Like many double bassists working in the field of contemporary music, George Kokkinaris, a Greek bassist currently in Berlin, specializes in solo performances centered on the extraordinarily rich range of sounds, both conventional and otherwise, that the instrument can produce. And as New Solo Double Bass Works by Greek Composers demonstrates, Kokkinaris approaches this common endeavor with a voice that is recognizably his own.
New Solo Double Bass Works contains two pieces, one each from two contemporary Greek composers. The first is Study in Four Parts for Solo Double Bass (2019) by Niki Krasaki, herself a double bassist as well as a composer. The four studies are finely etched miniatures ranging in length from just over one minute to just under two-and-a-half minutes. Except for brief glissandi of harmonics at the end of the first part and beginning of the fourth part, as well as a short episode of sul ponticello bowing in the fourth part, the Study is built around lyrical motifs, some of which recur in variations at different points in the collective work, and conventional techniques. Much of the playing takes place in the lower registers, bringing out the gravitas of the instrument’s voice. It’s a well-chosen region for Kokkinaris, who has a robust low-register attack that dramatizes the grainy sound of the bow pulling across the strings.
The second piece is Alexis Porfiriadis’ Hush Little Baby for Speaking Contrabassist, also from 2019, the nearly twenty-minute length of which contrasts with the brevity of Krasaki’s suite of miniatures. Porfiriadis’ composition, an anguished commemoration of the deaths of children attempting to migrate to Europe, draws on Kokkinaris’ experience performing mixed media work involving acting and the spoken word. The score is organized around a set of extended techniques that come into play throughout the performance. This often-intense piece is as demanding to play as it is to hear; Kokkinaris’ realization is accomplished with the gestural rigor and emotional urgency that it requires.
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.
The primary focus of French double bassist Benoit Cancoin’s music is on the changeable qualities of sound as such. As with his previous solo work and his work with the extraordinary, free improvisational string quartet Quatuor BRAC, his two most recent recordings, one a solo and the other a duet with trumpeter Birgit Ulher, find him deeply immersed in the double bass’s palette of sounds.
In Orbital Solo Cancoin’s concentration is on transformations of sonority rather than changes of pitch. The latter he often holds constant or very nearly so, as when he brings out the subtle differences between the same note as played on different strings and different positions, or as played plucked, tapped and bowed. He’s especially adept at highlighting the different sets of overtones obtainable from the same note when one changes the position and weight of the bow as when, for example, he takes the open D string as an anchor and uses variations in bowing to coax a rich range of harmonics from it.
Orbital Solo is one long, unbroken performance in which the double bass is played organically–without amplification or augmentation by electronics or foreign objects. The title is a reference to Cancoin’s having rotated the instrument around the axis of its endpin while playing, in order to foreground the spatial aspects of the sound.
On Electric Green Cancoin partners with Birgit Ulher, another musician known for exploring the less ordinary side of her instrument’s sound capabilities. The album is marked by an understated, dynamically subtle expressionism communicated through an extended vocabulary of creaks, chattering, squeals, whooshes, and gurgles.
As I write this, double bassist Kyle Motl is on tour, playing contemporary compositions for solo double bass by the great Romanian Spectralists Iancu Dumitrescu and Horatiu Radulescu, among others. The works Motl has chosen to play are all conceptually and technically challenging pieces that extend the range of sounds the instrument can produce and correspondingly, the performance methods required to produce them. On Transmogrification, Motl’s new solo CD, the bassist plays his own music. But here, as in his touring repertoire, his playing is informed by his fluency in the language of contemporary performance practices, allowing him to take the instrument to the edge of its known world.
The fifteen tracks are sequenced to trace a narrative arc starting with the concrete, largely conventional Panjandrums for pizzicato bass and moving through increasing stages of abstraction. Although he uses advanced techniques and often prepares the bass with foreign objects, Motl’s choices are always intelligent and above all, musical, no matter how far the distance he takes the bass from a traditionally lyrical sound. He’s particularly good at drawing percussive effects from the instrument with fingers, hands and a tautly bouncing bow. On several tracks he modifies the bass with objects inserted between the strings in order to envelop the notes in a rattling, buzzing sound; on others, he elicits a fascinating world of quasi-electronic sounds simply with nuanced bow articulations.
All in all, Transmogrification is a fine addition to the large and still growing catalogue of recordings for solo double bass.
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.
With the introduction of metal strings in the 1950s, the double bass took on the modern sound it continues to have today. Because they’re able to lie close to the fingerboard, metal strings can afford fast movement; because of their composition and uniformity of size, they can produce a relatively bright, highly focused tone and respond predictably and quickly to bow and finger. And yet…The gut strings they replaced, while harder to maintain and more resistant to the hand and bow, had peculiarities of timbre and touch that, in some circumstances, could offer advantages. In the hands of a vigorous free improviser like Aaron Lumley, gut strings’ darker, coarser-grained sound is perfectly suited.
The ten pieces on Lumley’s Katabasis/Anabasis bear witness to an exploratory bassist with an aggressively physical attack—a collision of player and played erupting in a series of rattling, grinding, and creaking exclamations from deep within the instrument. Lumley has a strong and varied pizzicato that complements a robust arco exerting a compelling weight on the strings. One can almost see those strings visibly vibrating with each stroke of the bow or strike of the hand.
Still, up in the Air, the first solo release by Mostly Other People Do the Killing bassist Moppa Elliott, is a largely unedited recording done live at Wilkes-Barre, PA’s St. Stephen Pro Cathedral in February of last year. The seven tracks showcase Elliott’s robust voice, which establishes itself immediately with the mixed pizzicato and percussive strikes that open the set. Whether using bow or fingers, Elliott favors a dense texture built up of multiple notes sounding at once. A signature sound is a variety of auto-counterpoint via creative techniques for plucking, hammering and stopping the strings. When applied energetically, as they often are, these techniques often give the impression of two basses being played simultaneously. Enjoyable enough in its own right, Elliott’s virtuosity is ultimately a means for creating tension-laden excitement and keeping up a relentless forward motion.
With this collection of improvisation for solo double bass, Ryan McGuire—whose eclectic resume includes being the creative force behind the avant metal band Ehnahre—puts his own stamp on the contemporary tone poem.
Many of the economically-scaled pieces included here introduce and develop an idea that serves to evoke the image captured by the title. Ravens, for example, creates an abstract impression of the birds with its swooping arco melody played against an occasional open-string counterpoint, gradually dissolving into noise. Similarly, the harp-like arpeggios and harmonics of Delicate Creatures 1 and 2 sketch a sound portrait of something at once brittle and refined.
Beyond their evocative qualities, the performances are notable for being well-constructed and drawing on the double bass’s sonic versatility. Often favoring a grainy, almost tactile sound, McGuire makes good use of expressive phrasing, chording and countermelodies as well as extended techniques. The bass is vividly recorded, making audible such sonically rich details as the scrape of bowhair on the strings or the deep, rough-edged rattle of the freely sounding, open lower strings.
Adriano Orru: Hesperos (LBN011)
Hesperos is a new solo release from Sardinian double bassist Adriano Orru on the La Bel netlabel. The six pieces collected here are diverse in sound but unified at the conceptual level. What Orru has done is form each one around the idea of a winnowing down to fundamentals, quite literally: All six are constructed around the fundamental tone or tones of one of more open strings.
Whales opens the collection with sul ponticello bowing on multiple open strings. Orru creates brief sound events, separated by pauses, made up of harmonics or tone clusters frequently built around minor seconds. The piece culminates in waves of chords bowed in rocking motion over all four strings. A plucked open E string announces and anchors A sa muda, a six-beat lyrical piece with a Phrygian feel. This is followed by Hesperos, a percussive piece in which prepared open strings are struck in rapid rhythms. The aptly titled DEbEF is built around these four tones rooted on the open D string. The tetrachord is bowed with increasing speed, sounds smearing into each other to create accidental chords. Orru here uses sul ponticello bowing and a rapid tremolo to alter the timbre and durations of the notes. Halys begins with a rich bowed open A string and develops with the feel of an adagio, a lyrical line moving slowly over its chords. Whether plucked or bowed, the melody falls back on the simple refrain of the open A. The collection closes with the lengthy Cosmognia semplice, in which the open E string is struck rhythmically with beaters while metal objects and marbles are placed on the strings to rattling effect.
Orru’s album is lyrical at the same time that it is experimental. The idea of focusing each piece on an open string is a natural one for the bass, and here it is developed in ways that elicit a kind of singing—the results are not at all dry or abstract, as one might expect from an experiment rooted in such an a priori concept. This is a variety of idea art that doesn’t sacrifice the art for the idea.