Masterarbeid: Hearing Double

My Master-project focuses on learning and performing music that comes from the instrument of the double bass. This does not mean music that is “only playable on the double bass”, but rather, music that is built from its musical and cultural history, as well as its inherent physical qualities and traits: a wide spectrum of audible harmonics, fourths tuning, characteristic pizzicato techniques, its large resonant body, and even its physical relation to the human form. My project centers around the music of bassist-composers Stefano Scodaibbio and Håkon Thelin, as well as my own music which I have developed from their techniques.

North of the Mountains for bass duo (Håkon Thelin)

This project began as an exploration of the piece La fine del pensiero by Stefano Scodanibbio (read original project proposal), and— even though I am only performing small amounts of material from this piece in my master work (the Sei Studi are found here)— my project still centers around the conceptual core of the piece. This piece, written for bass and dancer with prerecorded bass accompaniment and a spoken text, is centered around the question of the difference between voice and language. These are broad philosophical questions, but when brought to focus around a double bass performance, the question begins to formulate as- what is the voice of the double bass? What languages does it speak? And finally: does the double bass have its own language? In a basic sense, a voice is the sound that cannot be abstracted when one speaks- that which is inherent to each speaker, regardless of what is being said. The voice of the bass would be the sounds and “tone” that are inherent to the bass. Music that highlights this would be built on the inherent qualities of the bass- sounds and characteristics that are found solely in the double bass. Nevertheless, there must be something said in these musics- something communicated. Somewhere in this message would be the language. Stefano Scodanibbio did incredible work to articulate the voice of the double bass, and I believe that Håkon Thelin has contributed crucially to finding its language- I hope that my work continues both of these projects while both defining and problematizing their boundaries.

I began in 2017 to inquire with Scodanibbio’s widow Maresa about staging La fine del pensiero. She sent me the score, as well as the tape accompaniment, and some recordings from rehearsals of the premier. I also began writing with the dancer from the original production, Herve Diasnas, and he also agreed to consult us on the project. However, once I began comparing the score to the tape accompaniment and the recordings that I had from rehearsals, I realized that the material did not add up. The tape accompaniment was not at all the same as it appeared in the score, and there were no indications of how one should interact with this new tape accompaniment. When I asked the Mr. Diasnas about this, he replied that the piece was largely reworked and improvised for the performances. He suggested that I do the same- take the material and make a new piece. And so I contacted Maresa Scodanibbio about this endeavor, but she did not want us to do this, as then it wouldn’t really be her husband’s work. And so I decided to make a new piece that still dealt with the same issues, while opening the focus of the project to also include different pieces by Scodanibbio and also the music of Håkon Thelin.

Three Minutiae for Double Bass (Wilhite-Hannisdal)

My studies of the music of Scodanibbio led me to focus on perfecting techniques that were “only possible on the double bass”, or at least very characteristic to the double bass- notably his “harp pizzicato technique,” his combination of stopped notes and flageolets in certain combinations, and flageolet combinations built in fourths (facilitated only by the bass’s fourths-tuning). Several of these pieces also have musical material which is not strictly pitch-based, but built on unique timbres of the double bass- such as extreme sul-ponticello sforzandos with combined pizzicato attack. Studying this music has given me a truly physical understanding and appreciation of the voice of the double bass- not just an intellectual one.

Sei Studi: V, IV, & I (Stefano Scodanibbio)

Håkon Thelin’s music binds these timbres and this voice to tradition and history. It is not that these connections do not exist already in Scoadnibbio’s work, but one must search for them and possibly apply them to the music after the fact. In his work North of the Mountians, Thelin’s work actively combines Scodanibbio’s sonic language with that of other bassist-composers like Koussevitsky and Bottesini- the result is a larger cultural artifact, and a reference to a “language of the double bass” which exists abstractly through time. Whereas Scodanibbio’s music is possibly based on the capturing, isolation, repeating, or freezing of a momentary expression, Thelins presupposes a larger structure. Learning and playing these pieces has helped me understand the relationship between playing repertoire works and playing contemporary music, and it helps me understand the relevance of classical technique in performing new music.

I hope that my work continues both of these projects. I hope to develop the voice of the bass further by developing new techniques (such as the use of the right thymb in my Three Minutiae). However, these were developed out of Thelin’s work and innovation, and so I am also conscious of the cultural links in all of these techniques. I try to implant these signatures in the music through which the techniques are presented. I should also mention that Håkon Thelin was extremely helpful in assistingme to develop notation systems for some of these techniques. In this context, these pieces were vessels that helped me develop and perfect double bass techniques and communicate them to the bass community and the world at large.

The final piece of my project Eternity and its Double is written as a sort of mirror to La fine del Pensiero, using a singer instead of spoken word. The singer sings the same lines as the double bass— lines developed from the voice and language of the bass. This action simultaneously highlights and questions language of the bass: how is the language of the bass reproducible or translatable into other musical languages? Does this translation process disappear the voice of the double bass? The material in this piece draws heavily from many works of Scodanibbio and Thelin that are not encompassed in my master work, and serves in many ways as a vessel through which wider amounts of research and labor have been condensed and focused into a little more than a half hour. I hope to post this piece here soon.

I am left feeling indebted to Stefano Scodanibbio and Håkon Thelin and would like to thank them both, as well as Dan Styffe, who has been a very significant and helpful teacher and counselor. I have become a much better bassist through this project, and not simply a better musician.