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Project description

Brief historical background

From around 1900 and towards 1945 there was increasing interest in colourisation of music through the use of extended instrumental techniques in various branches of art music, from the orchestral continuation of the Romantic tradition, in expressionistic chamber works, through national schools and inspiration from folk music, to new and radical musical experimentation.

The most important turning point for art music in the 20th century was without doubt the early breakdown of tonality. Broadly speaking, one can say that this turning-point provided a series of new tools that led composers into the direction that dominated the last century: Modernism. After 1945, composers and performers affiliated to the modernistic and experimental movements made significant contributions to the development of timbral possibilities in every group of instruments, and more specifically to the development of techniques on single instruments. At the same time, the paradigms in composing and thinking of music, both in America and Europe, made it necessary to rediscover traditional instruments, thus opening up for sounds previously unheard of. Serialism (as developed by the composers Pierre Boulez and Karlheinz Stockhausen) resulted in an extreme formalisation and individualisation of the four main parameters of music – pitch, duration, loudness and attack – and when, after a while, these conventional parameters began to be regarded as fully exploited, composers began looking for new ways to develop their music. Timbre as a musical parameter then established itself as one of the primary elements within the new music.

In close interaction with the new formal composing techniques, a new generation of virtuosic performers emerged who aimed to extend their range of techniques and sonorities beyond the traditional techniques and to increase their repertoire of works for their respective instruments. The more specialized and virtuosic performers quickly attracted huge interest from composers who wished to expand their own musical horizons by taking part in the discoveries that were made on an instrumental technical level. Luciano Berio was one such composer, and his solo works seem to arise directly out of the relevant solo instrument or from the performer, and from the physical movements that are necessary to play the instrument. In his Sequenza series, consisting of solo works for a number of instruments, he collaborated with some of the best performers of his time, including oboist Heinz Holliger and singer Cathy Berberian. With Berio’s permission, Stefano Scodanibbio wrote a double bass Sequenza in 2004 based on Berio’s Sequenza XIV for cello.

Double bass playing techniques have evolved enormously since the 1940s. The traditional techniques have been refined and new and untraditional techniques have been invented. Around 1960 a new generation of young, virtuosic  and experimental double bass players emerged. These players were often active in both jazz and classical music. In jazz music, the development of a free and experimental style of playing was important for the development of the instrument. Within the classical music field the limited repertoire of original solo works led to bass players commissioning a great number of new works to expand the solo repertoire.

One of the most prolific interpreters of new music on the double bass is the American bassist Bertram Turetzky. In the mid-1950s he began to commision new works for double bass, mostly by American composers, with the goal of creating a larger repertoire of original works for the instrument. To this date, over 300 works have been written for him, and several of his compositions have become standard in the new-music repertoire for double bass. Another of Turetzkys important contributions to the development and spread of new playing techniques is the book The Contemporary Contrabass (1989, rev.). The book presents a thorough theoretical review of contemporary playing techniques. In 1995, Jean-Pierre Robert published Modes of playing the double bass, to my knowledge the second book that describes both traditional and new playing techniques. Turetzky focuses on American works in his review while Robert focuses on techniques found mostly in European music.

The most important performers on the European scene since about 1970 are Barry Guy, Jöelle Leandre, Fernando Grillo and Stefano Scodanibbio. They have created new and untraditional techniques through improvised and contemporary music, and have contributed to a greater focus on the double bass as a solo instrument, giving it a very important role within new music.


The two main works Zab ou la passion selon st. Nectaire (Philippe Boivin) and Sequenza XIVb (Luciano Berio/Stefano Scodanibbio) form the point of departure for this investigation of existing playing techniques. I wish to master skills for performing the techniques that I find in the works by Scodanibbio and Boivin, examine and describe them, and then let my discoveries form the basis for development of new techniques that will be utilized in several new compositions. The main emphasis will be on my own works Glasperlenspiel, Light and naturale. In the review of the techniques I will also use other works, which I here call secondary works, to illustrate variations of the different techniques and to master performing skills. I will begin my study of the existing playing techniques by performing secondary works, which will lead to the performance of the main works towards the end of the fellowship period.

The project is limited to the investigation of playing techniques that build on the basic techniques of arco and pizzicato. It is important to stress that the techniques are developed on an acoustic basis. I will not go into the amount of timbral variation arising from the use of various forms of amplification and electronic processing.

My primary supervisor for this project is Professor Henrik Hellstenius at the Norwegian Academy of Music and my secondary supervisor is Stefano Scodanibbio.

Which techniques do I wish to develop, and why?

The techniques I wish to examine and later develop are combinations of flageolets, multiphonics and percussive techniques, both played with the bow (arco) and with the fingers (pizzicato). In Modes of playing the double bass (1995) Jean-Pierre Robert presents a thorough review of playing techniques on the double bass in European contemporary music until 1990. He presents a scientific analysis of multiphonics on double bass and lays the theoretical basis for the use of this technique, without providing any musical examples of multiphonics. Multiphonics can for example be created by manipulating bow speed and pressure on a natural harmonic or by fingering the string between two harmonics. Cinq algorithms pour contrebasse seule (1990) by Philippe Boivin is, to my knowledge, the first example of the use of multiphonics in the double bass literature. Recently, several works using multiphonics have been written for me, and I have also used the technique in my own works. I want to describe the existing versions of the technique, develop it and demonstrate practical ways to notate it. Multiphonics are not found in either Zab or Sequenza, so this technique is illustrated through the secondary works as well as my own works Glasperlenspiel, Light and naturale. The technique is virtually unknown, and this is a pioneering effort to develop and spread knowledge about the technique.

It was Jean-Pierre Robert who made me aware of the composer Philippe Boivin. Robert is a double bass player himself and has collaborated with Boivin on a variety of works, including Zab ou la passion selon st. Nectaire. In Modes of playing the double bass he refers to techniques that they have developed together, but several of these techniques are not included or are superficially described. I wish to look more closely at some of the percussive techniques in Zab. In the piece, Robert and Boivin have developed finger techniques for the execution of complex rhythmic and timbral patterns. I wish to master these techniques, look at timbral possibilities and variations, describe the techniques and develop them further. Zab has previously only been performed by Jean-Pierre Robert.

Robert and Turetzky mention nothing about Stefano Scodanibbio, his music and technical revolution of the bass, which represents a relatively recent evolvement of the instrument. I hope that my project in some way can fill this gap. Scodanibbio has mainly worked with flageolets on the double bass and is considered a modern pioneer in the development of flageolet techniques. From his early works around 1980 to Sequenza XIVb, one of his recent works for solo double bass, we find a constant quest to create new variations around the flageolet theme. In Sequenza, Scodanibbio utilizes his whole technical repertoire to underline the music, and the work sums up his own revolutionary way of writing and playing.

Scodanibbio’s techniques and his music require special skills of the performer. I have worked with similar techniques myself over many years now, but this project gives me a unique possibility to really immerse myself in this material. Sequenza XIVb has previously only been performed by Scodanibbio.

I am not aware of the existence of other surveys of contemporary techniques apart from the books of Boivin and Turetzky, as well as shorter articles in professional journals such as Bass Player and Bass World. There is an urgent need for updated information about this topic. I believe that a project focusing on these new techniques and how to master them is necessary in order to make them more accessible to composers and performers.

Description of works

Zab ou la passion selon st. Nectaire, Philippe Boivin

Zab is a semi-theatrical work in 3 movements for solo double bass. The work was completed in 1981 after several years of collaboration between the composer and Jean-Pierre Robert. The duration of the work is almost 30 minutes. Most sonorities in this work still sound new to the listener and the sonic expression bears little resemblance to the traditional classical double bass. It incorporates subtle and aggressive percussive techniques and sounds that arise from specifically notated movements, as well as new ways of using traditional techniques and harmonics. The entire instrument is utilized as a source for creating sounds. Boivin employs various notational strategies, but on the whole they give an integrated and complex, yet relatively easily readable score. Traditional notation, graphic notation, vocal notation and several new symbols melt together into a kind of physical, choreographic score. Novel techniques and movements are tried out and incorporated in idiomatic ways. The percussive techniques are introduced from the beginning of the work and are played mainly with the fingers. Variations and new combinations of the techniques are utilized throughout the work.

Sequenza XIVb, Luciano Berio/Stefano Scodanibbio

The use of harmonics is the traditional and most obvious way to move beyond the standard double bass frequency range. In classical and romantic music, harmonics are mainly used in more or less virtuosic passages within the solo repertoire, and until the beginning of the 20th century bass players used almost only natural harmonics. In today’s contemporary music it is hard to find a score that does not include either natural or artificial harmonics. In Sequenza XIVb we find all the signature techniques of Stefano Scodanibbio. The work opens with flageolet-pizzicato in both right and left hand, a technique developed by Scodanibbio. Already in the beginning of the work he introduces a new variation by imitating Indonesian drums by drumming on the body of the bass at the same time as playing flageolet-pizzicato. The drum-imitation returns in different variations later in the work. Harmonics are used actively throughout the work, both arco and pizzicato.

Hymn, Lars-Petter Hagen

Hagen has written a work for solo double bass in which the musical material is generated from harmonies found in Norwegian traditional fiddle tunes (slåtter). This has then been reduced to predominantly consonant two-part voicing. The focus of the work lies in the harmonious sound, and all ornaments and virtuosic techniques typical of the slåtter are removed. Instead the work has a meditative and choral-like expression, hence its title: Hymn. Open strings reflect the drones commonly heard in folk music. In order to express some of the transparent sound of the Norwegian Hardanger fiddle, Hagen wished to use harmonics on the double bass. In collaboration, we found the appropriate harmonies, often consisting of a bass tone together with a flageolet (harmonic overtone). The long, sustained sounds are played with the bow, and as a contrast I have written some short interpolations that are played pizzicato. These passages are also built on tonal chord material, but I use other harmonies than those found in the rest of work. The interpolations are therefore of harmonic, timbral and rhythmical character. Complex pizzicato techniques, again based on flageolets, form the basis of these passages but are developed further and combined with other techniques.

Own works

The sonic expression of my own music is in many ways similar to what is heard in the music of Scodanibbio. It includes extensive use of flageolet techniques and continuous reciprocal action or interplay between ordinary tones and harmonic overtones. This interplay can create multidimensional spaces where sounds and fragments of melody can evolve.  There are also a number of poetic implications of the "weight relationship" between the ordinary tones and flageolets. Ordinary tones are consistent and have a distinct presence. Flageolets, however, are softer and more distant, vibrant in their simplicity, almost like memories or echoes of the resonance of the bass. The music should feel organic and free, and the untraditional playing techniques are utilized in relatively idiomatic ways. Different bowing and pizzicato techniques open up for “unheard-of” sound experiences. The musical energy has picked up a lot of inspiration from folk music, which usually is rigidly bound to form, but appears improvisatory in its execution. Elements from folk music are also reflected in the rhythm, which often behaves simply and freely. The open strings and their harmonic overtones create a natural harmonic basis that is varied by the sonority of flageolets and ordinary notes together. The extended use of flageolets creates space for comprehensive harmonic variation.

Scodanibbio’s musical language arose as an attempt “to allow the contrabass to sing with its own voice”. Scodanibbio characterizes one of his earliest works, Sei Studi (1981/83), as an “attempt to liberate the contrabass from its conventional sonority”, or “an expression of the desire to help the instrument finally find its own voice, after having known only the stammering of voices inappropriate to it or the sadistic violations of the so-called avant-garde” (Geografia amorosa, translation by Steven Lindberg). Sei Studi is Scodanibbio’s musical foundation on which he built his story further. In much the same way, my own works for solo double bass Amarcord and oibbinadocS helped to shape a musical language that is close to Scodanibbio’s, on which I am now building.

Scodanibbio has developed practical methods for notating harmonics that I will use in my own works. New percussive techniques and multiphonics require special symbols of notation, but the scores will be kept mostly within established conventions. New and practical notation must be developed for completely new techniques. I do not want to go into the graphical notations of for example physical movements the way they appear in Zab. My own experience and knowledge built up in this project around the existing playing techniques form the basis for further development of techniques that happens in an interaction between testing, experimentation with notation and composing. The challenge is to find new and idiomatic combinations of playing techniques while they are applied within a musical and structural form. Through my own works Light, naturale and Glasperlenspiel I will try to create new soundworlds through experimentation with playing techniques. But, willl my own musical language be nuances and variations of other existing languages, or is it possible to create fundamental new knowledge?

Harmonics have proved their importance through extended use over the last 30 years. I would characterize harmonics as a very applicable and general technique, while multiphonics and percussive techniques are more specialized tools that require a thorough instrumental knowlegde. How can I continue to develop the flageolet techniques of Scodanibbio? Will it be possible to develop completely new techniques, or in what ways can I further develop existing techniques and create new variations? Can I place multiphonics among the tools so that other composers and performers will take advantage of this technique?

Light for double bass and violin

The original idea for Light came many years ago when I was to play a series of concerts in different lighthouses along the Norwegian southern coast. Like the lighthouse, there will be vibrant, pulsating elements of the work that create an illusion of light and recognition. The bright sounds of harmonics shine through a diffuse and fog-like atmosphere. The use of untraditional playing techniques underpins the temperament of the waves, and the changing and unpredictable weather inspires the structure of the work. I seek a homogenous sound expression in the work, but previously “unheard” sounds can in themselves be alienating. The work will be technically demanding, but with a fleeting and subdued expression. In Light I wish to try to transfer some of my work with harmonics and multiphonics over to the violin.

Naturale for solo double bass and tape

This work is written for bassist Dan Styffe, principal double bass of the Oslo Philharmonic and associate professor at the Norwegian Academy of Music, but will also be performed by myself on several occasions. The piece is inspired by a composition for solo viola by Luciano Berio. In Berio’s piece the performer plays together with electronically processed Persian folk song. I wish to use a similar strategy, where, among other effects, the double bass plays together with processed recordings of Indian Tablas. Asbjørn Flø at NOTAM will assist with the preparation of the electronic sound material. In the work I experiment with harmonics, multiphonics and percussive techniques. Two different thematic ideas are set up against each other, and the material within these is varied and developed further.

Glasperlenspiel is intended as a major work for double bass and tenor voice. The text will be based on excerpts from the book Glasperlenspiel by Hermann Hesse. The unusual combination of bass and voice creates great expressive possibilities, which is enhanced by the freedom afforded by extended instrumental techniques. I will work closely with the singer on vocal techniques and the notation of these.


The development of playing techniques and the way they are used in different works will be documented in writing, most likely in two texts in which the first is currently without a title and the other has the working title "Multiphonics on the double bass". These will be written in English in order to make them more accessible to a larger number of performers and composers. I will describe the performance of individual techniques, combinations of techniques and notation through analysis, music examples and sound samples. The goal is a broad review and presentation of existing and newly developed playing techniques that will help performers and composers to understand and use these techniques. Knut Guettler, former professor at the Norwegian Academy of Music, will be the supervisor and partner in the written presentation, technical and acoustic analysis, help with recording and editing of sound samples. It is desirable that this work will be published in the form of an interactive PDF document. Parts of this documentation will also be posted on my homepage while the work is in progress.

In "Untitled" I will particularly examine the flageolet techniques of Stefano Scodanibbio and the development of these playing techniques from around 1980. The presentation will include many examples from Scodanibbio’s compositions, and further development of the techniques will be exemplified through the analysis of my own works and relevant secondary works. Furthermore, I will look at some opportunities for developing playing techniques found in Boivin's work Zab ou la passion selon st. Nectaire.

”Multiphonics on the double bass” presents the development of multiphonics from Jean-Pierre Robert’s analysis in the book Modes of playing the double bass, and Boivin’s experiments in Cinq algorithmes pour contrebasse seule, up to the current use of multiphonics. Analysis of the playing techniques willl be exemplified through my own works and other secondary works. Analyses of sound, timbre and notation will be emphasized.