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Question for classical bassists

Discussion in 'Miscellaneous [DB]' started by yawnsie, Mar 23, 2001.


  1. yawnsie

    yawnsie

    Apr 11, 2000
    London
    Recently, I've been listening to some of my father's classical CDs, and became curious about the bassist's role in an orchestra. When you a piece in front of you, do you follow the notes exactly, or is there room for interpretation - different phrasing and voices of notes, grace notes, etc?

    I know that this is probably a stupid question, with a ridiculously obvious answer, but I'm only an ignorant toy bassist getting ideas above my station...
     
  2. dhosek

    dhosek

    May 25, 2000
    Los Angeles, CA
    In classical music, the musicians, as a rule follow the music, with interpretations dictated at a section level by the principal and at the ensemble level by the conductor. When you've got, say, 8 basses playing, it's essential that they're playing the same notes at the same time with the same style to avoid getting the feel of mud at the bottom of the music.

    This is not to say that there's no room for interpretation and improvisation in classical music: Traditionally, for example, the cadenzas in pieces were improvised by the performer. Also, a lot of accompaniment (continuo) might have been marked using the functional equivalent of a chord chart (figured bass notation gives the bass line and voicings for the harmony above it which is used as the basis for an improvised accompaniment).

    Does that answer your question?

    -dh
     
  3. Chris Fitzgerald

    Chris Fitzgerald Student of Life Staff Member Administrator

    Oct 19, 2000
    Louisville, KY
    In an orchestral setting, you follow the notes exactly and don't add any new pitches to the score. There is room for "interpretation" as regards phrasing, but that is done within the confines of the phrasing concept of the section as a unit and the orchestra as a whole. If you do something the conductor doesn't like or agree with, you'll hear about it.

    If you're playing in a bass section and you start adding grace notes on your own, you'll be looking for a new gig before too long...
     
  4. There is one thing that we may fool around with - the lower octave. Especially in music of the Romantic period, many composers like Brahms, Tchaikovsky, etc., didn't write anything in the bass parts below the contra E - but when you check the lines against the cello parts, often they would keep going down. It wasn't commonplace in those days for basses to play below E, so composers tended not write it in and instead bumped certain notes up the octave.

    So in many cases, bass players today will 'restore' some of these lower octave notes if they play a 5 string bass or a bass with C extension. A great example of this might be the opening phrase of Brahms Symphony #2, which at one point has a bar with a quarter note low E, followed by a quarter rest, followed by another quarter note low E. In the cello part, they play a low D# during the rest, so over the years it has become traditional for bass players to 'restore' that D# that Brahms left out because he figured most players didn't have it.

    Of course, most of the decisions are left to the principal bass - occsionally a conductor will ask for some of these notes, and sometimes they'll ask for us to leave it alone.
     
  5. yawnsie

    yawnsie

    Apr 11, 2000
    London
    Thanks for the answers. I'm not playing classical music, at the moment at least, but I was interested in how a bassist would approach a piece. Still, maybe in a few years, if my rock band doesn't make it, and I actually learn some of the things that are discussed over here, this thread may prove invaluable...
     
  6. Bruce Lindfield

    Bruce Lindfield Unprofessional TalkBass Contributor Gold Supporting Member

    This is one of the things, I'd been meaning to ask about but never got round to. I have seen the odd one or two Jazz bassists with extensions on the bottom string and wondered about this. Are they always down to C and what are the disadvantages of having this? I mean, I suppose you lose the comfort of an open E, but if it is easy to use - why doesn't everybody have one? I've seen 5 string electric upights, but not a 5 string "acoustic" double bass - so what are the pros and cons of extra string vs. extension?
     
  7. Chris Fitzgerald

    Chris Fitzgerald Student of Life Staff Member Administrator

    Oct 19, 2000
    Louisville, KY
    My experience with low B strings on DB's is fairly limited, but my impression is that they tend to sound like crap for the most part...it's one thing to electronically reproduce those low frequencies - a fairly easy thing to do, as most BG players will attest - but quite another to reproduce them acoustically, especially with a thicker string. I have only seen about six 5-string DB's in my life: two of them had low B strings, which sounded like muddy hell, and the others (one of which I almost bought) had high "C" strings, with varying results.

    I've seen about a million low "C" extensions though, and most of these have a small "switch" device which stops the string at the customary low "E" when engaged, and allows the extra lower notes to be accessed when disengaged. From time to time you will also see a bass with the low "C" extension which has a mechanism for fingering each of the notes below the "E". Luthiers like to bitch about how this mechanism never works right.

    Contrary to popular opinion, this mechanism does NOT consist of a complicated system of electrical wires, magnets, allen head wrenches, and duct tape, and will NOT soon be readily available in stores throughout the country....
     
  8. I remember seeing a major French orchestra in Carnegie Hall in which 8 out of 10 basses had a 5th low B string; furthermore, they all seemed to have been made by the same maker. In jazz, Frank Tate has a Hawkes with a low B added.
    Most of the extended basses I have heard sounded great. My guess is that no one would spend the money to put one on a bad bass.
    My luthier designed an infinitely variable 'floating' nut for fingered extensions.
     
  9. Chris Fitzgerald

    Chris Fitzgerald Student of Life Staff Member Administrator

    Oct 19, 2000
    Louisville, KY
    I should add a caveat to my last post - all of the 5 strings I have seen were basses I was looking at while bass shopping, and I only tried them out pizz, in which case the only 2 with low B strings didn't speak well. I imagine that a bow could bring a lot more life out of those low strings than my poor fingers ever could.
     
  10. Bruce Lindfield

    Bruce Lindfield Unprofessional TalkBass Contributor Gold Supporting Member

    I have noticed that a high proportion of orchestral bassists seem to have extensions, when I've been to concerts with large symphony orchestras. But I've only seen one or two Jazz players using them. So I was wondering why this was - is it down to expense - orchestral players tend to pay more for their basses, or is it a question of some disadvantage that affects your technique?

    Can Don or someone else explain exactly how the "variable" nut thing or any of these devices work as well? Do the notes below E sound as good or at least as "usable" on any bass or does it need an expensive instrument?
     
  11. dhosek

    dhosek

    May 25, 2000
    Los Angeles, CA
    While a low C extension is the most common, a D extension is not unheard of either. The eagle-eyed will have noticed that the bassist accompanying sting at the oscars last night was playing a bass with a low C extension with a series of stops at each note along the extension.

    5 strings do exist as noted and are more common in European orchestras than American orchestras. When I played a 5 string back in high school I tuned it CEADG which helped make the low string sound better.

    -dh
     
  12. dhosek

    dhosek

    May 25, 2000
    Los Angeles, CA
    I've never really wished for low C but I've wanted that Eb lots. That was part of why I loved playing that five string in high school. When I buy my carved bass (in the next year or two depending on what happens with the stock market), I'll have the low C extension added, if only so I can play those nice low notes and scare the cello players.

    -dh
     
  13. nickchalk

    nickchalk

    Jan 30, 2001
    The reason a lot of people say that 5-strings sound bad is not because they are bad quality, but beacause the fifth string basically acts as a mute, and makes a weaker sound as a result. This is why many people back in the day used 3 strings instead of the newer 4 string instruments (Bottesini's bass was originally a 4 string but converted it to 3). Berlioz (or maybe it was Liszt) like to have his bass section with 3 stringers, for their volume, and 4 stringers, for the low notes. The advent of technolgy and steel strings made the 4 string standard. How knows, maybe in the future we will all be playing 5 string basses?
     
  14. dhosek

    dhosek

    May 25, 2000
    Los Angeles, CA
    Let's just hope that it doesn't get out of hand and we end up playing 7-string basses....

    -dh
     
  15. dhosek

    dhosek

    May 25, 2000
    Los Angeles, CA
    Oh wait, I just saw in another thread that you're in high school: There's a lot of opportunities for students. I'd suggest checking with your teacher (and/or orchestra director) who might be able to turn up something more regionally-oriented which would be a good match to your skill level and needs.

    It's us old folks who've got to really struggle to find a good camp experience...

    -dh
     
  16. dhosek

    dhosek

    May 25, 2000
    Los Angeles, CA
    Sigh, that last one belonged in another thread. I'll repost it there.
     
  17. Well, you haven't heard my Peter Elias bass then!

    I assure you my bass has no problem reproducing the low notes whatsoever. I had played on basses with C extensions for years and when I made the switch to this particular 5 string, I didn't find any reduction in power of the notes below E. In fact, what I did notice was that the notes on the B string matched the character of the rest of the instrument better. I find a lot basses with extensions sound a little bit agressive in the lower register which means there is a rather big tone change when you go onto the extension. My 5 string bass is very even in tone across all strings. The convenience of playing is so much easier too - extensions are a pain.

    Of course, all of my points are related to playing arco, by the way.

    As far as more strings 'muting' the bass, I don't think it has to be that way. Peter Elias has certainly found a way to make his 5 string basses have an enormous sound. In fact, Joel Quarrington (Principal Bass of Toronto Symphony and former talk bass 'Ask the Pros' panelist), did an experiment with the sound engineer at Hamilton Place measuring the volumes of various old Italian basses and a few Elias basses. By scientific analysis, the 5 string Elias turned out to be the loudest overall.
     
  18. Chris Fitzgerald

    Chris Fitzgerald Student of Life Staff Member Administrator

    Oct 19, 2000
    Louisville, KY
    Where might an ignorant jazzer find out more about these basses? How "high-end" pricewise are they? I'd love to eventually have a 5 stringer, but I'd prefer the high C instead of the low B. Does Elias make those as well?

    I'd feel worse about getting my comments refuted, but then I noticed that I hedged my bets and began my original post with "my experience is limited, but...". Thanks for the corrections..it's all part of the learning process.
     
  19. Well, 5 strings is 5 strings, right? I guess you would just have to swap out the nut, and have the bridge cut to accomodate it,and buy a high C seperately. BTW,did you see Rob's picture of his Elias? Very nice!(and quite pricey, I'll wager!) ;)
     
  20. Chris Fitzgerald

    Chris Fitzgerald Student of Life Staff Member Administrator

    Oct 19, 2000
    Louisville, KY
    Duh. I knew that, and yet somehow I didn't....where's the pic?