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“...to allow the contrabass to sing with its own voice”

The parallelism between folk music and art music has for some time been acknowledged in contemporary musicology. Already in 1941, Zoltán Kodály gave an excellent summary of these relationships in his study entitled ‘Folk Music and Art Music’. I will quote Kodály here, taken from a later inquiry into the similarities of folk music and art music by Bence Szabolsci:24 “In folk music”, Kodály says “strictly speaking a new transcription, a variation is produced by the lips of the singer on every occasion. This operative power of unconditional ownership has been emphasised many times as an essential trait of the folk song. It used to exist also in higher art. Apparently, the mode of production is entirely different: here it is a process of individual creation, there the slow variation of the existing gradually leads to a new work through the links of tiny changes. But let us look more closely at the history of music: does composition of so much individual character, showing no likeness to anything in existence, spring from the heads of composers as did Minerva from the head of Jupiter? The early works of even the greatest masters are also mere imitations, often scarcely differing from the compositions of their predecessors. Their originality, their individual tones develop only step by step. The influence of others can be dissolved even in their most original works. No one could have guessed the composer of Tristan from Wagner’s first operas. He was doubtful of himself at the age of thirty, because he found so much imitation, so many foreign influences in his own works. This was natural. The artist does not live in a vacuum, but in the company of other people; he feels and thinks like millions of other people; only he can express himself in a better way… In the history of art, schools, groups, and hosts of followers mean the same as does the variation in folk music… A new type of song is developed from existing forms by slow variation, always growing more different, but hardly at a slower pace than that discernible in art music. There, too, the appearance of a new style has been found to act like a revelation. However, the history of music can in most instances demonstrate its gradual preparation by a long line of forgotten works”.

How can I claim the existence of a specific ‘folk music for the double bass’, one that has matured within the sounding domain of contemporary music? Does this concept shed new light on the music I discuss in this article and more closely link it to a linear tradition of musical and technical development? The answer here is, of course, a resounding yes. I have already explained briefly how processes of continuity, variation and selection have accompanied the technical development of the double bass similar to the ways in which they have helped define traditional folk music. Another characteristic of folk music – the transmission by word of mouth – has a fascinating equivalent in the communication of modern technique, and of contemporary music, which also lies very much in oral transmission. As an autodidact of contemporary music, I learned by listening to recordings and watching double bass players play. Continuous research is conducted on the instrument until I understand the technique and sound I want to use. Techniques are passed on from player to player and from player to composer, which in turn nurtures a variation and selection of sounds. In addition, the conversation between players is invaluable when it comes to sharing experiences and learning new, especially when novel techniques are assimilated into personal styles and compositions and when developing the introspective thoughts and reflections that make up every creative and artistic work. I have found great pleasure in discussing recent musical developments with players such as Scodanibbio, Teppo Hauta-aho, Mark Dresser and Jiri Slavik, and this has sometimes revealed technical details in situations where one would not expect. An example of this is when I learned a variant of the rimbalzo verticale technique, the rimbalzo verticale infinito – a unique technique for the double bass where the bow bounces from the middle of the string down to the bridge – during a pleasant dinner conversation with Scodanibbio. The sonority is reminiscent of an electronic sound, bouncing and flapping very softly, and it is through electroacoustic and pre-recorded music that the technique comes into its own. The rimbalzo verticale is heard extensively in Scodanibbio’s piece Oltracuidansa, and has formed central ideas in many of my own works, such as Shared moments for double bass and tape. From a meeting with Teppo Hauta-aho in Helsinki I learned another technique, the pizzicato multiphonics, which I also use frequently in my own pieces. I recall that Hauta-aho was quite specific in his description of this technique and in the use of the term ‘multiphonics’, which, when he was confronted with other uses of the term, evoked question marks and comments about its uselessness. Unfortunately, the wider double bass community still remains narrow-minded, and marked by prejudice and protectionism, which is probably largely due to the fact that the instrument allows for such very strong personal styles to develop. The paradox is, of course, that this should be perceived as something very positive.

In a dialogue with Nils Økland, one of Norway’s finest players of the Hardanger fiddle and a bridge-builder between contemporary music and folk music, the similarities between folk music and classical/contemporary music were brought forward. Økland sees analogous features in the way in which classical music in its golden ages drew on the concepts of variation and the flowering of melodic types,25 and the way in which folk music has always included the contemporary music into its own expressions. He points out characteristics such as ornaments and fiddle tunings as examples of elements which were once used in contemporary music but which went out of fashion and continued to evolve into various local folk traditions. “I let myself be influenced by the music I hear around me”, says Økland, “My music has been compared to contemporary music, improvisation and sometimes baroque music. The fact that I mainly work orally is of course common in many styles, but I think that if folk performers throughout history have heard contemporary [classical] music that has made an impression on them, they may have transformed these impulses and incorporated them into their own music. For example, it is said that several fiddlers began to create lyarslåtter in the same mould as fantasies produced by the classical violin virtuoso Ole Bull and others [in the late 19th-century]. Before the romantic era – even though there were mutual influences of art and folk music – I think it was normal not to have titles attached to the folk tunes, and the music was mainly related to dance and social or practical events[…]. I think I see two main lines in the understanding of folk tradition when I meet [folk] musicians: some are very concerned with imitating their mentors as closely as possible, while others have a freer relationship to tradition and put more of themselves into the music.” Økland himself relates to the latter approach: “When I compose, the interpretation comes more naturally. I do not have to transform, convert or recreate music from a score. When I make music, I often experiment with shapes and forms and am not bound by tradition. Similarly, I think great performers from different styles have some of the same freedom in the performance of their own music[…].I once read an interview with some French painters who exhibited at the Henie-Onstad Art Centre. They said something like that they felt it was wrong for them to try to paint like their heroes in the tradition of French painting. They were convinced it was more respectful to create their own expressions, and that being inspired by history helped them maintain a close bond with the tradition.” When asked about innovation and transcendence of style, Økland answers: ‟I believe there is a line of composers and improvisers who have integrated folk music into their own music, from Haydn and Mozart through Brahms, Bull, Grieg and right up to the present day: Eivind Groven, Béla Bartók, Johan Kvandal, Geirr Tveitt, Lasse Thoresen, Don Cherry, Arild Andersen, Jan Johansson, Frode Haltli, Jan Garbarek, Anne Hytta, etc.” An interesting mix of composers, indeed: folk, jazz, classical and contemporary musicians!

My point, however, is not to link the ‘folk’ concept to any consistent definition of traditional folk music, which is elusive anyway. The characterisation of a folk music for the double bass springs out of Scodanibbio’s formulation of his desire to help the instrument find its own voice. It describes a music that is composed together with the double bass, and at its root lies questions about the identity and identification of the instrument, the delimitation of musical repertoires, how these repertoires are transmitted, and the assessment of sounds. I am associating the music of Scodanibbio and Berio, Scelsi and Sciarrino with the base repertoire that has been moulded into an idiomatic syntax of instrumental music. For me, their music carries within its core the concepts, expression, and divulgement of folk music. The intermingling and interrelated compound of (novel) sounds, based on harmonics, founds the sonorousness which the instrument speaks, and constitutes the folk music of the double bass. The harmonics, as they are used in this music, may be regarded as equivalents to the fiddler’s open strings, or to the understrings on the Norwegian Hardanger fiddle. They create a certain drone-like feeling in the music, they make intonation easier, and they create new dimensions of expressiveness, virtuosity and timbral colouration. And as in the traditional music for fiddle, harmonic variation can be acquired by retuning the strings. In Norwegian traditional music alone, there are more than 25 different tunings for the fiddle. Simple scordatura tunings of one or two strings are used by Scodanibbio in Voyage that never ends and Sequenza XIVb, and I use it myself in the piece Shared moments. Perhaps the most radical cross-tuning in a piece of high difficulty so far can be encountered in a remarkable work by Heinz Holliger called Prelude e Fuga for Solo Double bass in the Vienese Tuning (2010). Here, the strings are tuned F-A-D-F♯-A as in the old Viennese tuning, used in Austria around 1760 and onwards during the first revolution of the double bass. A completely new harmonic landscape manifests itself in Holliger’s piece, neither harmonious nor consonant, as we might suspect from the tuning, but rich in dissonant sounds and unexpected melodic turns educed through the flageolet techniques on every part of the fingerboard. Similar variation in harmonic material created by a combination of flageolet techniques and cross-tunings can be heard in the music of Giacinto Scelsi, for example in Dharana (1975), a duo for cello and double bass, and Kshara (1975) for two double basses. Providing a fascinating source of variation of harmony, one must nevertheless tread carefully in this landscape, to maintain very strong aesthetic reasons for the use of scordaturas. As an oboist and composer, Heinz Holliger provides a monumental example of the composer-instrumentalist as a contemporary folk musician. He successfully places the experiments with timbre and playing technique within the compass of structure and organisation in much the same way as Scodanibbio ventured in his later compositions, and perhaps one of the ways forward for future composer-instrumentalists.

The folk music of and for the double bass is nourished by a venture of sound (timbre) through variation, improvisation and composition. Reflections upon tradition, sound and texture are still treated with reason, sometimes freely and sometimes by structure, inside the compositions, as variations, try-outs, études within the étude and as reflections of word and thought. But to use the term ‘folk music’ when describing the sound of some contemporary compositions does not imply that the music is simpler, more ‘popular’ or accessible, or more connected to ‘real life’ than the more intellectual contemporary music. Unfortunately, contemporary music as an encompassing category is often automatically and inexorably compared to the most avant-garde and modernist directions within the genre, forgetting that numerous styles exist that use many of the same musical elements – simple rhythms, repetitions, flowing lines, drones and overtones – as traditional music. The folk music for the double bass is still firmly planted within the sounding and intellectual domain of a broadly defined contemporary music.

What we might see as the clearest characteristic in this music is the reinstatement of improvisation in every part of the creative act. In the many portrayals of improvisation, it is the spontaneous character of expression that we meet in all kinds of folk and traditional music that attracts me the most. The concept of a folk music for the double bass, as a true goal for expression and recreation, constitutes the same prepared spontaneity and rehearsed freedom as a folk fiddler’s performance, with the accumulation of thoughts and experiences through an unrestrained sound. We can even take a step further, and say that other factors that usually constitute a folk performance – the storytelling, the intimacy, the nearness to the performer and the piece – should also belong to the communication of contemporary music. In a concert we can tell stories or anecdotes about the creation of the piece, the life of the composer, personal interpretations and so on, and by linking these stories to the musical narratives we can establish stronger ties between music and audience. It is also my experience that much contemporary music fits in with intimate, informal concert settings. The music deserves to be played close up to the audience in order to give the audience a sense of the physicality, in both movement and sound, that is part of the performance. In Norway, we have in recent years seen these attitudes manifested through performers such as Nils Økland, accordionist Frode Haltli and saxophone player Rolf-Erik Nystrøm, who create a synthesis of folk and contemporary music and bind improvisation, storytelling and nearness to the music in new and unique ways.

Finally, the folk music for the double bass embraces an idiomatic intelligibility, meaning that it assimilates types of thinking and expression, turns and formulas in the taste of our period and in the style of our time. This has been most evident in the artistic life of Stefano Scodanibbio. As a performing musician, and as a traveller, he came into contact with music and cultures from all over the world, but still reserved a special place for Spanish and Latin-American influences. He enjoyed a particularly strong relationship with Mexico, where he spent much of his time. The impacts it had on him is evident in the arrangements of folk songs from Mexico in Canzoniere messicano, and of classical flamenco music in the pieces Quattro Pezzi Spagnoli, both cycles scored for string quartet and written in the second half of 2000s. Many of the titles of Scodanibbio’s compositions find their sources in literature. Jardins d’Hamilcar comes from Salammbô by the French writer Gustave Flaubert, Dos abismos from Rapsodia para el mulo by Lezama Lima, My new address by Vittorio Reta and Visas, his first string quartet, from the same author; “Visas, naturally the most authentic expression of poetry belonging to my own generation”.26 Scodanibbio’s music emerged in the dawn of postmodernism and pluralism, when contemporary music gradually opened up to other influences to affect its idiom. It is difficult to imagine a similar folk music for the double bass arising anywhere else than in the ‘golden years’ of contemporary music, the 1980s, in the deep traditions of Italian music-culture. It carries within it a reflection upon previous developments while embracing the new idiomatic intelligibility. And it thrives on using confrontational and intensifying antagonisms, such as low and high sounds, normal tones and flageolets, improvisation and structure. It incorporates different styles of music, absorbing national and foreign musical influences, balancing high art and folk culture. It frees the double bass from its image as a ponderous, awkward instrument or a bastard cello, sometimes transcending into a percussion instrument, sometimes becoming an Indian violin. Scodanibbio's music as well as my own does not incorporate dogmatic attitudes, much more does it include a reflective pragmatism towards history, virtuosity, expression and language.

“What is the language of the contrabass? How can an idea be given voice? How can one determine from among the great variety of the contrabass’s voices, from among its thousand voices, the voice? Does language [the use of language] perhaps conceal the voice? And if in the end ‘the flight of the voice into the use of language is to have an end’, if ‘the completed thought have no more thoughts’, then are we not perhaps looking down into the abyss of silence? Of my works for contrabass this one [Marche bancale] pursues most deeply the possibilities for the instrument to become a ‘living creature”.27

An expression from within the instrument and our self, in a folk music for the double bass.