StringSection Blog

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What a double bass adds to a string section….

Tuesday, January 29th, 2013

The double bass (or contrabass) is the lowest-pitched member of the string section, as well as being one of the tallest and bulkiest of all instruments (at over 6 feet in height). Occasionally, you may see a double bassist carting this enormous instrument, complete with stool, onto a train. If, as a child, you made the decision to play a smaller instrument like a flute or violin, you may feel a wave of relief at this sight. You may also ponder the many investments that double bassists have to make, such as an estate car, appointments with chiropractors and other back specialists, as well as having to arrive early to find a parking spot near the concert hall. . .

I’m a recent convert to the mellow and woody sound of a well-played double bass. It is something that really adds an extra dimension to a string orchestra. The range of the instrument is wide, with the upper two strings being within the compass of a cello (the strings are tuned in fourths, with a top G string, then a D, A and finally a bottom E string). It is often the lower range though, that makes the biggest difference to the sonority of a string orchestra, providing a weight and tonal anchor that completes the broad spectrum of sound. It is not always compatible within the confines of a rock or pop track though, as the bass guitar often inhabits the same territory. If you are looking for strings to complete an already full track, then maybe it is best to concentrate on the upper strings (violins and violas) to give that extra blanket of sound, or add a high counter melody. If however, you have a more orchestral sound in mind (with less percussion and guitars) then the double bass can really ‘fill out’ the sound brilliantly. There’s nothing like that low resonance to send a shiver down your spine (particularly when blended with other instruments in a similar range, like the contrabassoon or bass tuba).

In the twentieth century, the double bass came into its own right, as an essential member of the smaller jazz ensembles. In this capacity, the instrument is often played almost continuously to give a running bass line, in a similar way to the continuo player of baroque times. The jazz double bassist spends the majority of his or her time plucking the strings (pizzicato) and occasionally surprises the audience by bowing some passages of music. There is however, scope for double bass solos and many eminent virtuosos of the past (including the wonderfully named Bottesini and Dragonetti) have written concertos for the instrument.

The double bass is not the easiest of instruments to play, due to the large gaps between semitones. This makes the constant change of left hand position a necessity, and an adept player will have developed a very fluid left hand which facilitates this constant movement up and down the neck of the instrument.

The bowing technique of many bassists also differs from the rest of the string family. This is due to the two different designs of bow, one from Germany and the other from France. The German bow is the oldest and necessitates a hold with the palm of the right hand angled upwards (just like the hold of a viol player). The French bow more closely resembles the bows of cellos, violas and violins and is held with the palm facing towards the instrument. As in all walks of life, there are those who propound the virtues of one above the other to the extent of creating factions. Many a lively double bass discussion in a pub after a concert has revolved around these two ways of holding the bow (do you favour a pint or half a litre?)…However, most orchestral double bassists these days are adept enough to use both bows and proficient enough to render the advantages or disadvantages of one type over the other as rather miniscule!

A lot of players nowadays have an extension, which permits the playing of a low D (and sometimes even a low C) at the bottom of the range. Many twentieth century composers have exploited this bottom register, but it may be worth asking an individual session musician about this when scoring parts for the instrument and booking a player!

Learning vs. Feel, the Classical Dilemma (Part 2)

Monday, October 29th, 2012


To the mere mortal, all of this can appear daunting, like being at the base camp of Everest and looking up at the clouds. In order to play the violin properly, is it really necessary to wade through Carl Flesch’s entire ‘Scale System’, the various dry variations of Sevcik, before proceeding through Kreutzer and Dont to the pinnacle of Paganini’s celebrated ‘Caprices’? Well this is probably where the crux of it all lies, for Paganini performed such dazzling feats on the violin (much like Franz Liszt did on the piano a little later on), that to this day, each generation of violinists have sought to imitate him. It is inconceivable that a violinist can reach the top of their profession without performing at least a quantity of Paganini’s works. Like the repeated conquests of Mount Everest, Paganini’s trail became well trodden until there were legions of violinists who could surmount their perilous difficulties. Nowadays, you can’t consider yourself a true player until you have stuck a flagpole into the summit of at least half a dozen Caprices.

Very few artists escape unscathed from this legacy. The great violinists played with a panache and abandon that seemed allied to adventure and risk taking. But since the 1950s where sound recordings could be edited convincingly, our ears have become conditioned to a level of perfection which is both limiting and constricting to any musical individuality. The focus on an almost airbrushed level of technical perfection has ironed out the elements of rubato, glissando, excitement and the range of emotions which can conceivably be made on the violin. Listen to Milstein, Oistrakh and Perlman and we can use the phrases ‘impassioned’, ‘aristocratic’, ‘melancholy’, ‘exuberant’, ‘effervescent’ even (in the case of Perlman) ‘tongue-in-cheek’. Going back further to the early acoustic recordings of Eugene Ysaye, a whole myriad of different emotions are conjured up with an almost pantomime quality: pathos, reverie, nostalgia, aplomb, even recklessness! Listening to the current vintage of violinists like Kavakos, Hahn and Zimmerman I can be amazed at the immaculate polish of their playing and yet I struggle to find a single adjective that describes my emotional response to their playing. The only words that come to mind are ‘really good’, ‘amazingly good’ or ‘incredibly good’.

So, even over the last century, we can see the metamorphosis of the virtuoso violinist from the shadow of the gypsy to a sanitised yet anonymous standardization. The link between composer and performer has been entirely severed with performers being left as faithful interpreters of the great masters and yet (with some exceptions) unable to add a creative impetus to the mix. On the other hand, jazz, folk and rock musicians can get away with far more roughness and risk taking because the end result of their endeavours is to attain ‘feel’. Because (by and large) they are the creators of their own material, the public have come along to hear them perform it – the real McCoy, and the audience is capable of remaining transfixed, even if the real McCoy drops the odd note or sings slightly out of tune. Furthermore critics will generally be kind to them if they have their audience spellbound yet make a few mistakes along the way.

Classical performers at the top level should be encouraged to compose and to dedicate a good portion of their time to this pursuit. After all, they are generally immeasurable better musicians than many supposed ‘serious composers’, whose works rarely gain a second performance. With the bond between composer and performer strengthened, the realm of one can flow into the realm of the other. Instead of Paganini and Liszt being the perpetual barometer for virtuoso credentials, the artist as composer can become the elevating factor

Learning by ‘Feel’, vs the Classical Dilemma (Part One)

Monday, October 22nd, 2012

The proliferation of musical forms in the 20th century (from jazz, blues, bluegrass as well as the folk revival) has given us all an alternative perspective on musical virtuosity. We are now familiar with musicians who have accomplished a breathtaking level of technical accomplishment without the need for reading or writing musical notation. Nor are these players psychologically hampered by rigorous tuition which have involved years of repetitive study through scales of every description as well as a mind boggling array of technical exercises and studies which aim to cover the entire gamut of technique. These popular musicians have nonetheless dedicated a large portion of their lives to pursuing musical perfection, but have tended to use their inner ear as their ultimate tool in honing their craft. They seem to play with eyes shut, sculpting the music from their imagination with a sense of ‘feel’ as their guide. As such, they are remarkably similar to the gypsy musicians of the nineteenth century and early twentieth centuries who enthralled the likes of Franz Liszt with their effortless virtuosity and sumptuous turn of phrase. On hearing the famous Hungarian gypsy violinist Janos Bihari in 1822 Liszt wrote ‘His musical cascades fell in rainbow profusion, or glided along in a soft murmur…His performances must have distilled into my soul the essence of some generous and exhilarating wine…’ My violin teacher Kato Havas also remembers the gypsy musicians who frequented the streets and cafes of 1920s Hungary. She described her experiences by writing: ‘Anybody who has heard a real country gypsy plays the violin knows that the quality of his tone with its infinite haunting variety, his incredible rhythmic pulse, his almost devilish technical facility, rank him among the few top violinists in the world.’

If we contrast this with the tracts of violinistic pedagogy from Leopold Mozart to Carl Flesch, we see an effort to scientifically systematize this art into a cohesive and exhaustive approach, and in the case of Spohr’s Violin-Schule of 1832 we see a work which not only reflects the prevailing violin playing styles of the time but also gives us an insight into the regimented social attitudes of the day. This rigour is not necessarily confined to the nineteenth century: Ivan Galamian’s ‘Principles of Violin Playing and teaching’ (which is still a standard textbook for many conservatoires) reads like an encyclopedia of violin technique.

To be continued……