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Section 1: Traditional sounds on the double bass

I discovered studying Modes of playing the double bass (1995) by Jean-Pierre Robert. Robert began writing this book in 1986, within a collaborative framework at IRCAM (Institut de Recherche et Coordination Acoustique/Musique). In Modes of playing the double bass, he presents a thorough review of playing techniques on the double bass in European contemporary music up until 1990, and some of the new playing techniques are illustrated through examples from ZAB. The illustrated techniques are a variety of purely instrumental techniques and sounds, which in ZAB, however,are sometimes also closely linked to the performer's body movements. In the third section of this text, I dedicate a chapter to the techniques that are linked to gesture, but in the following, I will explain some of the traditional sounds on the double bass that are used in ZAB.

Arco gettato

In Robert’s book, a few techniques, with illustrations from Boivin’s music, particularly caught my attention. The first being the arco gettato, as it is illustrated in example 1.1.

Ex. 1.1. Arco gettato, ZAB, page 1, third system.

The arco gettato is described by Robert as a continuous sautillé, which produces an effect close to the roll of percussion instruments. It is executed like the sautillé, but the bow almost adheres to the string. It uses the spring of the stick, and tight rolls of up to 7-8 seconds (Robert writes 3-4 seconds) can be created using added pressure and very slow bowing. A variant, or extension, of the arco gettato is a technique called rimbalzo verticale by Stefano Scodanibbio. This is a technique I have used in many of my own works, and it is illustrated in my text New Techniques – New Works.

Ex. 1.2. Arco gettato mixed with sautillé (staccato) techniques. ZAB, page 1, second system.

Pedal tones

A pedal tone on B is present throughout the first and the third movement. The first movement contains no real melodic or harmonic material, and the tonal sounds, played with the bow, linger around B. It is the bow that creates the tone-colours, which are structurally defined to the positions sul tasto (ST), poco ordinario (PO) and sul ponticello (SP). Within the sul ponticello, we also find three different positions for the bow. In example 1.3, the pedal tone in the first bar is being played with two of the bow positions of sul ponticello. In the second bar, an ornamentation of the pedal tone resembles embellishments in Eastern vocal techniques like glissando and quick vibrato. The bow is positioned very close to the bridge, and a trill on harmonics creates a very shimmering sound. The sound is in itself not identifiable as a traditional sound on the double bass, although it is created through rather traditional playing techniques. We can also observe some structural details in example 1.3: When looking closely at the durations, we see that everything follows in proportional patterns of 1, 2 or 3. Notice that the ornaments in the first bar (played on harmonics) reflect the pattern 2-1-3.

Ex. 1.3. Pedal tone in the first movement. ZAB, page 3, third system.

The variations in the drone-like, or pedal-tone, sequences, which can also be perceived as characteristics of Eastern meditation, are a result of the many technical innovations that followed in the wake of the development of western modern music. The pedal-tones were chosen for their ability to make the instrument resonate. Boivin wanted to catch the natural sounds of the bass, to find the strategic sounds that offered a lot of possibilities for the variation of timbre.


A chorale, evocative of a medieval chant, opens the third movement (see example 1.4). The introduction, the chorale prelude, also hints at very old forms of musical introductions. Thus inserting a reference to the historical dimension of music, the very new is mixed with the very old. Originally sung by the Christian congregation, and using melodies from Gregorian chant, the chorale adds to the number of spiritual references found in ZAB. It bestows a meditative, almost sacred feeling to the opening of the movement. Towards the end of the movement, in a different setting, a similar spiritual feeling emerges, when the body movement of the performer creates Zen-like spaces in which the performer can finally step out of his or her traditional relationship with the instrument (this is explained in Part 3, Section 1).

The chorale is played bowing in a traditional manner but is quickly abstracted when continued in a melody and a drone that are played arco col-legno (both with hair and stick). This part can be seen in the 27 seconds section in example 1.4. The culmination of the opening section is a pizzicato/pick fantasy on the already established D-drone (the beginning can be seen in the 36 seconds section in example 1.4).

Ex. 1.4. Opening of the third movement. ZAB, page 10, first and second system.

Melodic meditation

A melodic, bowed passage, which again reminds us of an oriental meditation, this time revolving around the central tone G, appears towards the middle of the third movement. Example 1.5 depicts this passage, introduced in the 36 seconds section in the score. It can be played rather freely, but Boivin’s indications (accelerando and ritardando, and the combined sounds of the two strings) are in fact very precise instructions for a good sounding result. The composer points out that the quartertones are included to enhance the resonance between the two pitches, and that they are not melodically important. Still, I find it hard to play this passage without giving it a melodic feel. It is interesting to compare the score with Jean-Pierre Robert's approach to the piece. Robert’s version is a very personal interpretation of what Boivin has written. It sounds very good when Robert plays, in my opinion, however, it sounds even better when the part is being played in closer proximity to Boivin’s original intention, as it is expressed in the score.

Ex. 1.5. Oriental meditation with the bow. ZAB, page 13, first to third system.

Real bass sounds

A passage whose beginning is included in example 1.5 (the 27 seconds section), and continued in example 1.6, is, according to Boivin, the only passage in the work where we can hear “real bass sounds”, although they are only fragments of sound, knitted together with left hand pizzicato techniques. The “real bass sounds” are combined with a groovy feeling, which links the true sounds of the bass to a rhythmical parameter, and to the instruments function and position within jazz and popular music.

Ex. 1.6. The “real bass sounds”. ZAB, page 14, first system.