Introduction

Project

The purpose of this project is to demonstrate and study in practice the instrumental nature of the double bass in the sound environments of different chamber ensembles. The demonstrative part presents the chosen ensembles in five individual concerts, each featuring an overall sound theme distinguished by a particular ring of overtone resonance (see Terminology). The noun ring is not commonly used in English in this meaning. However, I use the expression specifically in this text to describe the substance of single instrument or ensemble sound with all its components in acoustic space.

For each concert I chose a venue that would best enhance the ensembles of the theme. Given the possibilities of each venue, the acoustic conditions have been subjected to manipulation, such as the seating order of the ensemble, the ensemble's positioning on stage and adjustments to the acoustic parameters themselves whenever possible.

The compositions selected for the five programs offer a wide range of ensembles that feature the double bass in idiomatic instrumental roles and different sound environments. A special focus is on the profound effect the double bass has on the overtone ring and the whole sound of each ensemble, thereby generally providing the foundation for the other instruments. Moreover, in the course of the five concerts, through the instrumental use of the double bass, it also becomes evident that the double bass as well as the double bassists have often played a remarkable role in the genesis of the compositions performed.

As a study, this project concentrates on the ability of a chamber ensemble to control the sounding result by interacting with and within the surrounding concert venue in every way possible. The work is a combination of practical music making, invocation of the musicians' experience combined with tapping into some of the latest knowledge of music acoustics.

However, I will not present measurements, numbers or statistics of the acoustics or the nature of sound, for in this concert series the musicians' interaction with the acoustics and the sound is merely practical. The notable number of studies and research that has been made about music acoustics approaches the subject from the viewpoint of physics, contrary to this study, which focuses on musicians' routines and actions for improving the acoustic conditions of a concert situation and the ensemble sound. 

With the help of professionals in acoustics and music evaluation, I merely aim to amass my personal experience about the possibilities of chambers ensembles to optimize the acoustic process of a music performance.

In this literary part I present the five demonstrative concerts, report the course of the events and comment on the gathered information. The original program notes along the video clips from each concert are presented on this website under the subtitles Works.

On the right marginal of my text appear at times brief comments in italics. They are my spontaneous thoughts or feelings during the process of concert preparations and performances.

It's just a bass - no more, no less!

The double bass, a large and in many ways a laborious instrument, has regularly been subjected to over-enthusiastic dabbling with and around the instrument, sometimes at the expense of music itself. Meanwhile, the bass enthusiasts, while at times undeniably successful in exploring new instrumental and soloist possibilities, seem to have forgotten the original role and the fundamental function of the double bass.

Therefore, this concert series recalls what I see as the real double bass, and I have concentrated merely on chamber music, which apart from orchestra work is the most important and natural function of the double bass.

For me the double bass is first of all an ensemble instrument working in bass register. The primary physical limitations of the sound of double bass are the obvious inertia of the onset transients especially in the lowest register (Guettler 2004, Meyer 2009) and the small amount of direction projection (Meyer 2009). Therefore, the beauty and the power of the sound of double bass grow from the cooperation with other instruments. Even the important melodic material of the double bass in the orchestra repertoire, sound the best when supported for example by celli. Even though one can do many interesting things with the double bass in music, already the physical structure of the instrument reveals that the double bass is meant to be just a bass. No more, no less.

Sound themes:

  1. Stravinskyan theater  ensemble, a mixed septet for The Soldier's Tale
  2. Beethoven's original idea of combining strings with a wind trio of clarinet, bassoon and horn
  3. The double bass and other strings with keyboard instruments, i.e., harpsichord and piano
  4. Pure string ensembles –duo, quartet and quintet
  5. A large ensemble of lower strings with 6 cellos and 4 basses – the final demonstration of the consonant overtone resonance

 

Concert venue: The active part of music performance

Today, designing acoustics for concert halls is no longer just a hopeful wandering around in the dark. Specialized agencies led by highly educated and experienced acousticians are being hired for new concert hall and theater building projects around the world. Acousticians responsible for acoustic design provide strict work guidelines for architects in order to ensure a good acoustic result. However, despite careful calculations and long experience, acoustic design is still mostly about eliminating the undesirable acoustic qualities in a highly skilled way. Without exactly copying known concert halls of excellence, a fool-proof acoustic design for a new concert venue is still an unfeasible project.

Along with the new buildings themselves, concert hall acoustics seem to be a big issue among people involved in music, an issue fuelled by the news media. However, this kind of public discussion has rather little to do with a true understanding of acoustics and its nature. Even as musicians, we are generally not sufficiently aware of the physical facts and regularities of the nature of sound and music acoustics.

In planning a performance it is naturally important to find a concert venue that is suitable for the sound of the music on the program. Especially in chamber music concerts, it is crucial to find the best possible match for the ensembles and for the compositions being performed. From the viewpoint of the performers as well as the audience, the size of the concert venue, its acoustic qualities and even the possibilities to control them are important components for a successful concert sound and music experience.

It has been said that besides being able to play their instruments, musicians should also be able to play the hall, in other words, make the concert venue truly resonate with their playing, as if it were just another big instrument of the ensemble. Naturally, this is not always possible, but the increasing awareness and understanding of the acoustic circumstances almost oblige performing musicians to study each concert venue and consciously take full advantage of the acoustic response.

Adaptation process

Musicians' adaptation to a new concert venue is mostly an instinctive and subconscious process, which is highly proportional to experience. There is no way to prepare oneself for it; in musicians' practical life it has also been called the miracle between dress rehearsal and concert.

If we discard the humorous aspect of the expression, we actually come close to the true nature of the adaptation process, which mainly happens in the musicians' subconscious mind during the period between the rehearsals (the input phase) and the concert (the output phase), a time when they are not playing. A musician, an ensemble, or an orchestra, both as individuals and as a collective, automatically adjust their listening and physical playing process according to the acoustic information collected during rehearsals.

Naturally, there is no way to fully categorize the adaptation process as happening only during the not-playing phase, because the process begins at the start of the first rehearsal and ends at the close of the concert. However, the major part of the adaptation process does seem to take place during the not-playing phase.

In this project I intentionally employ and observe the musicians' acoustic adaptation capability as one of the fundamental tools in the entire process of performance preparation and forming the ensemble sound.  

Collaborators

Henrik Möller, leading consultant and Chairman of the Board at Akukon Company, Helsinki and visiting professor of acoustics at Aalto University, Helsinki.

Along with preliminary consultation in choosing the concert venues, Mr. Möller has taken part in the rehearsal process, giving advice on seating, placement of the ensembles on stage and fine-tuning the acoustics.

Jukka Isopuro, music critic at the newspaper Helsingin Sanomat, Helsinki. Mr. Isopuro represents The second opinion in the project. He has taken part in the rehearsal process and in all concerts with the exception of the first, about which he wrote in his capacity as a music critic. His special approach is the sound of the double bass and the instrument's role in the ensembles.