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Section 1: Theatre

The performer's role in ZAB is mostly kept within the traditional frame of music performance. The continuum between music-making and theatrical action is hardly broken, as the musician only has to step out of his or her role as a performer in a few situations while playing, and in equally few pensive meditative breaks in the music. Boivin explains his reasons for the restricted use of theatrical effects, or acting, and the use of humour, in this way: “…please just play the piece and corporal movements as indicated but never add any theatre attitude! Think about Buster Keaton who remains always serious, even when people laugh. Effectively, audiences generally feel humour and sometimes smile in the particular situations you’ve already found in the score. But I’ve noticed that they always retrieve a very concentrated listening attitude a few seconds later because these extra musical passages come from the music itself and not as an affect added by the player. If you attempt to exaggerate a comic situation, the audience will not listen anymore and the piece will become poor. Jean-Pierre Robert tried once this approach and it was really a pity to see him as a not professional comic actor. Here is the ambiguity of the piece, at the same time very serious and not at all. So, in conclusion, never consider that you are an actor in the piece, just a wonderful musician who plays a score including some gestures as a specific material of the piece and an extreme prolongation of ‘normal’ bass play, including the ‘no sound’ passage (but people can go on to listen in the silence). If you remain serious, people will certainly laugh sometimes but with respect for the music and the quality of the concert.”

It is not necessary to precisely follow the score in the referential theatrical patterns of movement. The score usually provides a detailed graphical representation of the act, but the performer should eventually make own experiments in finding the right sounds in combination with the movements. And finally, the timing of all events is very important. I have previously stated that it is crucial to follow the time instructions in the score, and to proportionally enlarge or shorten sections that are structurally connected. On the other hand, the timing of the theatrical actions sometimes makes it necessary to step out of the structural time. The audience must certainly be given enough time to perceive the details in the theatrical interpretations of movement and gesture and in the figurative acting.

Theatrical interpretations of movement and gesture

The passage in example 1.1 begins with wild glissandi in the top register of the bass; three seconds on the G-string, then three seconds with a fourth interval on the D and G-strings followed by three seconds with glissandi ad libitum. Over the next period of nine seconds, the sound should transform into a grinding sound of high glissandi and scratching bow on the lower strings while the performer moves into a position where the bass is almost weighing heavily on the back of the performer, as if the bass was forcing the performer to the ground in a battle of gradually strangled cries. The last shivering of this battle is heard in the beginning of the 36 seconds passage, where the sound is produced by playing col legno tremolo between the bridge and the carpet on the floor. There are a number of ways to play this sound, and in my own interpretation I ended up with a less violent sound where I play with the wooden tip of the bow against the floor and the hairs of the bow against the bridge. When played like this, a very quick tremolo is possible. The performer then suddenly awakes from the suppression of the double bass, with a loud stroke of the palm of his hand against the side of the instrument. This prepares for a percussive, quasi-improvisatory dialogue (or another battle?) with the instrument, which is moved to its side (end of the first system). Percussive sounds on the back and sides of the bass are mixed with col-legno battuto on the strings, which are being damped by the head or cheek of the performer. In the last three seconds of the first passage in the second system the head is abruptly moved away from the neck and back again (note that the events in the preceding six seconds, the beginning of the second system, follow a time proportion of 2-1-3 seconds). Another violent stroke, this time against the fingerboard, breaks the percussive action while the instrument is turned so that it lies on its back against the floor and resting on the shoulder of the performer. The percussions from the beginning of the system are then repeated with some variation (we can see a symmetrical proportion within the system), before the situation again returns to ‘normal’ when the performer, at the beginning of third system, slowly rises to an upright position. On the way up, col-legno sounds are hit on the E-string in beats of 1, 2 or 3 notes, while the cheek dampens the string. The left hand plays a percussive tremolo on the body and under the fingerboard.

Ex. 1.1. Theatrical interpretations of movement and gesture: “battling with the instrument”. ZAB, page 4.

When rehearsing the fourth page in Boivin's presence he was very strict about executing the events within the written time, which is especially difficult in this passage. The symmetrical proportion of the second system, for example, should ideally also be perceivable for the audience. Since the percussive actions differ slightly from each other, a clear understanding and communication of time is essential. The last section (the last 9 seconds) must be exactly as long as the first section (the first 9 seconds) of the system.

I suggested that the interpretation of the theatrical aspects of page four could imply some kind of battle with the instrument. The sounds are constrained when the double bass overcomes the performer and forces him down to the ground. Yet another frenzied fight (not so gestural, but sound related) occurs while lying on the ground. This struggle might reflect that the dialogue between instrument and performer can sometimes evoke frustrations and eventually even violence. Of course, many other interpretations are feasible, and the scene may also very well be nothing else than a gestural interaction with the instrument.

The gestures that we can see in example 1.2 can easily be given the theatrical interpretation of ‘cleaning of the bass’. During the first fermata the arm ‘cleans’ the strings from rosin just after the bow has been playing on the strings below the nut. The sound of this movement is very soft, but still audible! Then, percussion on the shoulders of the instrument mixes with sweeping gestures that seem to remove dust from the shoulders and body of the instrument.

Ex. 1.2. Theatrical interpretations of movement and gesture: ‘cleaning of the bass’. ZAB, page 8, second system.

Figurative acting

The first instance of figurative acting that occurs in ZAB is illustrated in example 1.3:

Ex. 1.3. Figurative acting. ZAB, page 2, second system.

Here, in the middle of the second page, after a rhythmical passage that gradually intensifies and culminates in a movement of the right foot, which is ‘playing’ on the lower rib thereby imitating the soughing sound of a jazz brush, the performer suddenly freezes in a position resembling the Hindu God Shiva. In addition to being a resulting action, a frozen moment, of the previous complex of motions, the figure is also a visualisation of the sounds allusions. We have already suspected a resemblance between the percussive sounds and music from an Eastern tradition, and in this context one might think of Indian music and the tabla drum (which is the Indian version of the Arabic goblet or tonbak drum).

Continued throughout the rest of the first movement and the entire second movement, there is no similar theatrical moment. On the other hand, Boivin makes use of a vast register of gestural motion that becomes theatrical in the context. For example, through the “battle” between the instrument and the performer, where the bass is played lying flat back on the floor (described in example 1.1), and in the following section of combined sound and movement (see example 1.4), where the bass is turned around and played on the back and sides while being slowly laid down on its side.

Ex. 1.4. Combined sound and movement. ZAB, page 7, second system.

In a short, but dramatic and funny section, showed in example 1.5, the instrument lies on the side with its back facing the audience. The performer then suddenly crawls behind it, so as to hide after having produced sounds that resemble an embarrassing fart! Here, the performer plays percussively on parts of the instrument (bridge, fingerboard and tailpiece) which is hidden for the audience. He should therefore pay extra attention in producing a clear, articulated sound, which is loud enough for the audience to listen.

Ex. 1.5. The performer hiding behind the instrument. ZAB, page 7, third system.

All these movements, which become theatrical in the context, are combined with playing the instrument (sound making). No movements are incidental: they either create sound or prepare for new sound-creations. This is evident in example 1.3 where the moment of release from the position of the Shiva involves that the hand strikes the strings in a vigorous action with a resulting explosive sound that quickly disappears in a downward glissando, as in a sharp exhalation. Example 1.4 displays another synthesis of music and gesture, where the performer plays virtuosic patterns of percussive sounds on the shoulder and lower ribs while, in a quick movement, the bass is put down on its side. Once the bass is down, the movement is steered towards the lower part of the instrument. Still playing percussive sounds, the tailpiece and the endpin are established as a new position.

Boivin does not linger in single positions for a long time, even though he explores the sonic possibilities of the instrument through longer passages, using various patterns of movement within a separate space. Provided that he discovers sounds that lead to certain associations, for example a fart (see example 1.5), he sounds are often sonically implied before being explicitly, and humorously revealed in a visual illustration of the sound.

Theatre without sound

Most of the explicit theatrical actions happen in the third movement. The movement is introduced by a short and expressive two-voice choral that moves in and out of dissonant harmony (sostenuto espressivo). This is followed by a longer drone-section around the tone D; first through barely audible sounds (misterioso, arco col legno) which are then interrupted by a rhythmical and timbral fantasy played with a pick. The intention of this introduction (which is also similar to the composer’s intent for the whole piece) is to facilitate a subsequent sensitive meditation on timbre and sound. Boivin recognises this section’s sounding similarities to Eastern traditional music and admits to having used musical references when writing this short fantasy.

In example 1.6, we can see how the introduction ends in a thoughtful gaze, frozen in a pause of the music. The head is then steered into a symmetrical position behind the neck of the bass in a calm, affected movement, before the meditative playing is continued. We see that the position, which has been prepared by moving the head behind the bass, is also used to create sound, by knocking the forehead against the neck of the instrument.

Ex. 1.6. ZAB, page 11.

In a transitional part, after the performer has awakened from his dreamy state, he or she – for a short moment – remains in what seems to be a religious position (see example 1.7). The player performs a percussive movement along the neck of the bass, which ends in an ‘act of worship’ with the hands clasped around the neck. It is tempting to attach a notion of respect or adoration to this symbolic body posture. The score prescribes ‘religioso’, a state of mind, which I interpret as a way of giving thanks to the music, a meditative state that is also inspired by the Eastern sounds of the music. Further connotations to this instruction can be found in the reference to “Saint Nectaire” in the title of the piece, in the ritual passage of growing up, as which Boivin experienced the actual process writing of the piece, or finally in the transcendental act of playing the piece.

Ex. 1.7. “Religious” posture. ZAB, page 12, first system.

The most extensive soundless theatrical part of the piece last for about 36 seconds and occurs towards the end of the third movement. Its intention and meaning is open to many different valid interpretations. The performer leads the bow in front of his or her eyes, as to create a new perspective by looking through the bow. It is clearly a fascinating visual sight, to see the performer looking through the bow as if wearing a set of glasses. A certain interpretation seems to be rather compelling: After performing such a radical piece, the performer takes a break from the music while looking at the world through new eyes, with a new and broadened perspective of his or her role as a bassist, interpreter, musician… How does the journey continue? Where is the work supposed to go from here, and how does it end? Although the score illustrates a rather thoughtful, attentive or questionable face, it is also possible to perform this part with a subtle sense of humour.

Ex. 1.8. Looking through the bow. ZAB, page 16, third system.

Obviously, the piece comes to an end, but the questions asked when looking through the bow are not really answered. At a structural level the work is fully completed, but the reflection on the musical material gradually fades into silence.