By Dominy Clements
I am something of a bass player myself, though on the subcontrabass flute rather than a string bass, which however has roughly the same range. With this in mind, I am always drawn towards solo repertoire and the kinds of experiment which, as Jeff Weisner points out, have completely transformed the world of double bass performance in a lifetime. Composer/bass players such as Gavin Bryars with his Double Bass Concerto and other solo explorations have helped bring the instrument out from the big bunch of woodwork to one side of the orchestra. This entirely solo recording by Weisner will do no harm in this regard either.
Descriptions of Armando Bayolo’s Mix Tape led me to expect something tough and raunchy, but the effect is actually rather gentle and classical. While based around pop songs of the 1980s, the six pieces are “arranged within the framework of the Baroque instrumental suite … like the keyboard partitas or suites for violoncello or violin by J.S. Bach.” There are plenty of technical connections as well. Counterpoint can be heard in the wide leaps of something like the central movement, …bird can swing… , which starts like a cross between J.S. Bach and an Appalachian dance. There are few actually really funky bits in the work as a whole, though Kid’s Got the Beat does indeed have a beat, and there are a few flights of gritty heft. Like pop songs, each of the movements are short, the majority under three minutes. With quite a high degree of poetic expressiveness this is a highly enjoyable and approachable piece which allows you to hear music and forget you are listening to a bass instrument. There’s some humour along the way, for instance in the grunting pig rooting around at the bottom of (A [Very] Brief Meditation on the Nature of) Parentheses as well as technically awe-inspiring playing such as the final Room to Lay the Law.
Davis Smooke’s Introspection #11,072 is, as the title suggests, more contemplative in atmosphere, “the second in my ongoing series of Introspections [exploring] microtonality.” The upper harmonics are used in an atmospheric opening, which opens out into further exploring “this tone world in the beautiful low register of the bass”. This is all very fine, but if you’ve ever hung around basses and bass players of all grades you will be very used to hearing this kind of thing and coming to realise how hard it is to play this large instrument in tune. Microtonality is an added dimension to music for which I have a great deal of time in certain contexts, but the timbral semantics of the bass make it hard to hear this other than someone ‘searching for the right note’, which in Jeffrey Weisner’s case is by no means an issue. This is the kind of piece which to my mind demands an extra reference point, like Berio’s oboe Sequenza which works around a single held note throughout. It has atmosphere and expression, but is alas not particularly memorable.
Michael Hersch’s Caelum Dedecoratum is by far the most ambitions piece in this programme, stretching the player’s technical abilities and stamina to the full. Both composer and performer have known each other since student days, and this always helps in such an important project. Having the sounds and capabilities of your musician well established in the mind and ear make creating an effective and substantial work that much easier, though Hersch admits to the “exhilarating and nerve-wracking” challenges of writing for such an instrument. Demanding to play, this is also more demanding of the listener, though there is lyricism and drama inherent throughout. It uses its 20-minute duration powerfully and without waste. Hersch doesn’t go in much for special effects, preferring to use the strings and resonances of the instrument with relatively conventional techniques, as a vehicle for strong musical ideas. Impact, style, poetry and theatrical flair are all terms which apply to this work, leaving space for your own associations and interpretations. This is not an everyday musical landscape, but it should inspire rather than be seen as one which strikes fear.
Superbly recorded and nicely presented with notes by composers and performer, this is a highly respectable Innova release - one which alas may be seen as somewhat specialised, but which is richly rewarding and deserves a wide audience. The word Neomonology seems as yet undefined, but is certainly coined in this release.Jeffrey Weisner’s selection of works shows his artistic vision to be one which goes far beyond showcasing the double bass as the virtuoso equivalent of other string instruments. By using it as a uniquely expressive vehicle in its own right he demonstrates worlds richly deserving of further development by composers and performers alike.