Discount this as predictable partisanship if you like, but it seems as if the double bass is coming into its own as the instrument par excellence for solo performance. Whether used for improvisation or the realization of compositions, played prepared or unprepared, modified by electronics or plain, the double bass is a large presence in recent new music releases. Two new CDs focusing on solo double bass show how expressively and technically versatile the instrument is.
At 35 minutes long, Sean Ali’s debut solo recording, My Tongue Crumbles After, is a succinct portrait of the artist. Ali is a New York City based musician who, playing in tandem with double bassist Pascal Niggenkemper, has taken prepared double bass into extreme territory. On this recording of improvised music he employs preparations as well as tape collages using recordings of the spoken word as their source material. On each of the pieces, Ali teases out the implications of a single or related set of sonically well-defined gestures and techniques. His use of preparations allows him to distort the instrument’s native sound while maintaining enough of its natural profile—through the recognizable actions of bow and fingers—that it still makes itself known as a double bass. This is as true of pieces like Heartstack and Fingerdeep, rooted in a pizzicato technique that links them directly to a more conventional double bass sound, as it is of a track like Salutations, which largely takes place in unpitched territory, or Lime Works, the industrial sounds of which seem far removed from the wooden acoustic instrument that produced them.
Like My Tongue Crumbles After, Origami Cosmos, the second solo recording by James Ilgenfritz—another New York double bassist—focuses on pieces built around the performer’s repertoire of sounds and techniques. In this case, though, the pieces were written by others–four New York composers, who collaborated with Ilgenfritz in order to translate his sound into their own compositional languages. Often the vocabulary is his, and the syntax theirs. Annie Gosfield’s Rolling Sevens and Dreaming Elevens arranges Ilgenfritz’s bowed and plucked harmonics and multiphonics into distinctively formed phrases following regularly structured rhythmic cycles. Rhythm is an unexpected element in Miya Masaoka’s Four Moons of Pluto, a microtonal drone piece whose long bowing patterns implicate a recurring, if variable, pulse. JG Thirwell’s Xigliox leverages multiple stops, open strings, and call-and-response phrases across registers to make Ilgenfritz’s single instrument sound like a choir; this piece in particular brings out Ilgenfritz’s robust tone and vocal-like vibrato. The polyphony woven into Xigliox is developed to an extreme degree in the closing piece, Elliott Sharp’s Alethia for prepared bass. This etude for constant pitch and constantly changing timbres multiplies musical and non-musical sounds simultaneously and represents Ilgenfritz’s most radical performance of the set.
Both recordings are highly recommended.
Barcelona’s Alex Reviriego is a powerful young double bassist with an impressive command of advanced technique and an exploratory attitude toward the timbral possibilities inherent in his instrument. His solo release, Els gats gordos també tenen problemes, draws on these techniques as well as on a complement of preparations to produce a sound that–first impressions to the contrary—relies on no overdubs or electronic enhancements of the bass’s natural voice.
The sonic complexity Reviriego is able to summon is evidenced from the very first track. Setting up a contrast between brighter and more muted colors, Reviriego plucks dark arpeggios from prepared strings while simultaneously playing a harsh, scraping arco. This solo polyphony is a hallmark of his playing, which often has him plucking or hammering the strings with his left hand while drawing the bow with his right. Even in the absence of preparations Reviriego’s technical range facilitates access to an expanded palette of tone colors and textures bracketed, as on the track TCCPFP, between a dark, often rough arco in the lower register on the one side and stridently shimmering harmonics on the other. Some of the tracks explore a more limited technical or sonic field: Medusas errants, for example, is like an etude in pressure bowing on prepared strings. But all is not a matter of aggressive attack and extended technique here; Reviriergo also shows a gentler side on Canço Pop, whose pensive melodicism is carried on a simple and straightforward pizzicato.
Sandro Sciarratta’s (mostly) solo CD Pietra reflects the diverse interests that have been part of the Sicilian double bassist’s work since the 1980s. Moving from jazz in the 1970s to improvisation and electronic exploration in the following decades, Sciarratta followed an increasingly experimental route, the essential elements of which are documented in this set of ten pieces for prepared double bass, electronics, tape and object, composed between 1997 and 2013.
The recording was inspired by the rough, igneous rock—the “pietra” of the title—so common to the Sicilian landscape. And there is a parallel between the textured, irregular surfaces of the rock and the almost tactile quality of the sound Sciarratta derives from his instrument—supplemented, as it often is, by an array of miscellaneous objects. His is a profoundly physical approach to the bass, a wrestling against the resistance of the real as this latter is embodied in wood and steel. Sciarratta’s playing is rooted in a robust, muscular pizzicato and an arco style that foregrounds the scrape latent in the meeting of bow and string. On Zubbia Sciarratta draws deep, bell-like tones from the bass; in many of the other pieces, including one dedicated to John Cage, the preparations add a layer of rattling and grinding miscellany to the underlying sound, which is then enhanced and often thickened by the electronics and backing recordings. Pietra 6 features Sciarratta’s brother Luca on live electronics while Pietra 5—itself a heavily electronically manipulated track–includes his frequent duet partner Filippo Portera on reeds.