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Introduction

ZAB is first and foremost a piece that is difficult to learn, once thoroughly studied it is not incredibly complicated to play. After having deciphered the unconventional score, the difficulty lies particularly in mastering the percussive techniques, the gestural play and the theatrical elements. However, in correspondence with the minute attention to detail reflected in the score, the composer is equally expectant of the performer’s ability to closely follow the given instructions. The following story of Boivin’s visit of the United States in 1982 (as told by Boivin) illustrates his rather rigid approach to the musical execution of his piece: Backed by a grant from the French Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Boivin wanted to join the Center for Music Experiment at the University of San Diego, California, to work on an extension of ZAB through computer based composition. He had already been in contact with the seminal double bass soloist and mentor for contemporary double bass music, Bertram Turetzky, who had shown great interest for the recently composed ZAB. Unfortunately, Turetzky was on holidays when Boivin arrived, and some time passed before he finally met a student of Turetzky's on the campus, the now famous improviser and new music advocate Mark Dresser. Dresser was apparently very interested in playing ZAB, he had received the score and Boivin believed that he had prepared parts of it already. But disappointingly, in a joint working session shortly after, it did not take Dresser more than a few minutes to conclude that ZAB was not for him. He asked for more freedom in the interpretation than Boivin was willing to allow, and the extreme demands on the performer's ability to play what is written were not something he was comfortable with. Dresser simply claimed that his own position as an improviser and composer was being questioned and politely laid the piece aside. And so ends the story, since Boivin was unsatisfied with the position he got at the university and quickly returned to France without ever meeting Turetzky (who was still on holiday).

Similar to Mark Dresser's, were my own impressions when first seeing the score, accompanied, however, with a strong, decisive feeling of wanting to play this piece. I quickly suspected the unique historical significance of ZAB within European contemporary music, which seemed to me important to communicate. There definitely lies a huge challenge, but also a satisfaction in knowing that ZAB has not been performed by anyone else than Jean-Pierre Robert. It provides the feeling of a certain exclusivity or ownership of the composition. All together, working on this piece was like a treasure hunt in which the content of the treasure chest was only fully revealed at the first (new) performance of the piece.

After I discovered ZAB, I also encountered other works by Boivin. Among them were a later work for solo double bass, Cinq algorithmes pour contrebasse seule, written in 1991 and also first performed by Robert. Cinq algorithmes is a rather traditional solo piece, without the theatrical elements of ZAB, but still an exploration of a number of other unconventional playing techniques. Boivin's compositional ideas of sound and structure are organised in five short movements, each movement being characterised by a technique, soundscape or descriptive idea: 1.Et-Ou (And-Or), 2.Interpolations, 3.Jeu de vie (Game of life), 4.Boules de neige (Snowballs) and 5.Spectral. The fifth movement called Spectral was for example my first musical encounter with multiphonics.

The main categories of sound in ZAB are divided into traditional sounds on the bass, the sound of percussion and the sound of speech. The percussive techniques remain the predominant element throughout the piece – the double bass, in effect, becoming a metamorphosed version of a tonbak drum. Additionally, percussive sounds are also produced by use of voice and with the bow.

Looking at the so-called traditional sounds on the bass, we find that these mostly consist of extended bowing and pizzicato techniques. Boivin wanted to explore the vast territory of timbre – in situations where the different categories of sound also become juxtaposed to each other or are being mixed together so that new colourful shadings appear – and in doing so, he chose to ignore the equally vast possibilities of elaborating on melody and harmony. Rhythm is not only very present throughout the whole piece, but clearly the centre of this percussive landscape.

For many years, I didn’t practise ZAB at all, and in the meantime I was performing Cinq algorithms on several occasions. Gradually, I started to pick up ZAB and practise a few parts, mainly the percussive techniques, which had fascinated me for a long time. My master degree at the Norwegian Academy of Music, which I finished in 2003, was a thesis on percussion techniques on the double bass in contemporary music. ZAB would have clearly been a major work in this investigation, if not for the fact that I discovered the piece long after I graduated. The percussive techniques, which are based on the Persian tonbak drum, made me curious since I was personally interested in adapting elements from folk music and traditional music for the bass. Some of the techniques in ZAB inspired me to create variations and new sounds in several of my own recent compositions, most notably in Shared moments and Glasperlenspiel. To a certain degree, one could say that the percussive techniques had matured with me during several years. When I eventually started my full and final practice of ZAB, I had the feeling of a greater understanding of these techniques, both in terms of technical performance skills, which at this point had become trained and natural, and in terms of approaching the work with an ability for matured musical interpretation and contextualisation. Considering the other special techniques in ZAB, my experience provided me with an extended understanding of these when I again picked up the piece for serious practice. Through other pieces, I had worked a lot with the flageolet techniques and the variety of bowing techniques (for example gettato and ricochet), which meant that the landscape I encountered in ZAB was not unfamiliar to me any more, but allowed a controlled navigation with my musical and technical compass.