Bass Blog

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

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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.


nobleviola said...

Nicely played, Michael!

Michael Hovnanian said...


Unknown said...

Nice Marcello! While cellists are at an advantage in the orchestra compared to bassists (higher register, sounds produced closer to the ear, etc), I feel similar frustrations about how little I am able to hear of myself during those many hours spent in the herd. Besides the issues Michael describes, there is also the equally insidious fact that in the orchestra, another person takes ultimate (at least symbolically) responsibility for the interpretation. The sad result is that many orchestra players who do only orchestral playing simply stop thinking about the various nuances that one MUST think about in order to successfully perform solo repertoire. I'm sure there is no truer solution than exactly what Michael is doing here: putting oneself up in front of people, either live on a stage or through recording.

It takes self-awareness, courage, and honesty...thanks for showing us all three!

Michael Hovnanian said...

OK, where do I send your $20? ;)

nobleviola said...

I cannot agree with Brant more! I recently went back to Philadelphia and had a lesson with my former teacher, Roberto Diaz. It was a nice lesson - I wasn't yelled at or told how horrible I sounded - but it was made clear in no uncertain terms that I was not thinking about anything that really mattered about the music that I was playing. Playing in an orchestra - even when you can hear yourself - is often basically a process of learning as many notes as quickly as possible and remaining a blank slate so that the guy waving the stick can impose his view of how the music goes on you. It was a total wake-up call for me, and one that I'm very grateful for. Michael is to be commended for getting out there and stepping out onto the blind ledge of solo performance.

Daniel said...

Beautiful playing!

sjid said...

I enjoyed your recording. The ornamentation is impressive. It would be good if you could perform these in public. Haitink did us all a big favor last year by adding chamber music performances to concerts during the Beethoven festival. It seemed that both audience and musicians enjoyed them. I'd like to see this done more frequently. Maybe a cadenza from the Sibelius Violin Conc. arranged for bass ensemble played prior to the performance?

Much has been said about players having difficulty hearing each other. But not being able to hear yourself also? It seems that would make the job impossible. How do you achieve intonation, for example? As for the third rail, traditional seating put low brass on the opposite side of low strings, the violins were divided, and so on. I had assumed this was mostly for balance. My understanding is that the standard seating of today evolved from a desire to mass the effect of a given register. For example, Stokowski favored it in Philadelphia to increase the strength of the violins, but I don't recall anyone mentioning whether it was done with musicians' approval.

Jacque said...

Bravo, Michael, for moving forward with this. I think it's really a great inspiration for all of us.

I'd like to offer two items that you and others might find interesting in this context:
1) Volkan Orhon has recorded a complete CD of arrangements for double bass--all multi-tracked. In the liner notes, he describes some of the process.
2) The 100 Day Project Workshop: . For each of 100 days, do something. Keep track of it.

As others have said, thanks for having the courage to bring this to us.

nocynic said...

You play that thing like a finely tuned musical instrument, Michael. One element of recording that I impress upon students I encounter is rhythm. It is one thing to play rhythmically with a metronome going; quite another to do it with the training wheels off. I urge kids to record themselves and then beat eighth notes along with the playback, making sure everything lines up perfectly. I wish I had a dollar for every audition I heard in which the hapless applicant played the Mendelssohn "Midsummer Night's Dream" Scherzo and the quarter note in the fourth bar bore no rhythmic relationship with the overall tempo. This is easily fixed with beating eighths along with your playback.

Michael said...

Great! Sounds nicely gamba-like. I like the effortless and elegant ornamentation. Maybe you could actually record this with harpsichord accompaniment? I rarely listen to bass recordings anymore, but I would listen to that!

Michael Hovnanian said...

Thanks. For some folks, 'Gamba-like' is an insult, but I'll take it as a compliment.

Don't hold your breath waiting for a recording...