated audience member, followed by confetti as torn pages from a program book were tossed in the air. My eagle-eyed stand partner identified one of our local critics as the perpetrator. How that slipped my mind, I have no idea.

Bringing Bruckner 4 to our concert hall is like showing up at a party with a bottle of wine only to discover your hosts have a case of it under the back stairs. But we are always ready to uncork another Bruckner Symphony, no matter how many times we've had it before. With a reputation for testiness preceding him, Kurt Masur's mostly gentlemanly demeanor came as something of a pleasant surprise. Although, noticeably less chipper than the last time I saw him, it is hard to say if the bonhomie was intentional or a side affect of advancing age. His getup – concert attire in name only, since it was a a concert and that was what he was wearing – goes down as one of the most talked about outfits we have seen in quite some time.

Conductors who try and foist a sense 'drama' onto Bruckner often end up highlighting some of the idiocy in the music, or in themselves. Masur managed to find the grandeur of the thing without becoming ponderous, the lightness without it becoming an embarrassingly unfunny joke, which is a pretty fine line to tread. Kudos to him. Somebody remarked that if he (Masur) didn't understand the piece, nobody would. I guess if coming to a deep appreciation of Bruckner is another byproduct of the aging process, I'll hold hold out for a deathbed conversion.