My first doctoral concert was played on May 8, 2010, and the fifth and last on May 25, 2014. The time span was rather surprisingly in terms of the original scheme. There have been in total 29 collaborating musicians, a conductor, three composers, an actor, an acoustician, a music critic to provide The Second Opinion and a two-person crew to film the concerts. The concert organization process varied from almost unbearably stressful to merely laborious. Apart from the autumn season of 2011, during which I took study leave and enrolled as a full time postgraduate student at the Sibelius Academy DocMus Doctoral School, I have been working on this project alongside my regular orchestra job.
Although this project started more from the perspective of the double bass as an instrument and its involvement in chamber music, already during the early stages the focus began to shift towards the ensemble sound in relation to the acoustics.
At the start, I had rather firm opinions and maybe too optimistic a conception of my choice of hall for each sound theme. Since every doctoral student has full responsibility for organizing his or her concerts, the reality of the project gradually reveals itself in practice. My original crystal clear ideas and choices were compromised on several occasions. That was, of course, partly due to the scale of my concert programs with their varying and some rather large ensembles.
As the demonstrative part of my doctoral project, the course of the concerts presented not only my choices of music according to the general topic, but the entire practical process of executing a chamber music concert series.
Even though I was in charge of the concert programs and most of the organizing, I did not try to lead the ensembles musically, rather taking my usual role as a bass player within the ensembles, whether larger or smaller. The rehearsing and performing process therefore took the normal path found in chamber music, with the exceptions of those pieces that were led by a conductor.
Role of the double bass
Through the course of the five concerts the role of the double bass varied a lot. It ranged from an equal duo partner to a member of an ensemble of ten.
In Stravinsky's theater septet, the double bass keeps the basic beat regardless of what happens to the rhythm of the rest of the ensemble. Bass players know that Stravinsky typically, and especially in The Soldier, does not give the double bass much chance providing the basis for the overtone ring; the double bass scarcely ever plays long notes. The composer's approach to the concept of ensemble sound comes from a completely different angle. Soundwise he leaves the instruments rather far apart from each other, intentionally avoiding a consistent ensemble sound.
Salonen's ensemble sound is more compact and also gives the double bass better opportunities for providing the sound foundations, yet maintaining the Stravinskyan connection. Catch and Release also requires rather more virtuosity from each player, double bassist included.
In the both quintets of the second concert, the double bass's role is clearly more than as just a fifth of the ensemble sound. In the Nielsen and Strauss/Hasenöhrl the best functional range of the instrument is in good use. Obviously, because Serenata was commissioned by a bass player and the Till Eulenspiegel arrangement requires the instrument to cover for half of the orchestra, the double bass's qualities have been inspirational to the genesis of the pieces.
In Beethoven's Septet, the double bass steps back into its traditional orchestral role and remains in the lower register, thus providing its overtones especially for the use of the wind trio so dear to the composer. The double bass keeps the beat throughout the long work and, at times, effectively teams up with the cello.
Dutilleux follows the trends of his generation of modernistic composers and uses the whole sound range of the double bass. At times he makes the bassist to lean across the top of the instrument reaching for the highest harmonics and elsewhere to play an extremely difficult pizzicato solo for several minutes. However, from time to time, in this very original quartet, Dutilleux also employs the double bass as a true bass instrument.
Hindemith gives the double bass the role of a traditional duo partner, with substantial degree of melodic material, moreover letting the piano take care of the bass line. The skillful composer beautifully uses the very best range of the double bass for the solo lines; not too low to be covered by the piano or too high to lose its power. In order to stand out from the accompaniment, the solo lines of the double bass should not occupy the same range as the other instrument.
Vaughan Williams again exploits the fundamental orchestral nature of the double bass. However, he also gives the bass several delightful moments to couple with cello in the spirit of classical chamber music. In the time-honored Trout Quintet formation, the bass player especially adjusts his sound production to the distinctive sound elements provided by the viola and piano.
In his duo, Jaakko Kuusisto also gives the bass the job of a rhythm machine but does not forget the expression of the highest register or the harmonics. Kuusisto carefully took into account my special wishes to also use the bassic qualities of the double bass; he lets the open fourth ring from the very beginning and later uses swinging mid-register pizzicati against the rolling violin figures creating a distinctive sound atmosphere.
The young Rossini pioneered with the untraditional string quartet, creating a strong low-register team with the cello, but also giving the bass some humorous solo lines that always run in the comfortable and sensible, lower mid-register. The missing viola leaves the ensemble sound with an interesting middle range sound gap that gives space for the lower-register team to blossom, especially as the violins often work rapidly in a rather high register.
The Dvořak quintet presents the orchestral bass in a very rich romantic score, in which the double bass not only takes care of the bass line but fundamentally builds the dynamics. The more the double bass can provide good ringing sound, the more the other strings can add to it. Interestingly, the full string quintet provides a rather murkier ensemble ring than when the piano is involved; naturally this is partly due to the composer's preferences with regard to the scoring. Therefore, to my taste, the bass line mostly does not need vibrato and it is neither needed in the middle voices in many of the denser passages. Even though Dvořak does not give the double bass any clear solo lines, a clean execution of the bass part is occasionally rather demanding because the bass is not left alone as the clumsy cousin but is used like any other string instrument.
Harri Ahmas has studied the possibilities of his trio instruments carefully. The double bass remains in its most effective lower register with some brief but convenient melody lines in upper mid-register, and it sets the quasi-jazz beat in the last movement. The most important revelation concerning the ensemble sound is how the timbres of double bass and harp function together. When the lowest register of the bass is in use, the harp seems to create an acoustic space of its own around leaving a good gap for the cutting edge and the overtones of the cello.
In Ilkka Pälli's version of Mussorgsky's Pictures, the six cellos and four double basses do not play as traditional sections, rather each plays its own individual part. The first double bass plays the few mid-register solos while the lowest double bass represents the true bass line of the whole ensemble. On rare occasions, Pälli unites all of the cellos, as in the imposing solo line of Bydło, and all the instruments unite in octaves to represent the Rich Jew. While the cellos take care of the high register of the Mussorgsky score, the double basses also handle a variety of special effects: for example, the church bells of Kiev, by using strong bow strokes and pizzicati sul ponticello as well as the echoes of a church choir in the form of harmonics combined with the players humming bocca chiusa.
About the acoustic adaptation
During the course of the five concerts I have tried to consciously observe the acoustic adaptation process from within the ensembles. With the need to fully concentrate on each coming concert, the observations mainly ended up being made afterwards. Although I describe the acoustic adaptation as a predominately instinctive and unconscious process, there are natural practical phases to it.
When I combine the information gathered during the doctoral concert series with my previous experience, the process of acoustic adaptation appears to me as follows:
Whenever entering a new concert venue or a familiar hall after a period of time, a musician observes or recalls the acoustic characteristics both intuitively and deliberately in rather natural and practical ways.
The sound of the first steps onstage and a few spoken words already give some preliminary information about the acoustic characteristics of a new venue. The noises of an ensemble or an orchestra, setting up onstage, moving chairs and music stands along with tuning and playing the first sounds from the instruments, all together present a range of frequencies from the lowest to the very highest. The acoustic response to these noises gives instant information about the acoustic characteristics of a hall. For me the best introduction to a new concert venue is when one is able to walk onstage alone and just listen to the scarcely audible hum or hiss of an empty hall - reverberation of my own ceased movements. The predominant acoustic qualities of a new hall, like reverberation or a lack of it and the general timbre of the hall can be monitored later on while playing.
The preparation phase starts with a decision about the seating order and formation. The seating order, if not obvious or fixed, has often already been decided during the preliminary rehearsals, but sometimes the acoustic and practical characteristics of a concert venue dictate a new formation and/or seating order. In addition to the formation, the players have to decide how close to each other they will sit. Normally, though not always, the closer the players are situated the better the feeling of the ensemble sound becomes, both onstage and for the audience.
Then, if the circumstances allow, the arranged ensemble has to be positioned optimally onstage according to the gathered acoustic information gathered so far.
Control during rehearsals
The acoustic response to the playing process itself naturally gives the players the most vital information. The interaction between the physical playing process and the sounding result is instant and intuitive. Very often the acoustic feedback reaching the players during playing seems to demand certain changes in volume, articulation or mutual balance, but the sound as perceived in the hall itself may not need such changes. Therefore, in order to avoid the unwanted effects of the musicians' inaccurate or distorted acoustic feedback, there should always be a controlling pair of ears in the hall during rehearsals, which Mr. Isopuro has provided during these doctoral concerts.
In the case there is the luxury of having several rehearsals in a concert venue, the role of the dress rehearsal is crucial. After carefully rehearsing and taking into account the acoustic circumstances, an uninterrupted concert-like run-through gives a good sense of what is coming. During a dress rehearsal, the players make only minimal changes to their playing and most of those are intuitional. The feedback from a listener after a dress rehearsal can accurately guide the process towards a better result. However, after a dress rehearsal, there is normally no chance of trying out the suggested changes in action and the possible adjustments can merely be discussed. The rest must rely on the intuitive and instinctive processes.
The concert is naturally the output phase of the acoustic adaptation process. However, as mentioned in the introduction, the process does not stop until the very end of a concert and at least some fine tuning will continuously take place, though largely on an instinctive basis. Therefore, in a concert, the input and output phases of the acoustic adaptation process overlap and one can assume that in case of there being a second concert in the hall with the same program, it would represent the output phase in a purer form.
Henrik Möller is one of the original major forces behind the acoustic aspect of this project. We had been discussing concert hall acoustics from our different professional angles for years. I had played in several concert halls for which Mr. Möller and his Akukon Company had designed the acoustics. For this project, apart from our regular private meetings, I enrolled at Aalto University, Espoo for Mr. Möller's course on Room and Hall Acoustics. We also collaborated in a special study module with acoustic analyzes of five different halls around the Nordic countries and China. With the lead of Mr. Möller I also took part in the Nordic Acoustic Meeting in Stavanger, Norway where I studied the acoustics of the new Stavanger concert hall and met with several international acousticians.
Mr. Möller provided the performers with general information and guidelines in acoustics for each concert venue. He also advised on the ensembles' seating order and positioning onstage. In the Sibelius Hall and Camerata Hall concerts he managed some major acoustic adjustments. The fine tuning of the Sibelius Hall was in fact the very first time that all of the venue's acoustic adjusting tools were fully used.
About The second opinion
Jukka isopuro reviewed my first doctoral concert for Helsingin Sanomat newspaper in his capacity as a music critic. Having read his review and knowing his interest in and knowledge of sound and music acoustics, I asked him to join my project as a regular collaborator from the second concert onwards.
Mr. Isopuro's role in this project has proved to be very important. His participation in the rehearsal process has also given indispensably valuable information about the acoustic conditions, the ensemble sound and blend, as well as about the double bass's role. He studied the scores in advance and provided the players with detailed information during the rehearsal process. His final reports, presented shortly after each concert, gave an important viewpoint for later study of the output of the concerts. Our mutual communication throughout the concert series grew into a vital part of the overall project.
Interestingly, I had expected Mr. Isopuro's impressions of the concerts to differ more from mine and the other performers. His concluding comments have been very elaborate but, perhaps because of our close collaboration during the rehearsal process, they have usually not contradicted the overall feelings or aural impressions of the performers.
Mr. Isopuro's approach to the role of the double bass in the ensembles and especially to its sound is very detailed. In his comments, he also carefully analyzed the acoustics of the different venues.
Apart from the fact that through this complete process I learned how energy consuming it is to put together a chamber concert series, I simultaneously grew to understand how crucial the role of my background team was. Further into the process, I was no longer just organizing a concert series in different venues but, with Mr. Möller and Mr. Isopuro, gradually building something on top of the information gathered from each concert. Together we did what we as musicians should always do; try consciously to take better care of how a good end product can best reach the consumer.
Even if this project perhaps did not reveal mystical secrets about its subject, it certainly gave many practical tools to enhance the ensemble sound and acoustics around it. Despite the long practical experience of the team of musicians, along the concert series we also were able to establish new effective procedures in approaching new concert programs and performance venues.