Saturday, August 25, 2012

Double Bass

A close associate of a famous pianist had invited us to a vegetarian Sunday lunch in her London garden.
            Another guest was a man of no great stature who parted from our direct company for a furtive few puffs on his Sherlock Holmes pipe.
After pre-prandial, sparkling drinks, he came to sit at our table.
            “Tell me about you,” say I.
            This Englishman was not only a Professor of Music, had played the bass (or was it double bass?) for several years in that famous Amsterdam Concertgebouw Orchestra, was in regular demand around the world for playing his instrument and, from working in Holland, had learned to speak Dutch fluently (much to Margreet’s delight).
            Although singing solo at school, I am almost completely non-musical – generally liking silence more than sound.
            Because a tune from some source or other fills my head throughout each night, I suppose, what with my father playing the drums and saxophone, I have been provided with a small musical gene (many more skipping on through to my youngest son who composes and plays the acoustic and bass guitar in rock bands).
            So, knowing virtually nothing of music, I am curious about it. Thus, my poor table companion came in for some questions,
            What are bass strings made of? Gut alone would be fine but subject to changes in temperature, pressure, humidity, etc. So they have a gut core surrounded by wire.
            Has nylon been tried? Yes, but without great success.
            Does the horsehair in a bow come only from white horse tails? No. Some bass players favour brown hair.
            For how long do the bow hairs last? They break and are cut off. Some bows are rather short of hair.
            How about their tension? The hair is tightened before a concert and slackened after it.
            How does the hair grip the strings? It doesn’t. The hair is treated with a resin powder and would make no noise at all if dragged across the strings without it.
            If you lost your instrument, would another be satisfactory? Another could be used, but you get to know your own instrument’s capabilities.
            Do players in an orchestra ever pretend to play, but don’t? Not so much nowadays, but more often in the past.
            When playing in a quartet or such with a singer, how much does artistic temperament enter the equation? There are temperamental players as well as singers, and when a prima donna singer is a nuisance by making unnecessary changes, the musicians generally agree to do what they were going to do anyway.
            Does much solo bass music exist? Yes, often interpreted from other music, but much is now being composed.
Are there many female bass players? A lot are coming along, but few reach the top flight because they are not physically strong enough.
            To press down on the strings he used his fingertips and two parts of a thumb. I asked to see them. The skin was firm but not hard. If, due to a force of nature, he was unable to play for a while, to start again with soft skin was extremely painful.
            Can you teach up to virtuoso standard? No. I can only teach about 45%. The rest is up to the musician.
            I might have misheard the answers to my recalled enquiries, but I was extremely lucky to have had a chance to make them at all.
            With the questions from this ignoramus over, he returned to a corner of the garden to puff on his St Bruno-filled pipe, and I returned to nibble on a lettuce leaf.