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Section 3: Percussion

Hand percussion

A set of techniques that particularly attracted me when studying Modes of playing the double bass were the percussive techniques from ZAB, performed with the hands and resembling those of the tonbak drum. These techniques are illustrated in example 3.1.

Ex. 3.1. Percussive techniques resembling the tonbak drum. ZAB, page 2, third system.

The rapid appoggiaturas in this section are played with the fingers of both hands, and Boivin describes the execution in example 3.2. Before practising the percussive techniques, it was first necessary to learn the “fingerings of appoggiaturas and rhythmic groups”. I used a slightly different fingering than suggested by Boivin, and my own fingering can be seen in example 3.3.

Boivin stresses that a particular attention has to be paid to the quality of the stroke, which should imitate the technique of the tonbak. The rhythmic groups must first be practised in a strict, rhythmical manner before they can be freed from the stringently binding notation, to create a more flexible feeling of time and a natural execution of the sounds.

Ex. 3.2.From the Explanation of signs. Boivin’s suggested fingerings.

Ex. 3.3.From the Explanation of signs. Finger suggestions by Håkon Thelin.

These techniques are often played in combination with percussive sounds created by the palm of the hand, the outer edge of the thumb or a resounding finger snap, as explained by the composer in example 3.4. When I was working with Boivin, he was painstakingly accurate in the search for the right sound of all the percussive techniques. The performer must find the precise places to strike and the best resonating spots, on every part of the instrument where percussive sounds are played.

Ex. 3.4. The percussive techniques. From the Explanation of signs.


A detailed notation of accentuations is used in the piece, which most often determines the power of the stroke. Small figures can contain a number of dynamic layers, created by the prescribed accents. It is important to distinguish between these different layers in order to eventually create a more nuanced sound and help establish a certain groove in some passages. Example 3.5 shows the beginning of the last passage of the first movement. In our working sessions, Boivin was repeatedly stressing the accentuation of the muted stroke, the brisk stroke and the roll with the thumb and other fingers that can be seen in this excerpt. Quite powerful accents should be made in order to create a more fluent and rich percussive passage.

Ex. 3.5. The beginning of the last (percussive) passage of the first movement. ZAB, page 6, second system.

Black and white note heads

One particular detail in the notation of the percussive techniques is not explained in the score. The note heads that are used to notate the finger percussion are either filled (black) or not filled (white). It took some time and detailed elaborations for the composer to clarify this notation, although the obvious explanation would be that the black note heads are associated with accentuated sounds. But this is not always the case, and we concluded with the explanation that the white note heads points to a more mellow, wet, or rounded sound, as opposed to the direct, sharp or hard sound of the black note heads. Boivin explained that the black note heads should be played with the fingertips, while the white note heads should be played with the fleshy part of the finger. Seen from a practical point of view, one can argue that it is often not possible to hear the differences between the two attacks, and since the black-headed notes most often are accentuated they have a stronger, clearer sound anyway. But in the passage shown in example 3.6 (and in the preceding rhythmical, percussive passage), it is indeed helpful to play the white-headed notes with a softer attack, which is easier with the fleshy part of the finger.

Ex. 3.6. Example of the black and white note head used for the finger percussion. ZAB, page 2, second system.

Where to play the percussion, on the body or the shoulders?

The percussive sounds of the first movement are played mostly on the front body of the instrument (see example 3.1). I experimented with playing some parts on the shoulders, which is possible through a slightly different positioning of the double bass, but I finally ended up with playing on the front body. The only exception is the brisk stroke (played with the thumb), which I play on the shoulder throughout. However, in the second movement, in the sections where the performer is standing up in an approximately normal position, the percussive sounds should be played on the shoulders (with both hands), the reason being that the bass is positioned like a statue, facing the audience with the performer behind it.


Example 3.7 shows a virtuosic passage from the second movement, where the sounds are played on the shoulders of the instrument. Note the accents on the brisk stroke, which is also emphasised by the dynamic marking (f).

Ex. 3.7. Virtuosic percussive passage played on the shoulders of the double bass. ZAB, page 9, first system.

The virtuosity of the percussive techniques is a distinct characteristic of ZAB and creates a connection to traditional musical bravura. I have received many comments from the audience regarding their fascination for the impressive performance of the percussive techniques. But the work also contains another form of virtuosity, which relates to the gesture, and the theatrical unity of sound and movement. When combined, the musical palette is broadened out into new territories. This is reflected in the composer’s goal for the second movement, where he seeks to enlarge the space and at the same time the relationship between the performer and his instrument. Example 3.8 illustrates a short passage where the percussive sounds are played on the back and sides of the instrument while the bass is simultaneously moved from standing upright to lying down on the side. The movement continues thereafter towards the lower bout of the instrument, where the percussive sounds are finally resounded on the outer limits of the instrument, the tailpiece and the endpin.

Ex. 3.8. Percussive sounds on the back and sides of the instrument, combined with movement. ZAB, page 7, second system.