It seems difficult to believe now, but there was a time not too long ago when solo double bass recordings were rare events. Things have changed considerably, though, and recordings for solo bassists playing music both composed and improvised have become plentiful—plentiful enough that it seems, at times, that there are almost too many to keep up with. But not too many tout court; as Mae West once said, too much of a good thing can be…wonderful.
Add to that number two new releases for solo double bass from Aaron Lumley and Kyle Motl. Lumley and Motl share some commonalities in that both are predominantly improvisers, and are active in fields that encompass varieties of rock as well as contemporary composed music. Both also structure their solo performances around extended techniques especially developed to draw out the widest range of sonorities from their instrument.
Lumley, originally from Canada and now resident in Amsterdam, was a late-comer to the double bass, only having begun playing it at age 25. On Doghouse Bass he plays a gut-stringed instrument tuned to fifths rather than the standard fourths, which gives the bass a rich resonance. Lumley’s solo performance, recorded in November of last year, is energetic and concerned with the creation of sound masses built up from the simultaneous sounding, whether bowed or plucked or both at once, of multiple strings. His playing here is always forward-moving, pushed ahead as much by tremolo bowing as by an aggressive pizzicato; he often balances an explosive lower register with the shrilling sounds of harmonics, multiphonics, and bowing close to the bridge. His is a raw, exuberant sound expressed in a highly personal vocabulary of limit-challenging techniques.
The three main tracks of Motl’s In Search of a Certain Bird were recorded in August 2019 in a dance studio in a bucolic setting in Vermont. The environment—the room’s acoustics as well as the sounds of the woods coming in through the open windows—appears to have been the main inspiration for the recording; to infer from Motl’s liner note, the recording appears to have been undertaken more or less spontaneously and to have embodied a kind of purposeful purposelessness. The fourth track, House of Apples, was recorded the following month at the Kimmel Harding Nelson Center for the Arts in Nebraska City. In contrast to Lumley’s perpetual motion, Motl tends to break his improvisations up into discrete gestures and themes differentiated, suite-like, with rests or drastic changes in dynamics. Motl can pivot from forte passages to pianissimo with an abruptness that heightens the dramatic effect of such a change; lay down liquid melodies distorted with extreme bow articulation and then fracture them with percussive strikes of bow and hand; punctuate more-or-less conventional pizzicato runs with exotic harp harmonics. Motl’s technical mastery of his instrument is stunning, but always in the service of elucidating a coherent musical logic.