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Stefano Scodanibbio and the final step in the technical evolution of the double bass

The overtones and flageolets that I write of here are synonyms for harmonics, all of which are partial waves (‘partials’) within a sound that are integer multiples of the fundamental frequency. Of course, harmonics must have been used, at least to some extent, already from the earliest versions of this instrument, and have developed gradually ever since. In the classical period for example, composers used harmonics in two ways, either as brief arpeggiated figures in the violin or viola range, or in hornlike motifs in a playful canonic dialogue with the orchestra. A number of outstanding exponents of the Viennese virtuoso school (playing the Viennese violone, a type of double bass) gained recognition in 18th-century Austria and produced a remarkably vast body of literature including more than thirty double bass concertos.3 Following in the path of the early classical composers, via Karl Ditters von Dittersdorf, the Viennese virtuoso players, and the unique mastery of double bass virtuoso Domenico Dragonetti, we find a more extended range in the use of harmonics, which expanded all the way up to the 7th and 8th partials on the strings. Giovanni Bottesini (1821-1889) refined the solo technique and began writing more conjunct, lyrical passages in harmonics as well as the arpeggiated type of passage work, thus broadening the scope and concept of writing in harmonics. The last major development of new, idiomatic flageolet techniques took place with Stefano Scodanibbio during the 1980s. Scodanibbio was for a short time a student of Fernando Grillo, who had rapidly gained a reputation as the “Buddha of the double bass”. Grillo had already created a very detailed notational system, which he used to control every aspect of sound creation. As a young player, Scodanibbio was naturally fascinated by the complexity and control of the new sounds – particularly of the harmonics – that Grillo displayed, and he very quickly picked up a short, but intricate piece by Grillo named Paperoles (1976). Here, as in other pieces, Grillo explored sound and timbre par excellence. For Grillo, the object of sound became a subject of contemplation and exploration, in search of the peripherals of timbre that lay hidden in this instrument. Although a short piece, Paperoles is nonetheless monumental in its attention to detail. It was described by Scodanibbio as “a manifest where more than 30 techniques of the modern contrabass are concentrated in just a little over 3 minutes, specifically notated almost to fetishism”.4 Inspired by his teacher, Scodanibbio went on to compose e/statico, written in 1980 as one of his first pieces for the double bass. The similarity between the two pieces in their dissection and isolation of the sound object and in the elaborate notation of sounds and actions is striking. However, Scodanibbio would very soon abandon Grillo’s style and notation, and instead adapt impressions from other contemporaries such as Salvatore Sciarrino, Luigi Nono and Franco Donatoni. With Sei Studi (the title is alludes to Sciarrino’s Sei Capricci), composed between 1981 and 1983, he defined his new style and techniques within a set of short études.

The novelty of Scodanibbio’s music lies in his refined use of harmonics on every part of the string, also in the low and middle positions of the fingerboard. In his music, narrative and rhapsodic phrases are formed through an interchanging of ordinary tones and flageolets. This constantly changing motion between low and high sounds creates multi-dimensional rooms where sounds and fragments of melody can evolve. There are also a number of poetic implications in the ‘weight relationship’ between ordinary tones and flageolets, as Enzo Restagno so gracefully articulates in the liner notes to the recording of Scodanibbio’s Six Duos: “The real sounds are more consistent and have a closer presence. The harmonics instead are gentle, distant and, with their thinness, vibrant, almost as if only in one’s memory. To oppose, to superimpose or to juxtapose these two types of sounds means to give life to vicissitudes of presence and absence so to construct true and real novels”.5

The full potential of harmonic sounds on the double bass, as it is realised by Scodanibbio and others, may very well be the final step in the development of the historical double bass. All major divisions of playing techniques have now been defined, and exploration of the natural inherent possibilities of the instrument itself has reached its final evolutionary stage. This recent development towards an ‘ultimate’ musical practice, including a vast number of extended performance techniques, e.g., playing col legno, producing percussive effects on the body and using harmonics, has taken place in close connection with the general developments in contemporary classical music, whose characteristic signifiers these performance techniques have become. Without intending to state fixed generalisations, or give an all too precise definition of the major divisions of playing technique (that themselves embody a much larger scope of variation), I wish to confine this evolutionary peak to techniques that seem to belong to the instrument, by idiomaticity, by a well-suited sound or by common use; to techniques that originate from the instrument itself! On the other hand, adverse techniques created by adaptations to the instruments themselves, such as the use of mutes, paperclips, electronics or other modifications, as well as the use of new materials and improvements in design, all belong to other categories of instrumental development, and form separate chapters in the continuous search for new sounds. Nevertheless, embraced by all variations of technical development, our present-day double bass Renaissance, “a period of explosive development similar in a general way to that of the other string instruments in the 19th century”,6 is extremely multifaceted in its exploration of new repertoire, its mixture of musical styles, and in the way in which it fosters new schools of virtuosos who place the instrument centre-stage. As an effect, “people have now come to realize that, of all the bowed instruments, it may have the largest potential for variation of timbre and the greatest tone colour range”.7 Indeed, it is within its expressive range of timbre that the modern double bass has truly found it voice.

Outside the Italian tradition, it is the American bassist and composer Bertram Turetzky that has made the most significant contribution to defining modern techniques and repertoire. In the same way as the 70s belonged to Grillo and the 80s to Scodanibbio, the 60s were the domain of Turetzky. Stefano Scodanibbio describes him as the initiator of the revival of the modern double bass and one of the most important bass players of our time, regardless of the clear differences between the American and European styles of contemporary music. At work on both sides of the Atlantic, it is these musicians that have explored the remaining undiscovered territories of the double bass, and who have drawn the maps from which others can uncover new details. They have completed the evolution of our historical double bass, not by embroidering upon existing musical expressions, but by letting the body of novel performance techniques shape a new music.

The unfolding of our instruments geology of technical strata has been accompanied by processes of continuity, variation and selection: continuity that links the present to the past; variation that springs from the creative impulse of individuals or from collective musical developments; and selection by the community of composers and performers that determine the forms in which found techniques survive. Groups of the naturally inherent techniques might be referred to as sounds made on the strings with the bow, pizzicato sounds, left-hand fingering systems and percussive sounds on the instrument, although these are only tentative characterisations to let the reader see the idea of what I write about, for as previously mentioned, there is little purpose in making sweeping generalisations. The use of the bow to play the instrument, as we traditionally know it, is a technique that belongs to the double bass. Today, when we find ourselves in the 21st century, timbral colouration and novel bowing concepts begin to be approved as idiomatic techniques by young players and the wider community. As early as 1974, Turetzky had suggested categorisations for the new directions in bowing in his book on the contemporary contrabass (the revised edition was published in 1989)8, which has since proven to be very precise illustrations of most modern, idiomatic bowing techniques. The jazz pizzicato is a technique that belongs more to the instrument than does the classical pizzicato, although both types are clearly idiomatic. In fact, this is the starting point for most young players who begin fumbling around with a double bass. The basis for Turetzky’s work on contemporary techniques was a re-evaluation of pizzicato technique, which he says was “until recently a wasteland in Western art music except for some isolated moments in orchestral, chamber and solo scores by Paganini, Elgar, Tchaikowsky, and Bartók”.9 In jazz, he found a solo pizzicato tradition which re-energised all pizzicato technique. Still associating to the more modern musical scene, Turetzky was not directed “toward more speed but toward new vistas of timbre”.10 And by saying so he confirms that timbre, as a musical parameter, had established itself as one of the primary elements within the new music. Because of the great resonance of the double bass, composers and performers quickly embraced the instruments ability to produce percussive sounds. Drum imitation was anticipated by Heinrich Ignaz Franz Biber in his Battalia from 1673, where he lets the bass imitate a marching drum calling for battle, using col legno battuto and preparing the instrument by inserting a piece of paper through the strings. In the contemporary literature we find some very idiomatic examples of percussive techniques played with the fingers, mallets and the bow, namely in Jacob Druckman, Joji Yuasa, Philippe Boivin and Thomas Read11, but also in Scodanibbio in Geografia amorosa (1994) and in his reinvention of Luciano Berio’s cello Sequenza (XIV).

With the last works of Scodanibbio, in particular Oltracuidansa (1997/2002), Ottetto (2010/2011) and the Sequenza XIVb (2004), he captures all the factors in the technical evolution, and in doing so draws a final line to a historical development. The general technical possibilities inherent in the double bass, its colloquial characteristics, have been expressed and sketched on paper. Thus, an epoch in the instruments development is over, an epoch which covers the years from mid-17th century, when the double bass as we know it emerged in its own right and the basses of the violin family were standardized and odd-size patterns abolished,12 up until the present day, when the era of 20th-century contemporary music comes to an end and the concepts of pluralism and technology take over. Playing techniques have developed either in parallel with the modifications, improvements and standardisations of the instrument, for example in the way music played on the Viennese violone was later adapted for instruments of different sizes, tunings and number of strings, or as curiosities in connection with modifications to the instrument or bow. The instrument of today fuses design, string technology and performance techniques. So, to speak of our historical double bass as the double bass, is something that also reflects the account of how the instrument itself has developed through time. Certainly, the exploding interest for the double bass we have witnessed in the past fifty years, its second revolution13, would not have been possible without the vast improvements in playing conditions that have taken place over the past century, such as the introduction of steel strings and the creation of adjustable bridges.14 Simultaneous developments of bow technique and fingering systems, by performers such as Gary Karr, Stuart Sankey, David Walter, Knut Guettler, Jean-Marc Rollez, François Rabbath, Francesco Petracchi, Ludwig Streicher, Klaus Stoll and many, many others, have perfected the traditional classical technique. However, with some exceptions, the performers so crucial to this development are profiled rather as teachers than as composers.

So where do we go from here? The developments we have seen over the past 20 years, such as multiphonics on the double bass, do not form new and independent groups of playing techniques, and the techniques are not as idiomatic as the flageolet techniques used by Scodanibbio. It is therefore unlikely that these subgroups will come into general use. What probably will happen is that a selection of the most idiomatically extended techniques will mature in the hands of the orchestral player and become part of the symphonic repertoire. Also, and to a greater extent, novel sounds will make colourful alterations to the general solo repertoire, where young performers will continuously refine the concept of virtuosity. In the future, the double bass will be incorporated into musical styles in which it has not been much used before – be they Indian classical music, Arabic music or all kinds of folk and traditional music – and thereby absorb new variations of sound and technique. Perhaps by the end of this reflection on technique, we should dwell on some words from Scodanibbio: “[…]only the new can make sense of a work and of working. And looking for the new is, to me, the condition for doing anything. With all the risks, dangers and chance that going off the beaten track involves […]. Invention is more important than technique, which of course has to be there – it just shouldn’t be visible.”15