|art.description.project||In this artistic work two double bass players and teachers, set out to play together in a duo with the quite seldom explored setting of two basses. We, Anders Jormin, professor of Improvisation and Double bass at Academy of Music and Drama at Gothenburg University, and Thomas Markusson, senior lecturer of Improvisation and Double Bass at the same academy, wanted to explore both the challenges and possibilities when trying to create what we aimed to be “full-scale music” with our two double basses- instruments otherwise considered as merely accompanying instruments in traditional musical settings and orchestrations. Our focus keywords where melody, interplay and improvisation. We also decided to play without amplification, to let our instruments convey their natural tone without interference of any electronics that color the sound. The project was premiered at Kulturhuset Skeppet in Gothenburg, Sweden in October. It was done in collaboration with the Swedish Radio SR, recorded by Åke Linton and broadcasted in national radio ,P2, a month later.
As an extra challenge we also set out to try to find and entice the sound qualities out of our two travel basses- both “foldable” and made with special solutions and compromises to make the instruments suitable and accepted on international flights. Both our instruments were newly built, created under our supervision by different violin makers and premiered this very performance. For ourselves it was an experiment to see if our new travel instruments could function and sound to a satisfactory level also in an acoustic chamber music recital.
As experienced bassists in many kinds of music and especially within the fields of contemporary improvised music, we knew very well the art of accompanying, providing the right notes, the leading gestures, choosing suitable register, creating a good sound and essential rhythms and phrasings in close interplay with other instruments and instrumentalists/ soloists. As a bassist, you learn to interact, create and collaborate in music with instruments having quite different characteristics than your own instrument; a piano, the drums, a flute or the voice, etc. Also when improvising in a jazz context as a soloist, you are accompanied by other instruments and sources of sounds. But how to do all this performing in duo with yet another double bass? This opens for some questions and considerations:
What is my role in the duo? Is it relevant to talk about taking different roles in a duo? Maybe this partly depends on the repertoire you choose and how you actually listen to and how you interpret music. We choose in this project to play songs; melodies with chord changes. A choice that, at least with the most natural approach, makes us divide our roles into one leading voice and an accompanying second line also taking the responsibility of providing a foundation in harmonic progressions and “groove”- meaning creating the playful improvisational fundament of rhythmic patterns and syncopations through the harmonic/ chordal development. Taking these two roles, we actually stay close to a jazz tradition developed over almost 100 years. A tradition we as individual artists otherwise sometimes try to challenge in a contemporary context, however in this particular project instead we embrace the same tradition with respect and gratefulness towards all great musicians that once inspired us. At the same time, within these given parameters, we also try to approach the music as in a spontaneous dialogue; with a playfulness and openness where we may surprise each other. Small side steps, imitations, even mistakes becoming an embraced part of the unpretentious “here and now”- music we wanted to share with our audience.
What register to use? The need of using the whole register of the bass becomes obvious in a duo every time you feel a need to create clarity for example in the definition of melody versus bass part. Likewise in the situation where the soloist somehow is given the front space while the accompanist maybe takes the supporting role. We worked actively with performing melodies in a high register, with harmonics or with the bow in order to get a difference in octaves, to gain aural separation in how we sound and thereby create clarity towards the bass line. Likewise, as responsible for the bass line, we would choose the lowest octaves more often than in for example a piano trio setting. As a conscious method for having the bowed melodies/ improvisations finding it´s space and register clearly “above” the bass lines/ comping pizzicato, we often use a flautando technique playing sul ponticello with a carefully controlled pressure that creates not only the note wished, but also underlines it´s higher octave sounding as natural harmonics. The double bass register is, in comparison with many other instruments, very low. By using this flautando technique combined with already playing with the left hand in the upper registers of our instrument, we manage to reach the register where we normally hear the clarinet, flute or female voice; the traditional and easily recognizable melody registers.
Not stepping on each other’s toes. As in a dialogue, when someone shares a message or a thought, we do not at the same time speak loudly and about something else. No; we listen, hum, comment, underline to make our partner even better find her/his words, with more ease developing her/ his thought. In the next moment, we realize we have ourselves an important thought on the subject to share- and we are given the “space” to do so. A constant and creative balancing of main and accompanying voices and of counterpoint stanzas so fundamental for modern jazz improvisation. Listening, leading. Following, changing direction. Parallel creativity. Adapting to what you sense that music itself needs from you. Being prepared for the unprepared and to feel and sense when you should add something and when you should take a step back to let the other voice speak and stand out.
How to deal with the similarities in sound using two double basses. The double bass has a very characteristic sound- so does, of course, most instruments. Two of the same instruments becomes two instruments sharing the very same characteristics. Should we embrace this fact and try to create a microcosmos where also small differences become noticeable- or should we try to consciously orchestrate different playing techniques and sound? Furthermore, our personal ways of approaching our instruments when it comes to basic technique, choice of strings, setup, etc is quite similar. Should one of us change “artistic identity”; change strings, setup for the bass and modulate his own aesthetics in order to underline obvious difference? We here choose to embrace the fact that we share many values when it comes to approaching our instrument. We choose to rather mirror each other´s playing than searching for constant contrast. We realized that in the same way as for example two female voices or two guitars can anyway create fascinating music, so could we. The music itself grows from the openness of the actual musical meeting, the ability to communicate through improvisation and the spontaneous creative process- it is less depending on the tools/instruments you are given.
How to create variation in a double bass duo setting. The immediate and easily described examples of creating variation in sound and instrumental approach would be having both musicians playing pizzicato, both playing arco, one playing pizzicato and one playing arco. One playing with normal technique, one playing using natural or artificial harmonics and, of course, both playing with harmonics. This can also be done in combinations of both pizzicato and arco. Using whistling flautando with the bow and the actual possibility of the performers using the double bass as a percussive instrument or additionally using their voice is other easily found starting points. Variation also involves actively working with dynamics as well as spacing of the music. There´s also other possible alternative techniques. Choosing a repertoire that in itself offer variation and at the same time embraces an over-all organic form or thematic connection. Having the duo here and there being replaced by solo bass pieces.
The choice of repertoire. Here we decided from the start that we wanted to play songs. Melodies and pieces we ourselves have a special relation to. This instead of, what could have been an alternative for us; free improvisation. The choice of presenting “Songs for the double bass” was a challenging condition and limitation we gave ourselves. We decided to play music by Stefan Forssén, a legendary Swedish jazz composer who we both over the years have played extensively with. His Om kärlek ej is performed on duo and his Och kanske är det natt was performed solo by Anders Jormin. Thomas Markusson presented an improvisation over yet another Forssén original, Livet e en gåta. We choose music by English pianist John Taylor, with whom Anders have had a long musical collaboration. Taylor´s Ambleside is a classic in contemporary jazz repertoire. As a result of Anders´ pedagogic projects in North Korea (DPRK) we performed Anders´ arrangement of a memorable song, the Red flower, from there. Yet another song , la Peregrinacion, by Argentinian composer Ariel Ramirez from his mass Navidad nuestra. A film score melody, from the old Roman Polanski movie Rosemary´s baby by polish pianist and composer Kristof Komeda was also included. Celeste, written by the great guitarist and composer Ralph Towner. Plus an original piece by Thomas, As it is, written for the occasion. This original piece was written with the Nordic melancholy as a starting point and with a sense of openness in mind. The melody is played using whistling flautando with the bow and the song moves between written and open parts. These compositions and a few more suggestions that fell out during our rehearsal process or because of simply having too much music to perform, where our choices. Beloved songs we both consider being music with strong and beautiful melodies, with challenging harmony and with emotional and soulful content.
Sharing an actual challenge with ease. We both embrace challenges as improvisers- at the same time, we always want to avoid the music to sound or seem tricky, or possibly impressive as in being a virtuoso show-off. We wanted the music to sound playful, as if executed with joyful ease, sounding unpretentious and being shared with warmth and humbleness. Somewhere along here also comes the acceptance of possible “mistakes”. Followed with a smile or a spontaneous reaction from your co-player this may add, between both musicians and audience, a sense of mutual presence and an awareness of the fact that the music is done here and now- in a live setting. IRL- in real life. Music shared embracing the unforeseeable improvisation and performed somehow without the limiting aims of searching full perfection- somehow inviting the listener to be part of the improvised process as it unfolds.
Intonation. As bassists, we have always to care about and consider intonation. Our fingerboard is long(!) and “filled with traps”. In many situations, we may collaborate with piano, guitar, vibraphone or other instruments with a fixed intonation. This serves, even if often unreflected, as a stabilizing element in many ensemble settings. Furthermore, our two double basses have a previously mentioned very low register. For the human ear to hear minimal differences in Hz oscillations in a low register is more difficult than hearing the same small discrepancies in a higher register. Therefore, we did have a challenge. Focus on impeccable intonation is anyway within reach by knowing what to play, as is the case in notated music. Improvising gives us yet another dimension of challenge; the music is invented as we play. How did we manage? The listener may hear for herself/himself..
We started well in advance before the actual concert by discussing what kind of repertoire we wanted to use; what kind of duo performance should this be? A long free improvisation would be both challenging and at the same time maybe “an easy way out”. Arrangements of classical music, of jazz standards or folk music- the choices were many. We quite quickly found out though, that we wanted to play favorite songs and melodies, no matter their origin. After lists of suggestions, we found challenging choices we both were looking forward to play in this duo setting. A song by Argentinian Ariel Ramirez, from his mass Navidad Nuestra, a classical and often performed song from the remote DPRK. A film theme by Polish jazz composer Kristof Komeda from Roman Polanski´s movie Rosemary´s baby. Two wonderful Swedish modern songs by Gothenburg icon Stefan Forssén, a legendary composition, Ambleside, by British pianist and composer John Taylor-, the elegant Celeste by American Ralph Towner and a few compositions of our own composed for this special occasion.
So, rehearsals were of course the next step. Between each rehearsal, we shaped the “head arrangements” and gave each other homework tasks. These tasks or arrangements could be, for example: “You play the head in the thumb position”. “I do an introduction on my own”. “We end in this way,” “Let´s play it slower than what is common”. “Let´s start without a definite agreement of how to reach the theme”. Etc, etc. Rehearsing for a concert is a very familiar and uncomplicated thing for us; we decide, prepare and we learn together what we feel is necessary for finding the tools for a fruitful improvisational approach. An artistic approach where the balance between the written music and presence of the moment is the center of our musical expression. From there on, it is also taking the responsibility of individual preparations that will finally color the music.
A final observation
Finally, another phenomena worth mentioning as a “sign of the times” surprised us: After the concert it took only a few hours, then the music and performance was available- filmed on FaceBook. How is this possible? Is FB controlling our every move and do they automatically make everything public?? The answer is maybe: Yes, but only indirectly.. In this particular case, someone in the audience had made a recording with their mobile phone- and simply put the music on internet, for sure with some highly praising positive words to it. As if those words erase the quite questionable act itself. Not asking the artists, in this case us two, if this is ok. To give yourself the right to share over internet everything you feel fascinating, to give yourself the right to publish on internet anything you feel was a great experience for yourself, has today obviously become a totally unreflected habit. What if the artist did not want this, what if he or she does not approve? What if the artist shared with the audience some new music not yet recorded or properly registered with STIM or similar Composer’s Rights Organizations? You can easily think of many reasons, both artistic and economic ones, why an artist would not like a particular concert to be shared worldwide over internet without any control from the artist´s point of view; not over sound quality, not over choices from repertoire, etc. Not asking for a permission is an act of theft, even when it´s done by an inspired listener with the best of intensions. The moment you present an artistic work by a professional artist on your own website, channel or similar, you do something that would be totally beyond imagination only 15 years ago. A criminal act, some artists say. We say; this is something that needs to be discussed in the artistic community, in universities, in academies, etc. It is, in many cases, an unreflected and bad habit embraced not only by a general audience, but also often by students to and fans of the same artists that due to this “digital behavior” lose control and ownership of their own art.
What can be learned from this artistic research and challenge?
-A double bass duo is a rewarding challenge.
-Careful choice of what repertoire to play makes a difference
-Both variation and unity may be embraced at the same time
-Orchestrating and arranging even within an improvisational context are fruitful tools
- Double bass duos should be heard more often…?!||en_US