07 April 2018

All About The Bass

Double-bass players are weird and wonderful creatures.  I’ve met quite a few in my time and without exception, they stick in the memory for reasons other than their playing.

Alyn Shipton - and not a beer
 barrel in sight
One of my oldest and finest friends in a bass player.  Of course, Alyn Shipton veers more on the wonderful than the weird side, but weirdness lurks just under the surface whenever he comes into contact with a bass.  At school he not only walloped his bass around in our horrendous youth orchestra adding something which no struggling conductor could ever quite work out what, but cut a distinctive figure in the local jazz scene.  I remember him, for some reason, switching unexpectedly between double bass and a white sousaphone, and I can lay the blame for my early involvement with beer and pubs at the foot of his bass; I went along as often as I could to Alyn’s jazz gigs which were all held in the beautiful little pubs which dotted the west Surrey, east Hampshire countryside. I don’t suppose any of these could comfortably accommodate more than a couple of dozen people, and few had the ceiling height safely to accommodate Alyn’s bass when held upright.  But they had one thing in common; they all sold particularly fine beer.

At college there was a bass player who certainly was 100% weird.  I can’t remember his name and I don’t think I ever heard him utter anything other than occasional vaguely animalistic grunts - and this despite the fact that we were frequently thrown together in gigs, lectures and social events for over three years.  He used to have an old-fashioned Mini (it wasn’t old-fashioned then), from which he had extracted the front passenger seat and the entire back window.  He would thread the bass in through the passenger door, set it on the floor where the passenger seat had been and pass its neck out of the back window. That’s how he transported it.  On one occasion we were doing a concert a couple of hundred miles away, and while the rest of us and our instruments went by coach, he went in the Mini.  As we were about to leave, someone decided it might be wise, since a lot of motorway driving was involved, for him to tie a red rag around the part of the instrument which protruded out of the back, but no red rag was to be found.  Leaving from the music school which was next to a girls’ hall of residence, one of our female orchestral members rushed in, and returned with a red item of underwear which was affixed to the bass to serve as a warning flag.  Whatever following motorists thought of a pair of girl’s red panties fluttering around on the neck of a double bass down the M4 is anyone’s guess, but the bass did the journey there and back unscathed.

Did Gerard Hoffnung get his
inspiration from Roy and Val?
In my early post-graduate years I worked behind the bar of the Red Lion in Bonvilston, a small village in the Vale of Glamorgan.  The intention was to earn enough money to spend on alcohol in the Red Lion, Bonvilston.   Among our regulars was a diminutive local farmer called Roy.  His 100% attendance record during evening opening hours was suddenly broken for a few days, and a concerned drinking-mate went to see what was wrong.  He returned with the startling news that bachelor Roy had found a girlfriend.  Roy’s reticence about bringing Val (the girlfriend) into the pub was explained when, one evening, he braved it.  Val was easily twice Roy’s size, both vertically and horizontally, she sank more pints in a single session than any of our hardened regulars, and remained sober long after the rest of the company had passed caring.  On one memorable occasion, she even carried Roy bodily out of the bar.  Around that time I was brought in to play with a scratch orchestra assembled for an oratorio performance and, lo and behold, who was the Principal Bass?  None other than Val, who managed to dwarf her bass almost as completely as she did her boyfriend.

Shortly after having been taken on as an examiner for the ABRSM, I was at an examiner’s meeting when a very tall man approached me and asked how I was getting on.  He was one of the senior examiners and was a well-known double-bass player with one of the London orchestras.  I told him that the thing I found most difficult was assessing double bass exams.  His response was to remain my guiding principle for the next 20 years; “If they don’t move, they fail.  If they move, they pass.  If you can hear them, they get merit.  If you can hear them and they seem to be in tune, they get distinction.  But you won’t get many distinctions”.

When I first settled in South East Asia in the 1980s, I got involved with an orchestra run by the Sarawak State Government.  To call it an orchestra was a trifle disingenuous; it was more an odd assemblage of random instruments and their owners, not all of whom knew how they functioned.  I recall our sole double-bassist.  She was a small Asian girl who had no hope of ever reaching the top of the instrument, and could certainly never hope to tune it – which didn’t matter, since I never heard any sound at all emerge from its depths.  However, she had one remarkable feature.  She had hair which, quite literally, fell down to her ankles.  I did not know such things existed outside fairy tales, but here it was, and quite frankly, from behind, all you could ever see was a waterfall of black hair and some brown bulges where the bass stood in front of her.  I often wondered if, were a string to break, she could have cut off a few strands of hair and braided them into a new one.  The hair was long enough and had the tensile strength, and while I doubt it would have vibrated enough to create any sound, does that really matter when we are talking double basses?

When, in 1998 (20 years ago – my goodness!), the founding musicians of the Malaysian Philharmonic Orchestra were beginning to arrive in Kuala Lumpur, the office girls were amazed at the sight of one of them.  “He’s SO TALL”; “He’s a GIANT”; “I’ve never seen anyone so BIG”.  They stared open-mouthed whenever the new Principal Bass, a lovely man called Wolfgang Steike, appeared.  If Val had dwarfed Roy, Wolfgang looked as if he could possibly dwarf the Petronas Twin Towers – then the tallest building in the world.  He had, it seems, been a basket-ball player in his youth, but he was (and is) a peerless double bassist.  I never forget watching him before a concert, pick up his instrument by the neck with one hand and turn it upside down to check something with its spike.  You don’t see that sort of thing every day.

Christy Smith - all action and sound
And Singapore, for all its outward desire to erase the weird and wonderful and focus on anonymous conformity, is not without its weird and wonderful double bassists.  Ever since I first staggered into Harry’s Bar on Boat Quay back in the 1990s and witnessed Christy Smith’s Jack Daniels’ fuelled bass antics involving a great deal of movement, a great deal of sound and a great deal of virtuosity, Christy and his various band members have held me in thrall.  (The band was called Chromosome in those days but, as Harry’s has gone from jazz haunt to corporate blandness, Chromosome has splintered and its members gone their separate ways.) Christy is still very much a leading figure on the Singapore jazz scene and, more than that, I bump into him from time to time as we both teach classes at the same arts’ college.  The Jack Daniels may have evaporated, but talking to Christy is still like conversing with a double bass – you are never sure you are hearing anything intelligible coming from its depths, but when it stops you are conscious that something’s missing from your life!  Another bass-playing colleague is Guennadi Mouzyka, who towers over the bass section of the Singapore Symphony Orchestra and manages to make both his bass and his colleagues look positively pocket-sized.

With so many strange, silent beings lugging their basses around, one wonders whether they ever meet up as a collective; much as organists are prone to do. Is there an International Bass Conference which draws all these huge, silent beings together in one place?  I remember attending a concert in London’s Royal Festival Hall in which 24 double basses were ranged along the back of the stage like so many pre-historic stone monoliths fencing in an orchestra.  But mass congregations of basses are rarely seen by outside observers.  On purely logistical terms, where could they assemble?  Possibly some Gothic Cathedral opens its doors after dark to let them all to stand upright for a few hours and rumble away to their hearts’ content.  

As it happens, I have just witnessed one such event.  Tolkien-like I have stumbled, metaphorically, across a gathering of Ents.  But this was not in the dark depths of Fangorn, nor even in the shadowy recesses of an ancient palace, but in the very bright, anonymous and plain surroundings of the Yong Siew Toh Conservatory’s Orchestra Hall.  Once a year all Mouzyka’s pupils gather together and present a concert, and I was there to see it.  Rather like standing on a mountain top and staring at the night sky, I was made aware of the insignificance of my being by the spectacle of so much physical height and profound depth.

Guennadi Mouzyka's Bass Students
Eight of Mouzyka's pupils took to the stage and, in the light of what I've written above, some of them looked to be natural bass players.  When it comes to movement, nobody came close to the highly animated Man Gege.  Playing a transcription of the Saint-Saens Cello Concerto, she adopted all the extreme facial expressions and exaggerated displays of anguished ecstasy which seems de rigueur amongst cellists - but she did it standing up, which was rather weird.  Nevertheless she certainly played with huge enthusiasm.  

The one player who would have got an ABRSM distinction, according to the criteria I was given by my erstwhile examining colleague, was Wang Mingyuan.  She delivered the most sprightly, stylish and animated performance of the evening, almost wrapping herself around her bass as she presented an invigorating account - and one which was immaculately in tune throughout - of the Sperger Sonata in D.

Weirdly, every player opted to appear in dark attire except for Ji Muzi, who exuded Gothicity (is there such a word?) except in wearing a blood-red dress.  But perhaps that was deliberate given her choice of work; Alice in Wonderland by the Russian bassist and composer Alexander Muravyev.  In the light of recent events in Salisbury and the Russian Ambassador's rambling comments at the UN, there was a lovely irony in this Russian composer's take on Lewis Carroll's famous book.  But this is a tremendous piece of music and Ji Muzi presented a powerful and committed account , full of irony and comedy and, in the gloriously ironic "Cheshire Cat" Waltz, turned the double-bass into something remarkably agile.

Prize (if one were on offer) for the most weird presentation had to go to Tu Xinyun, who wafted into the hall, double bass in hand, wearing a kind of grey gossamer collation which  flowed  around her like some impressionistic mobile.  She looked almost ghostly, but the sound she drew from her bass was anything but.  Giving us a taste of American bassist and composer Frank Proto's Carmen Fantasy, Tu exhibited splendid virtuosity and self-assurance.  Apparently training her hair to be as long as my Sarawak bassist (why do all female bassists allow their hair to grow so long and make no effort to tie it up when playing?)  she seemed ever to be on the brink of bending so far forward her tresses (which when standing fully erect, certainly reached to the waist) were in constant danger of becoming entangled with the bow.  Whether this is what gave the performance an edge of excitement, or whether it was the power of her playing, I cannot tell.  But it was a wonderful aural as well as visual spectacle. 

In the light of the Salisbury poisoning, perhaps the most ironic - but certainly the most enjoyable - performance, was that  which ended the programme.  Mouzyka had woven together various themes from the James Bond movies into a most impressive piece for four double basses.  As three bond girls - Ji, Tu and Dahlia Nazir Neniel (denied a solo spot due to "unforeseen circumstances") = throbbed away in the famous moto rhythm, Edmund Song made a dramatic last-minute entry in white tuxedo, sporting his bass and waving his bow as if it were some kind of lethal weapon.  It was fun and it was very good, but it only reinforced my belief that those who play the double bass are basically weird and can switch on the wonderful when required.

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