This is a post from National Symphony Orchestra bassist Jeff Weisner. Jeff also teaches bass at The Peabody Institute in Baltimore and co-authors the blog PeabodyDoubleBass. Click here for all of Jeff’s doublebassblog.org posts.
So, in my first post, I described what I see as the reality of our situation as bassists vis a vis new music. The vast majority of the music written for our instrument before 1950 is of fair to poor quality, because talented composers had few musical or economic incentives to write for bass during that time. But we are now in a potential golden age for new bass music, where the number of great players and the diversity of compositional styles are growing by leaps and bounds. So, what should we as bassists do to take advantage of this situation? Commission and perform new music!
Many bassists have serious misgivings about undertaking a new piece, especially a premiere or piece that has never been performed in their area before. Here are a few common concerns that people mention about new music:
“It’s all scratchy and ugly” – This is the commonest gripe. The languages of some contemporary musical styles can indeed be challenging. There are two answers to this concern. One is to work on stretching your own musical muscles by committing to exploring a piece that initially turns you off. Often, with a little work, you can learn to “speak” the musical language of a piece that initially turns you off, and can grow to understand and (gasp) even like it and other music in a similar style. This can take time, so don’t be put off if for a while you don’t feel like you’re making progress. The other option is to find new music in a style you like. There are composers writing in all sorts of styles these days, and you can find music that speaks to you from among the many options out there.
“The music is too hard” – Again, there are two responses. One is to just keep looking until you find a composer willing to write piece that matches your level and skill. We need good music for student and amateur bassists as much as we need it for professional bassists. Another is that, by working with living composers, you can help make the bass writing in a piece better. If a composer writes something for me that I think won’t work well, I just tell them! They’re usually very attentive to the concerns of performers and are willing to work on these issues. Several composers I’ve worked with told me that I helped them understand how to write for bass more effectively – think of all the awkward and frustrating bass parts I may have saved future players from having to tackle. There are certain famous composers that I wish I could have instructed in this way. (Does anyone here hate playing Rachmaninov bass parts as much as I do?…)
“It all sucks” – It is certainly true that the vast majority of music written in 2008 will probably not be a masterpiece. But that was true of music in 1808 and 1908 as well. The difference is that previous generations of performers have weeded out the inferior music of the past, so that we only know the very best stuff. By playing new music, we can be a part of that process now. I hope to be the one to commission the next great masterpiece from the next great composer of our time. Only this time, unlike in 1808, that piece will be for bass instead of violin or piano. Imagine if a bassist of 1870 could have convinced Brahms or Dvorak to write a solo bass piece… If we don’t ask ‘em, it won’t happen.
“I don’t know how to do it” – I think this is often the real reason why bassists don’t move ahead and commission new music. Who are composers anyway? What do they do all day? Where do they hide out? How can I at least try to find one who’s good and will write something decent that I like? What if they actually want me to pay them something – where do I find that sort of money if I’m not already rich? What if they go crazy and write me something I can’t play, or that I hate beyond all belief? I’ll cover these questions in my next post.
I hope that these responses help give you some ways to look past these concerns and actually imagine playing new music as something you could do. It does require effort and usually some long- or medium- term commitment to a composer, but it can be a lot of fun as well. And wherever you are in your musical life and career, you can do it.