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My new book "Meta Hodos" is nearing completion. It's a very personal account of a professional life with the Viennese Tuning and it includes a Method for the Viennese Violone mainly in its role as a solo instrument. It should be available from January 2018 and will be around 500 pages long.
In the meantime, the new Charton Suit Bass is here, and we've played its first concert, a three-hour continuous program at the Brussels puppet theatre "Toone". People could walk in and out, or stay if they wanted. We played the Overture to Nozze di Figaro, Vanhal complete concerto, a new arrangement of Per Questa Bella Mano without singer, a Borghi Sonata, and lots of Japanese music.
It's truly a wonderful bass. I asked Patrick for a neck that would allow me to exchange heads and tailpieces with my B21 "Basse-Partout" bass. The scroll is made of wood and leather, and can be taken off and installed on all of the peg-heads i have. For the concert i took the "Viennese" style head. Strangely (or not), changing pegboxes also changed the sound a little bit.
The back and ribs are from home-made plywood. It's lighter and stronger, ideal for traveling, and it doesn't sound any less good than solid wood: this bass has a beautiful, warm sound. The top is solid spruce though. The way transport works is that the top half of the bass is turned around and slid into the back part, a bit like those Russian dolls. The neck goes inside the body, the head-strings-tailpiece unit is rolled into one package that fits in a compartment which you attach to the bottom half of the bass. The whole then goes into a sort of backpack, and then fits in the slim flight-case.
One of the distinguishing characteristics of the bass is its back: the reinforcing strips that are normally on the inside, are now on the outside to allow the upper half of the body to slide inside the bottom half. It makes the bass look a bit like one of those old, reinforced wooden travel cases that people used when they emigrated.
Cutting the bass in two also presents an (un-)expected bonus: if you ever need repairs to the instrument, the costly operation of ungluing and closing it belongs to the past: the bass is already open. In an emergency you could actually repair it yourself. Besides, it allows you to install a contact microphone on the inside rather than on the outside of the bass. And there's enough space for your dirty laundry.
I've been asked what kind of gut strings i use, specifically the D-string. I usually order my strings from Nicholas Baldock in Germany. The gauge for my D-string is 2.90, but that's for a 110cm string length and at A = 415 Hz. I prefer a rather low string tension for Viennese Tuning. On a "normal" bass with 105cm string length and at 440 Hz pitch, i would go for a heavier string: 3.00 or even slightly more. I would start from a 3.00 and see how that works. Unfortunately it's a bit harder to experiment with gut strings because they're harder to find and they're more expensive than most steel strings.
Patrick Charton is very busy working on the new Suit Bass that i ordered from him. It's even more revolutionary than the B21 i own: he has taken transportability to a whole other level by cutting the bass in two along the ribs, and by slipping one half bass into the other half for transport.
This will be the first 5-string version of the Suit Bass that Patrick has made. It will sport gut strings in Viennese Tuning and frets. I thought of trying to fit Haruko's Viola d'Amore in the bass during transport, but although a Viola just fits, the Amore is slightly too big. That's OK, i can still leave my bows and my music inside the bass i guess.
Having an "open" bass has a few other advantages apart from ease of transport: repairs will be very easy (no need to unglue the top or back and to glue it back on), and installation of a pick-up or microphone inside the instrument opens up new amplification possibilities. To see the instrument, click here:
Charton Suit Bass YouTube
I played a couple of concerts this summer, with my Duo Sweet 17 (by the way, we're looking for a new name so if anyone has a good idea...). One concert presented an ambitious program of three world premieres: Bach's famous "Chaconne" arranged for Viola d'Amore and Viennese Bass, Jacques Vanherenthals's third Baroque Suite (originally not written for the Viennese Bass, but i did play it that way), and the complete Vanhal Concerto re-arranged for our two instruments. The bass here is the Charton B21:
Last week we played another concert at a benefit happening for the Fukushima orphans, with an all-japanese program:
I will soon publish some fingering details for these programs: the Suite and the Chaconne, for instance, require some real "out-of-the-box" techniques if you want to play them in Viennese tuning. I also used a very light violone-bow for the Suite, which i held in overhand fashion. In fact, the so-called "french" bow hold is often more practical in Viennese tuning because of the many string changes. And the numerous excursions to the fifth string (tuned to F#) in the Suite were a lot easier to execute this way. The bow hold and the light bow also contributed to a very "baroque-ish" lightness of sound and articulation. For Vanhal i used an underhand bow, which resulted in a wholly different sound character and thus, inevitably, in a different way of playing. Mastering both bow holds is a great asset for a bass player.
The Suite is in G but i transpose it to A by pretending my bass is tuned a whole tone lower: E-G-C-E-G (instead of F#-A-D-F#-A). Kind of a "solo tuning" in V.T. So all of the low Es in the above example are open 5th strings.
As always, we tuned to 415 Hz. It simply sounds better than 440 or 430. Strings used were Nicholas Baldock for the top three (Nicholas is a fantastic string maker and a very, very nice guy) and Genssler custom-made synthetic strings for the bottom two. They are a perfect match with the gut. Don't know how he does it, because there is no gut in these strings at all.
25. NEW METHOD FOR VIENNESE BASS !
2017 will see the publication of a new Viennese Bass Method, written by Professor Korneel Le Compte (yours truly). Not exactly the first one in the history of the double bass, since dr. Igor Pecevski published an online method a few years ago. Unfortunately, to my knowledge, it has become impossible to find since his website was discontinued. This new Method however, will be the very first one to be available in printed form.
Korneel Le Compte's Method will be much more than just a traditional practical manual: it will include historical background, parallels with modern bass playing, the use of historical instruments, bows and strings as well as the practical application of viennese tuning in a contemporary setting and on a modern bass with steel strings and without frets, many musical examples, fingering suggestions, explanations about the importance and the musical/emotional meaning of the original articulations, tuning subtleties and temperaments, the use of other tunings (such as gamba tuning) on the bass, photos, a DVD with direct explanations (much easier to understand than written instructions) and with a historically informed version of the Vanhal concerto... all of this and more, to be expected before next summer.
24. Duo Sweet 17 concerts
Saturday afternoon, 10th September 2016: Duo Sweet 17 (Viennese Bass and Viola d'Amore) will play 11 mini-concerts at the Taschen Bookshop near the grand Sablon (Brussels). On the program: Paganini, the complete Vanhal concerto, Mozart's Nozze di Figaro Overture, and music by Borghi, Kreisler, Casadesus, some Japanese music and... Super Mario. All in Viennese Tuning of course. Frets, gut strings, ancient bows. Viennese Tuning is at home in any type of music. The bass is by Patrick Charton. The top three strings are plain gut, the bottom two (with a low DD) are by Genssler.
23. ARD COMPETITION
Very interesting footage from the ARD bass competition. Belgian bassist Wies de Boevé plays Vanhal in Viennese Tuning (always refreshing to see players who are adventurous enough to give it a try). Some nice idiomatic fingerings there. As you can read elsewhere in this blog, Viennese Tuning offers many opportunities to question our "modern" ways of playing and demands a different approach if you want to come closer to what the bass may have sounded like in Sperger's time.
22. Genssler strings
A week or two ago i bought a set of Viennese Tuning strings from Genssler in Berlin. I had first heard from this latest development from my friend Frank Wittich. Frank had even gone to the trouble of making sound files in which he compared regular gut strings to the hi-tech Corax that Genssler had made. I had to ask Frank which was which, because the new strings sounded so similar to gut that it was hard to hear the difference. Or rather, there was a difference, but it was near impossible to say which sound sample belonged to which string type.
When Frank returned the strings to Genssler after having tested them, i asked him if i could try them. A few mails and days later i received the package. Out came a set of smooth, pitch black strings.
I installed them on my beloved Charton "Basse-Partout" bass. I got six strings in all: i switch between FF# and DD for my lowest string (usually it's the DD), so i need both. (I have never used the "official" FF natural that is mentioned in the ancient treatises).
The new strings stay in tune, they're very nice to the touch, a lot thinner on the lowest strings, and they sound very good. Powerful and warm, with just enough upper end "zing".
It's great to experiment with new instruments and new materials, with fresh ideas and concepts. Viennese Tuning has made a come-back in the last few decades, and exploring new possibilities may help give it a new lease of life.
I love gut strings and the quirky ways in which they behave. I don't mind the constant re-tuning or the fact that each single string has its own character in feeling and sound: it's very inspiring to play with their shortcomings and against them, it's stimulating to use their inequalities for expression, or to find ways to overcome those same imperfections.
At the same time, it's wonderful to have so many options: frets or no frets, tuning variations, four or five strings, gut, steel or synthetic strings, 415 or 440 Hz (frankly i'm not a fan of the artificial 430 nonsense-tuning), french, german or gamba bow holds, ancient music or modern compositions, or even music that was never composed for Viennese Tuning. It's a fantastic thrill to play on an authentic old Viennese bass, but almost any double bass will do.
As far as strings go, i've tried just about everything i could lay my hands on, from Gut-a like to Corelli, from Spirocore to Pure Corde, from Baldock to Efrano, to name just a few. I do have my preferences, with Nicholas Baldock's strings as one of the top favorites.
I feel Genssler's strings have their place in this musical world. They don't come cheap, for sure (by the way, i did pay for them, so i have no obligation to promote them at all). They're black, which can't be to everybody's liking (i love them, i would even play them if they came in bright orange or red. But no pink). Some players would surely prefer these strings to have a kind of gut colour so as to hide the fact that they're making life easier by using trouble-free materials. Why not? Whatever works, and whatever makes you play better. In the end, that's all that matters: being the best musicians we can, for the audiences we play for.
By the way, the bow in the picture is an appropriately named "Buttcher"-bow:
|The frog is fixed by a screw right through the stick|
No way to adjust the tension of the hair,
except by inserting wedges under the hair at the tip and frog.
This type of bow works very well with gut strings. I have several bows like this one, both in german and french styles. The sticks are quite thick, but the bows are light and although they are wonderful with gut strings, they also produce a very distinctive timbre with modern strings that allows you to hear yourself clearly in a big ensemble.
Our friends of the unsurpassed Sperger-Trio, with Frank Wittich, one of our nicest colleagues, on Viennese Bass:
SPERGER TRIO • 23.11.2015 • 19.30 Uhr • NATURKUNDEMUSEUM REGENSBURG
Joseph Haydn (1732–1809) Barytontrio D-Dur Hob.XI:113 Adagio – Allegro di molto – Menuet. Allegretto
Georg Christoph Wagenseil (1715–1777) Sonate Nr. 6 B-Dur für Violine, Violoncello (hier: Baryton) und Bass Allegro – Larghetto – Allegro molto
Joseph Haydn (1732–1809) Barytontrio F-Dur Hob.XI:83 Adagio – Allegro – Menuet
*** PAUSE ***
Johan Baptist Vanhal (1739–1813) Divertimento G-Dur für Violine, Viola und Violone Allegro – Menuetto – Adagio – Menuetto – Allegro
Joseph Haydn (1732–1809) Barytontrio D-Dur Hob.XI:97 „Fatto per la felicissima nascita di S: Al: S: Prencipe Estorhazi“ Adagio cantabile – Menuet – Polonaise – Adagio – Menuet. Allegretto – Finale. Fuga. Presto
20. Back in the Saddle
Six months after my cancer operation i'm back with more Viennese Tuning stuff. As time permits i'll continue the series of Fingerings for Vanhal Mvts. II and III. Soon there will be news on the instrument and string fronts as well.
From the end of September i've been appointed Professor of Modern and Historical Bass at Brussels Conservatory. Ten students have found their way to our Room 273, and more are expected to join after Christmas. Check out our class blog:
As from september 2015 i'll be teaching modern and historical double bass at the Brussels Conservatory.
The Entrance Exam for new students will be on 7th September at 11am.
The requested program for the Entrance Exam is the following:
- Modern Double Bass: Two Etudes (e.g. Nanny, Simandl, Van De Velde) and three Repertoire pieces
- Historical Bass / Violone: 4 Orchestral Excerpts (1 by Bach) and 2 Repertoire pieces
Brussels Conservatory, in the heart of Europe, is a fertile musical ground with a dedicated staff, numerous activities and opportunities for motivated students from all corners of the world. In my bass class, with all the students i intend to create an environment in which individual talent has the freedom to develop, in which old and new techniques and musical ideas are explored without referring too much to the old-fashioned concept of "schools". Indeed, no matter what school the student comes from, we will try to nurture each and everyone's talent and musicality so as to be prepared for today's flexible and ever-changing musical world. The student's own input will contribute to a dynamic in which ideas are exchanged and tested. Theoretical knowledge will be confronted with practical needs. Different approaches will be compared so as to find workable solutions to real-life challenges.
For the Historical bass, we will discover different tunings (Viennese Tuning, Gamba Tuning for the double bass), bow holds, theory vs. documented and present-day practice, we will look into the historical treatises and find out what we can learn from them, and most of all we will find much pleasure and satisfaction in the knowledge that our playing is a help for the other musicians in an ensemble, or - as a soloist or chamber musician - that our musicianship can bring joy and emotion to an audience.
Here is what Peter van Heyghen, head of the HIPP (Historical Performance) department has to say:
18. Cancer and cancel
Bombshell: diagnosed with cancer after a routine check-up.
The Japan/Fukushima Tour of this summer had to be cancelled.
Right now i'm slowly recovering from surgery.
The good news is that we caught the disease in an early stage and chances of a full recovery are quite good.
Bass playing will have to wait for a while, but in the meantime i got me a ukulele. Very inspiring.
17. The One-String Double Bass
Here it is: the one-string bass head that Patrick Charton just finished for my B21 "Basse-Partout" bass (middle in the above picture. On top is the gut-string head, on the bottom the steel-string one).
Since the Paganini piece for one string is an important part of our Duo Sweet 17 repertoire, in its many guises (we re-arranged the piece and we introduce a number of different "foreign" elements at every performance - from "Mona Lisa" to Dittersdorf) from the start i had the idea to play it on a bass with only one string.
With conventional basses this is not really easy to do: taking away three or four of the strings upsets the instrument's balance, a lot of extraneous noises ensue (tuning gears turning loose, the bridge having less pressure to keep it from vibrating out of position), and if you have to take away a few strings in the middle of a concert it kind of dilutes the audience's attention - unless you make it into part of the show.
With the B21, everything is possible. The five-string head and tailpiece, strings attached, is replaced by its one-string version in a few seconds. The neck itself stays in place. My first idea was to have a very narrow one-string neck, because visually this would accentuate even more the one-string concept. Although i might go down that road later on, for now i'll stick with the wide neck (made for five-string use), which requires only a change of tailpiece and head. The one string will be right in the middle of the fingerboard. Since i have the habit of practicing the piece on all but the very lowest string(s) (highly recommended, as well as studying it on a fretted bass...), playing it there should present no particular problems.
Charton's bass heads are made in such a way that any type of scroll can be custom-made and added, so we'll figure out something along the lines of a Paganini bust with a miniature violin. But that's for later.
First concert and video recording coming up very soon...
|The one-string tailpiece and its 5-string version with five Hipshot X-tenders.|
|The "baroque" neck is an Eb, the "modern" neck is a D.|
With frets, an Eb neck is preferable.
For those who wonder what the "Una Corda" Bass has to do with Viennese Tuning, the answer is simple: Nothing. Except that i consider this as a "reductio ad absurdum" of what a (Viennese or other) Double Bass can or should be (and except the fact that i use a bit of Dittersdorf's famous concerto - from the last movement - in one of the Paganini Variations...)
Tony Levin was one of the first electric bass players to poke fun at the ever-increasing number of strings on modern electric basses (although he does use a five-stringer, besides the Chapman Stick with its double set of strings).
I stopped counting strings at 9 or so, but i'm sure somewhere in the world somebody is trying to impress his girlfriend by wielding a bass with a fretboard as wide as an interstate highway. As a reaction to the trend, Tony ordered a three-stringed bass from the Music Man company, and since then people have taken the idea to its extremes: two- and even one-string electric basses.
|Tony Levin: "3 strings are enough"|
|Or just two?|
|Nah... One will do just fine.|
The idea of a one-string bass instrument is much older though. The "washtub basses", literally made from a washtub, a stick and a metal wire (i remember reading in some bass magazine that a Porsche brake cable made the best "string") could produce different pitches by pulling on the stick or relaxing it, resulting in more (or less) tension on the string.
In the classical field, unfortunately way more conservative by nature, such crazy ideas are not really common (at least not today anymore. Throughout history, many attempts were made to build special instruments. But now that so-called "Classical Music" has become so sclerotized, frozen in time, it's only in the more "alive" part of the musical spectrum - mainly rock and to some extent "contemporary serious music" that musicians and builders still imagine and build new instruments).
The only ancient one-stringed bass instrument that comes to mind (apart from the monochord, which wasn't a real instrument destined to be played) would be the Trumscheit or Tromba Marina, also known as the "Nun's Trumpet", which was not really a string "bass" in spite of its bass-like extended string length: it was mainly played in harmonics. One foot of its bridge vibrated against the soundboard, thereby producing a strident trumpet- or horn-like sound (hence its name). Not a likely candidate for a performance of Paganini's acrobatics. Still, i might be tempted to try it some time... Patrick, can you hear me?
In some way i see the One-String bass as the ultimate "Zen"- reduction of Viennese Tuning. From the original five strings to four (in solo music one hardly ever uses the lowest string) is a small step, and in fact both versions of the instrument are in use. The intermediary step of three strings, D-F#-A, although undocumented in history (as far as i know) is completely imaginable as a valid form of the triadic Viennese Tuning. Impatient as i am, i just skipped the two-string version (I do have two strings on my Chinese Erhu's) and went straight to the most basic form, keeping only the chanterelle.
A two-string acoustic bass does exist, by the way. It's called "gunjac" or "bajs" in Croatian (if my information is correct). It's something in between a cello and a bass and it's used in traditional music. When i asked a Croatian musician what the name really means, he told me that "it's a Croatian bass that has been 'arranged' for Folk music, or just a broken bass":
In Mongolian traditional music one can sometimes find a two-string bass instrument (with the typical horse-head pegbox):
I'd be surprised however if the Paganini variations were part of the Croation or Mongolian Folk repertoire.
|Una Corda by Patrick Charton, |
Dragonetti bow by Jérôme Gastaldo:
a perfect match.
I've never really understood why string players never thought of going all the way in Paganini's piece. I mean, the idea is handed to us on a silver platter. Variations for One String...
Anyway, here it is. Maybe it took the simple "single"-mindedness of a bass player to bring the concept to its extreme fulfillment.
I don't know what the sound is of one hand clapping, as in the famed koan (i haven't reached the required enlightenment yet to find the answer), but now i do know the sound of only one string playing.
Bottesini maintained that the 3-stringed bass was sonically superior to its 4-string cousin. He found that the reduced pressure on the soundboard led to a fuller and richer sound. One might expect then, that a one-string bass must sound even better.
My first impression is that the top string does sound a little bit rounder and fuller by itself than when it's part of a 4- or 5- string setup, but the difference isn't really dramatic. It may even have more to do with the string's geographical position on the bass. An interesting sound experiment would be to have a normal bass strung with 4 or 5 same strings and to see whether the string's position affects its sound.
In fact something similar happened a few years ago when we had to play a contemporary piece (Was it Ligeti ?) in which all string instruments were strung this way, only with quarter-tone variations between the respective strings. But at that time i never really paid attention to possible sound differences between the respective strings.
On Patrick's B21, the tailpiece is attached to a protruding fixing point (the "anchor") which, with a simple Allen wrench, can be adjusted in length. For the Una Corda i screw it inward to its shortest length. For 5-string use, i make it longer. This changes the strings' angle at the bridge and thus the pressure on the soundboard.
The string length is 108 cm (i'm not a string length fetishist. I don't really care very much about string length and i don't really believe it matters much for playability unless you go to extremes. Anything roughly between 100 and 112 cm is fine for me. Playability depends much more on other factors than string length: the physical shape of the bass body (especially the width of the upper bout that touches your belly: when the bouts are wide, it will feel as if the string length is longer), the neck width and thickness, string height at the bridge and nut, the degree of hollowness or camber of the fingerboard, the tension and the smoothness of the strings themselves, and especially how the strings respond to the bow.
When testing a bass you should never ask what its string length is, because this unnecessary information will cause a "Pavlov's Dog" kind of psychological reaction in your mind. Same thing with makers' names, for bows and instruments. Knowing the provenance of an instrument will heavily and irreparably influence your assessment of its playing qualities).
At this moment i have an Evah Pirazzi "light" G (tuned to Ab), because that's the first string i grabbed. I'll test a few others, including gut and synthetic strings. Leaning toward a bright red nylon one that i found in my box of tested and used strings...).
I nearly always tune to 415 Hz (and very exceptionally to 440), also for Viennese Tuning. The 430 Hz for the Classical period is, in my modest opinion, a nonsense tuning that has little or no historical justification, and that only complicates life for musicians. But hey, if you like a complicated life, who am i to stop you?
The bow that seems to go well with the whole Paganini- idea is a very short Dragonetti-style stick that Jérôme Gastaldo made recently. He copied it from a bow that's in the Brussels Musical Instrument Museum. As has happened to me before, when i first saw and held it, in his workshop, i had serious misgivings about its playing qualities: too short, too light, too highly arched. But i'm always willing to try new things. Verdict: a fabulous bow... Made from flamed ash, with a clip-in frog, this bow is very articulate and controllable. One quickly gets used to its very short playing length. Truly inspiring.
It's great to be able to work with modern makers such as Patrick and Jérôme, who are open-minded and daring, and who actively seek to build bridges towards musicians. They have the historical perspective that goes with their art and craft, and the willingness to develop new ideas.
Next idea: a gut-string D-Violone neck (6 strings) for the B21... Come and see next week (well, maybe next year).
Her's a video of the first run-through of Paganini (in our own arrangement) on the freshly unpacked B21 One-String neck:
After more than a month on the huge Krattenmacher 5-String Viennese Violone and on my big 5-string orchestra bass, switching to the Charton "Una Corda" was quite a dramatic change, and really exhilarating. They're very different animals. The Dragonetti-style bow, made by Jérôme Gastaldo, proved indeed to be the perfect companion to the instrument. A match made in heaven.
As i get used to the special ergonomics of the bass, i'll probably use it in other pieces as well. Some of the Japanese music in our Duo repertoire, for starters. But first i'll clean out the few cobwebs in the Paganini...
To see and hear the cobwebs :-)
(This recording was made just a couple of days before my cancer operation. I'm a lot thinner now...)
To see and hear the cobwebs :-)
(This recording was made just a couple of days before my cancer operation. I'm a lot thinner now...)
16. New Projects
- Codex Lupensis - K. Danse
This piece, composed by Giuseppe Lupis for our Duo Sweet 17, will be the source of inspiration for a new project. Not only will we record it in five different forms and shapes, starting with the original MIDI-file and ending with a heavy Blues version, but we're currently also preparing a live staging of the piece in its different incarnations. We will collaborate with a Moroccan speaker who will recite texts and poems (Kahlil Gibran, amongst others), an Arab percussionist, video, blues musicians, and dance. Since Giuseppe wrote a cadenza (which we usually replace by our own cadenzas that vary from one concert to the next), we want to use this cadenza "space" for a different kind of free expression. Since our dancer's name starts with a K, we call it (in french): "K. Danse" or in english: "K. dances". "K. Danse" is pronounced exactly like "Cadence" in French, so the word suddenly takes on two meanings.
Getting geared up for the recording of the 4 Suites for Solo Double Bass by Belgian composer Jacques Vanherenthals. Starting with numbers 3 and 4, the 3rd one in Viennese Tuning (with a low F#, for once), gut strings and frets. Number 4 in "regular" tuning (well, almost. The 4th string is tuned to low D), again with gut strings and frets. Mindblowing music...
- Master Class Lugano
A great experience to teach Maestro Enrico Fagone's wonderful students, and to play next to him with the Lugano Orchestra. Enrico is one of those natural musicians who play french bow as well as german, and who prove that true musicianship has nothing to do with playing "schools" of any kind. His students come from all over the world, and as usual i learned more from them than they did from me. How lucky can you be?
|Enrico's class - or part of it. I was privileged to meet Davide Botto (2nd from the left), principal bass of the Torino Philharmonic and teacher at Torino's "Giuseppe Verdi" conservatory. A great musician who became a true friend.|
15. Japan Tour III report
14. Program Japan Tour III
Here is the list of pieces we're preparing for our Japan Tour in February 2015. From Baroque to Contemporary, and lots of Japanese music...
G.B. Borghi: Sonata, part I
Suite "Ghibli" (film music)
F. Kreisler: Schön Rosmarin
Suite "Super Mario" (game music)
N. Paganini: Moses-Variations
Suite "Mo iikai"
G. Bottesini: Elegie
J. Vanherenthals: 3rd Suite for Solo Bass
Hamabe no Uta
H.G. Casadesus: Symphonie Concertante, part II
G. Lupis: Codex Lupensis
13. Sperger Trio New CD
Our good friend Frank Wittich sent us the new CD of his "Sperger Trio". We met Frank at the 2012 Kopenhagen BassEurope Convention and we hit it off right away. Frank is one of those crazy bass players who plays in Viennese Tuning, on a real old Viennese Bass, and of course with gut strings and frets.
The Sperger Trio consists of Frank Wittich (Viennese Bass), Johanna Weighart (Viola and... Viola d'Amore), and Verena (what a lovely name) Kronseder (Viola da Gamba). The CD contains music by Joseph Haydn (three Divertimenti), Andreas Lidl and of course Johann Matthias Sperger.
When the recording arrived, the first thing we wanted to hear was the Sperger Duetto that i recorded a few years ago with Haruko (probably the first recording ever of the piece in Viennese Tuning, with gut strings, frets, and period bow, played from the manuscript - and especially the first time it had been played and recorded in a combination of Viennese Bass and Viola d'Amore). We were just too curious to hear how Frank and Johanna had interpreted the work, with the same instruments.
The next day i took the time to listen to the entire CD.
Let me say it right away: i was blown away. This is one of those all too rare recordings where the playing is so engaging, the choice of repertoire so clever, the sound quality so alive, that you want to listen to it again from the start as soon as the CD is finished.
The combination of Viennese Violone and Viola d'Amore is really very special, as we've known for a few years now. We're glad and honoured that others have followed our example in this respect. But what makes this CD even more special is the inclusion of the Viola da Gamba: what a splendid richness of timbre! All three instruments share that silvery sound quality. Whatever the original instrumentations required by the composers, this combination sounds so "right" that i'm sure Haydn, Lidl and Sperger would have been very happy indeed to hear it.
The playing of all three musicians is of the highest standard. Sensitive, passionate when the music calls for it, wonderful ensemble playing, soloistic qualities of timbre and narration when each of the instruments in turn has to step forward, and this unexplainable feel of a whole that is so much more than the sum of its parts.
The gamut of colours, articulations and dynamics is much wider than what one could reasonably expect from an "ancient music"-trio. All players are clearly experienced musicians, as they change effortlessly from accompaniment to solo passages. The bass sings beautifully with that inimitable gut-string "zing", and i was particularly impressed with the way Frank digs in when he has the "real" bass parts. The very last selection on the CD, the Finale of a Haydn Divertimento, packs more punch than the collected recordings of AC/DC. (I'm not really surprised, because i know that Frank has recently gone back to playing rock on an electric bass - as every serious musician should). Papa Haydn rocks like the best.
I rarely get excited about bass records anymore (must be old age), but about this CD i can only say: BUY IT!
12. CD Cover "Mo iikai"
11. CD "Mo iikai" Cover Photos
We had a photo shoot for the cover of our new CD. Hannes D'Haese's tapestry "Happy Life" seemed ideal as the backdrop for the instruments he painted. We'll send the pictures to Japan and let the people there, who produce the discs, decide which photo they like best.
And here they are at last: the finished instruments.
Pierre van Engeland, our luthier, took it upon him to re-assemble the painted instruments. Our fears turned out to be unfounded: they sound even better than before.
The Viola d'Amore has clearly improved in tone color and volume. Pierre's explanation is that the instrument was built a bit too lightly in the first place, and that the layer of paint added just that extra little bit of mass to make it sound right.
The painted fingerboard on the bass actually feels very nice to the touch. Originally we had asked Hannes D'Haese, the painter, to tape off both fingerboards prior to painting the instruments, but he forgot. As it turns out, they look fantastic with their take-no-prisoners, no compromise spray jobs. And they feel very comfortable.
A couple of days later, my daugher Viola (in spite of her name, she's a bass player as well) came to take the pictures that will be used for our upcoming "Mo Iikai"- CD. We selected a handful, and we'll let the people in Japan (who are producing the CD's) decide which one they like best. The carpet in the background is another one of Hannes D'Haese's creations. I bought some second-hand clothes at "Les Petits Riens" for the occasion. I like the idea of giving a second life to things. The bass itself was owned by a jazz player before i bought it. Talk about a second life...
For our Japan Tour in January and February 2015 we've decided to take the Eminence EUB with its detachable neck. This will make transport even easier than with my beloved Charton "Bassepartout". But since "Building Bridges" is what we're after, we asked an artist to paint the instrument: a bridge between the pictorial and the musical arts. One of Haruko's Viole d'Amore will be painted as well. Artist Hannes D'Haese is putting the finishing touches on the instruments right now. He is one of the most interesting painters and sculptors of our time. Besides being my brother.
The idea for this project came about after a few meetings and conversations on a wide range of topics, during which we discovered that our artistic ideas were remarkably similar. We share a common ideal of trying to make the world a better place through the art we create. How naive can you be?
The classical music world being what it is, not very much is happening in the way of connecting the arts of music performance and painting. Of course there are countless paintings of musicians and of musical instruments. In ancient times, some very expensive instruments made for the nobility or for royalty were painted or elaborately decorated. But i guess most classical musicians will be abhorred by what we're doing here. Which is a great part of the pleasure :-)
Pop and rock music have a long tradition of combining the musical with the visual. Of course there's the argument of sound quality. The idea of covering an expensive classical string instrument in paint instead of some secret-formula varnish with mythical sound-improving qualities is anathema to most classical players.
|George Harrison's Stratocaster|
We don't care. If our painted instruments can help us get closer to our audiences, if we can combine two types of art into one single performance, it's worth the risk. The instruments will be slightly amplified anyway, which also gives us a chance to experiment with sound manipulation and enhancement.
Pierre van Engeland, our luthier, took away the original varnish on both instruments. Then we took some photos of the naked beauties on the background of one of D'Haese's beautiful carpets, and we left them in the hands of the artist. We didn't offer any suggestions as to the actual painting, but we pointed out the places where the layer of paint had to be smooth, such as the bridge area.
That being done, the ground-layers were spray-painted at the workshop, and then Hannes could enjoy his artistic "carte blanche" and do his thing.
|Ferrari-red and Ferrari-yellow... Unexpected and gripping.|
|"Family Portrait With Artist and Pig"|
Watch this space for updates on the finished instruments...
9. NEW OLD MUSIC:
The 3rd Solo Suite by Jacques Vanherenthals
This week i resumed work on the 3rd Suite for Solo Double Bass by Belgian composer Jacques Vanherenthals. Last month i played the World Premiere of his 4th Suite. The idea is to record all four Suites in 2015.
|The difficulties in the Suites appear to be hair-raising...|
But the music is worth the effort.
These pieces are very dear to me. They're all in a baroque style with Preludes, Gavottes, Bourrées and other Sarabandes (although in number 4 Jacques threw in a Tango), and the great thing is that the music doesn't especially favor the stratospheric, rosin-ridden, hysterically-inclined upper register of the instrument. The whole bass range is solicited from high to low, with Suite 4 even requiring the E-string to be permanently tuned to low D.
All of the Suites were composed for regular orchestra tuning. But when the idea of a CD recording came up, i figured that some variety in sound might help to avoid producing yet another tedious bass recording. My personal preference is for short CD's not exceeding 45 minutes in duration, but this is an "outside" project for an integral recording of the 4 Suites, and it's not my call to decide on the playing length (i would rather have made it a double CD, each containing two Suites). There being no accompaniment whatsoever, we'd better try and find ways to make this CD a pleasure to listen to instead of a punishment. That's why i thought of playing each Suite on a different bass, or even in a different tuning.
Of course, it can be difficult or even downright impossible to transcribe music that was meant for a specific tuning, to a completely different set-up. Sometimes there are passages in harmonics, or double stops that can only be played as written in the original tuning.
But Jacques was very enthusiastic about the general idea. Being a retired virtuoso bass player himself, he can see the need for different sound colors and characters.
The easiest ones to decide were the 3rd and 4th Suites. The 4th "Tango" - Suite had to be in its original tuning: D-A-D-G. It also sounds best on a modern bass with steel strings because the Tango needs some really passionate playing. Still, for the Première i tuned the bass to 415 Hz (a semi-tone below modern concert pitch). Within the context of the concert (which included works by Bach, Ariosti and Handel, all played on ancient instruments) this sounded a lot better.
For the 3rd Suite however, i chose Viennese Tuning. This Suite is originally in G Major, but in Viennese Tuning it will sound in A Major. I'll play the few passages that are originally written in harmonics with pressed-down notes, but on the other hand the open tuning will enable me to achieve a very silvery, ethereal sound in numerous other passages.
I feel like i'm stretching the concept of Viennese Tuning in this piece, like i've constantly been doing for the last few years: there is no reason Viennese Tuning should be confined to the 18th century works that were specifically composed for it. Indeed, many later (and earlier) pieces are not only playable in Viennese Tuning but they sound better, more colorful, more resonant. At the very least, Viennese Tuning provides an alternative that can be very inspiring.
This is due in great part to the thwarting of expectations. We're so used to hearing the specific character of an instrument that we don't realize that much of the musical and emotional content of a performance is intrinsically linked to the instrument's technical properties. The "strong" and "weak" points of the bass are so ingrained in our subconscious that we bass players don't even notice them anymore (unfortunately, other musicians and non-musicians often do...)
It's in transcriptions from one instrument to another that one most clearly feels that something is missing: there is the difference in sound character and sometimes there's a transposition to a different tonality with a different mood, but there is more to it:
- open strings on one instrument don't necessarily match those on another. When transcribing from Cello (C-G-D-A) to Bass in solo Tuning (F#-B-E-A), only the top string is the same, and it's an octave lower.
- every instrument has "regions" where it sounds better than in others. These regions rarely coincide between different instruments.
These are some of the reasons why i can't seem to enjoy most double bass transcriptions of well-known pieces from the violin or cello repertoire: the originals are perfectly suited to their original mediums and they use the instrument's strong points and best-sounding registers to great effect. Playing Bach's cello suites on a double bass at the original pitch may be an endeavor of olympic merit, but it usually sounds less than convincing compared to the cello version. Taking the music out of its physical "comfort zone" doesn't do it much good: instead of the cello's natural and comfortably sounding medium register, bass players use thumb position in a misguided attempt to stick to the original pitch.
The result is a sound color that can't remotely hope to compete with the original, not only because the bass will sound strained up there (just like a cello or violin sound strained in their uppermost registers, due to the fact that one is playing in the extremely short end part of the string. Interesting as an effect, but not for great lengths of time) but also because, even with the best "chops", it will sound as technically difficult as it is. The result may amaze the listeners, but it will rarely make them feel comfortable. Sometimes these acrobatics have an (un-) intended comical effect. When intended, it's nice to even exaggerate this alienation (the first example that comes to mind are the "Paganini Variations" that completely seem to miss the point when they're taken seriously on a double bass).
Contrary to the easier playing positions in the medium range, where one can play in a very relaxed style if one wishes to do so (and, more importantly, when the music demands it) with the right blend of air and sound in every note and phrase, the higher positions automatically seem to trigger a more "hormonal" playing style with adrenalin (or testosterone) levels going beyond what is musically called for. This doesn't mean that one can't play very beautifully and expressively in the highest positions, in music that was conceived for this specific mode of expression. But the sound color and our playing style in the "trapeze" region rarely match the poised and self-sufficient musicality of the original instrument. Even if we want to, it's quite hard to breathe a healthy dose of airiness into very high notes on the bass - except for harmonics.
Speaking of "comfort zones": in Viennese Tuning, thumb positions ARE more of a comfort zone than on a modern bass. At least as long as you stay in the "comfort tonalities" that give you easy access to the open strings and harmonics. But even outside of these tonalities, the tuning of the top three strings in thirds can greatly simplify some usually awkward fingering problems, thereby taking away some of the audible technical strain that the modern tuning produces.
In the (modern as well as period) orchestra i often use Gamba-Tuning for classical works (Mozart's symphonies and opera's for instance): D-G-C-E-A (like a bass gamba without the top string). It's fascinating to see not only how this tuning can (just like Viennese Tuning) make some of those infamous "audition excerpts" a lot easier, but also how different this sounds from the regular bass. In the Don Giovanni we're currently playing, when i have open strings, my colleague plays stopped notes and vice versa. Even when we both play stopped notes, we have to adjust (i have great colleagues who are willing to go along with me. They realize it makes the section sound better. Or maybe they just humor me. Either way they're great guys). On a regular bass for instance, in Half Position, the first finger will have a tendency to be slightly sharp. In gamba-tuning the same note will be played elsewhere, and could have a slightly different pitch. An open D-string will usually sound powerful and, well... open. I will play the D as a closed note. My C can be an open string, so the other player's C must match mine. An open G in regular tuning must be played more carefully. There are many of these idiosyncrasies on any given instrument. All these little things are what "makes" the specific sound that we are familiar with.
Changing tunings comes with a new set of characteristics that we don't know as well as the tuning we use all the time. That means that a different tuning will not only give a different sound by the simple fact that the strings are tuned differently, but it will also be different because it will present different strong and weak points, and the player will adjust his playing to these. It will guide the sensitive player towards the regions and the techniques that sound best within the given tuning. And in the end, the tunings will sound quite different: our expectations of what the bass "should" normally sound like are not entirely met.
This becomes obvious when playing some pieces of the standard repertoire in a different tuning. Bottesini's "Elégie" is played by just about every bass player in the world, and apart from personal interpretation all versions will sound remarkably similar from a technical viewpoint. Play it in Viennese Tuning, and you're in for some (subtle) surprises.
|In this "Guide des Instruments de Musique" |
there's a recording of Bottesini's "Elégie"
in Viennese Tuning, gut strings, no frets.
Hardly historically accurate, but interesting
(Outhere Music RIC 103)
Back to the Suites then.
In Jacques' 3rd Suite, i tune the 5th string to F#. Usually i tune it to a low D, but the F# enables me to use harmonics in the lowest register. Although i do have a low F# string that Nicholas Baldock made me (for gut-string Solo Tuning), i decided to try a Thomastik Spirocore. Spirocores can be surprisingly similar to gut strings in sound, especially when they're tuned down in pitch. Since i'm playing at 415 Hz, that's the case here. So far it does sound OK. I'll compare it to gut later on. Also, at the moment my low A string is silver-wound gut but i greatly prefer a plain gut string there so i'll change that as well.
I had to find fingering and bowing solutions that went beyond the traditional Viennese Tuning vocabulary, but the resulting sound is more than worth the effort.
On our upcoming Japan Tour in January-February 2015 i'll play some excerpts of the 3rd Suite (with my Duo i play everything in Viennese Tuning, from baroque to contemporary music). The Prelude is out of the question because i need the 5th string all the time, and my Eminence EUB is a four-string instrument. But the other five dances are all possible on the four-stringer (except for an isolated bass note here and there, that i can take up an octave without great detriment to the music).
The First and Second Suites are in the works as well. For the time being i'm studying them as written, on a modern bass, although i've tried the 2nd Suite on the 7-string Violone. Might work... But even if in the end i'm obliged to stick to the original tuning, i'm sure to try and find interesting sound colors by using gut vs. steel strings, frets vs. no frets, 415 Hz vs. 440 Hz, etc. Each Suite should be a world in itself, a new and different sound experience, a different expression and emotion. The thing is not only to find variety for its own sake, but to find the "voice" that best suits the work and its story, its emotional content.
|The 7-string Violone d'Amore|
I feel sure that these Suites will become standards in our bass repertoire. The 4th Suite has proved to be an outstanding piece of music, technically demanding but emotionally deeply fulfilling. The 3d Suite that i'm preparing now has a very different atmosphere, closer to real Ancient Music (probably also due to the Viennese Tuning, frets and gut strings).
Updates on this Viennese Tuning Suite, with excerpts, will be added as time permits.
8. NEW CD "Mo iikai"
So we've just had five days of hard work in the studio, recording and editing music by Borghi, Sperger, Kreisler, Suites of Japanese children's songs and "Hamabe no Uta".
All on our trademark Viennese Bass and Viola d'Amore, of course.
We limited the playing length of the CD to around 35 minutes. I don't believe the value of a CD (or a concert, for that matter, or a book or a film) should be measured in minutes for your bucks. I prefer my CD's short and sweet. Most commercially available CD's are just too long, both in pop and in classical music. Even re-issues of old LP's now have "bonus tracks" that usually only spoil the listening experience. Wouldn't it be nice to have CD's you have to flip over, like the old vinyl recordings? Two halves, each with its own atmosphere. Some rock artists were brilliant at infusing each side of their records with its own specific magic. (One example that comes to mind is Stephen Stills' fantastic "Manassas" double-LP. Four distinct musical worlds).
It's not about quantity (someone should have told Wagner that simple truth).
It's not about quantity (someone should have told Wagner that simple truth).
7. MADE IN ASIA 2014
On Sept.13th we played at the "Made in Asia" Fair at Namur, Belgium. Thousands of people turned up for two days of Manga and Videogame craziness. Countless Cosplay figures, geeks and nerds of all ages, came to celebrate this "Retro" fair that centered around prehistoric games and cult Anime figures from the 80's.
Our concert program contained some of the great tunes from that era, re-arranged for our Ancient Instruments. How fitting: the music from the 80's games and cartoons is indeed considered by the afficionados as a sort of "Ancient Music". Everything is relative.
The stage was very big and there was a sound system to match, thousands of Watts each side. Unfortunately not much monitoring volume on stage. All we could hear was a ground-shaking bass "whoom" without any definition, coming from the array of front speakers. It reminded me of the experience the Beatles had in those huge stadiums, where they couldn't hear themselves playing at all. We had the full rock experience with blinding spotlights that made it almost impossible to see the notes. Good thing we know most of our repertoire by heart.
Apart from that, it felt really good to be on a "rock" kind of stage again, after more than thirty years in classical music...
The audience loved it. All those fierce-looking creatures and monsters wielding scary axes and machine guns, were seated nicely in front of the stage like the good kids they probably are, and applauded warmly every time they recognized one of the tunes. We also threw in some Baroque, which they really loved, and we ended with the Paganini Variations, which contained a couple of Anime tunes as well, for the occasion. Paganini would have liked that. He did the same sort of thing in his concerts, imitating farm animals on his violin, or couples making love. Mmm, maybe we could try that next time...
6. BASS AMSTERDAM 2014
Our concert on the 25th was a bit of a hit-and-run affair. Since we were expected at Brussels' Monnaie opera on tuesday morning for the first rehearsal of the new season (Daphne, by Richard Strauss), we didn't have time to stay and chat. Just a couple of pictures, and a visit to the stands of Stefan Krattenmacher and Patrick Charton, and a short try-out of Oskar Kappelmeyer's fabulous new 5-string Viennese Bass as well as a few other nice instruments.
Oskar attended our concert, as did Maggie Urquhart and Robert Franenberg, Kristin Korb, Bret Simner, Barry Green, and a host of other wonderful colleagues. Some young people too, bass students from Venezuela and Ecuador (Ruben and Yussef. Hi guys, it was so nice to meet you!)
All those who had been utterly shocked before the concert by the sight of the Eminence Electric Viennese Bass in an Ancient Music setting, had to admit it didn't sound all that bad after all... Q.E.D.
|With Barry Green, one of my heroes |
when i was 35 years younger.
A great inspiration and a very nice person.
|Robert Franenberg, a very nice |
Viennese Tuning colleague.
Ruben Dario Rodriguez,
great young talent...
5. NEW CD
We'll soon start recording a new CD for the Japanese market. The idea is to mix Japanese with European music, the way we do when we go on tour there. The actual recording will be done here in Belgium, the pressing, artwork and production will be done in Japan by people in the charity movement. All profits will go to charity. The CD should be ready for our next Japan tour, early in 2015.
4. BASS AMSTERDAM 2014 CONVENTION
Duo Sweet 17 will play on Monday 25 August, at 14h, in the Almere Theatre. This is the Ancient Music Day of the International BassEurope Convention, that takes place from 23 till 29 August.
We'll play music by Borghi, Sperger, Vanhal, and Lupis, and we'll try to give a new twist to the idea of "Ancient Music" by using the E.V.B.
3. IN SEARCH OF EMINENCE
Viennese Tuning: The Next Generation
On Saturday 9th August, Duo Sweet 17 played a charity concert for japanese tsunami-orphans. On the program: music from Video Games and japanese Anime. Super Mario, Ponyo, Naruto, Sailor Moon and more, plus some Sperger and Borghi.
This was our first concert with the newly acquired Eminence EUB. I bought it second-hand. It's got a detachable neck for easy transport. I took it to Pierre van Engeland (the maker of our Violone, Gamba, and Viola d'Amore) who fretted the neck with gut frets, and who sanded down the overhanging edges of the sound board on the bass shoulder. In thumb position the edges cut into my wrist, which was very uncomfortable. I found some old gut strings for Viennese Tuning (i always keep old strings as spares), i connected the bass to a small powered Yamaha P.A. speaker, et voilà: the first Electric Viennese Bass (EVB) was born :-)
With all the touring we do, i'm always looking for transport solutions. My Patrick Charton B21 "Basse-Partout", a splendid instrument, accompanies me on all our international travels. But sometimes even this travel bass is too big.
The Eminence is still an experiment. So far, it seems to work just fine. I used a 50 Euro bow, old strings and a small amp. Total cost including the bass and its travel case: under 2.000 Euros.
The next day, on sunday morning, we played at the Brussels Protestant Church. Unfortunately i had left the small "belly support" thing (that keeps the bass at the right distance from the player's body) behind at yesterday's concert, so i was a bit uncomfortable playing the bass without it. Its body is really tiny. A lesson learned: i think i'll get a second support that i'll always keep in the bass case.
I'll experiment some more with strings, pick-ups, pre-amps and amps in the coming weeks and months. Not much is needed, volume-wise. The bass doesn't have to be louder than a normal acoustic double bass.
I have no idea where this will lead us, but it seems quite promising. Although it certainly can't hope to compete with a real bass, the sound is better than expected. And it's an artistic challenge to try and make people forget about the instrument after a short while, and to make sure the music itself takes first place.
Since we're exploring more and more other musical territories, such as film music, folk, pop and rock, we might also start working with sound effects, loop stations and other such gadgets.
Right now the thing i miss most is my low D-string. But the Eminence exists in a 5-string version as well, so who knows?
2. CASADESUS SYMPHONIE CONCERTANTE
January 25th, 2015, Eglise des Minimes, Brussels:
Duo Sweet 17 will play the Symphonie Concertante, composed by Henri-Gustave Casadesus early in the 20th century.
Orchestre des Minimes, conducted by composer Jacques van Herenthals.
1. JAPAN TOUR 2015
Just booked the tickets for our 2015 Japan Tour, January/February 2015. Going back to Fukushima, Saitama, and a few new locations. Our program: Japanese music, a new arrangement of Casadesus' Symphonie Concertante, Viennese Classical music...