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Tackling the “Amati” bass – Part II

This post contains thoughts and observations about playing Gary Karr’s former double bass. Read the first part of my “Amati” bass story here.

 

When I first picked up the Amati bass from Aaron Reilly at the Guarneri House, I couldn’t wait to get it home and start working on my recital program. I pulled it out of the case and got a chill up my spine when I saw the distinctive sunflower-embossed tailpiece. It had a new set of Pirastro Permanent solo strings on it (which happen to be my favorite brand of string), so I knew that I was ready to go.

 

This famous bass is extremely small. It actually doesn’t feel like a bass at all, but more like some strange bass/cello amalgamation. I play a large 7/8 Jakstadt as my main bass, so transitioning to this tiny solo bass was quite challenging. Usually I stand when I practice and play solos, and I am used to the feeling of a lot of mass resting against my side when I play. It felt very strange to have such a light instrument against my side—it actually was difficult for me to keep it balanced. Everything about this bass is small—the bridge, fingerboard, neck, scroll, and string length. The above photo is a side-by-side comparison of my Jakstadt bass and the “Amati” bass. Notice the vast difference in size.

 

My two weeks with the “Amati” were filled with orchestra rehearsals and performances in Chicago, and this was hard on both my nerves and my chops. Switching between big and small, heavy and light, orchestra tuning and solo tuning, and extension playing and upper register playing was very stressful. I am sure that many bassists are comfortable switching between vastly different set ups, but for me it takes a few days to really feel at home on a bass, and I unfortunately ever got to really get a practicing groove going just with the “Amati” bass.

 

The sound I pulled at first on this bass was very sweet but fairly small and unfocused. The tone of this bass got richer and fuller the higher I played, and it got smaller and less resonant the lower I played. This is not a knock against the bass. Quite simply, this is an incredibly special and specialized instrument, and I had not learned the skills to fully activate its potential. This instrument sounds (under my hands, at least) fantastic from the G octave to the edge of the fingerboard and beyond, decent on the D string and lower G string, and downright strange on the E and A strings.

 

This bass responds best when the bow is right up against the bridge and is pulled very slowly with a lot of weight. If I bowed the strings any farther away than that the instrument sounded kind of like a violone or other such early instrument. Only when the bow is near the bridge with a great deal of weight in the right arm did that famous “Gary Karr sound” emerge. While playing like this, one also has to remain very free and flexible in the right arm. Too much weight will crush the sound, however. Playing this bass with the correct right arm technique is like herding cats—very challenging and often frustrating, but strangely fun.

 

 

I have all the pieces I played on this recital in my podcast Jason Heath’s Double Bass Performances. Click here to subscribe to the podcast and check out all of the tracks. Also, you can click any of the individual links below to hear me on the Amati bass:

 

Eccles Sonata movement 1

Eccles Sonata movement 2

Eccles Sonata movement 3

Eccles Sonata movement 4

Koussevitzky Valse Miniature

Gliere Intermezzo

Hindemith Sonata movement 1

Hindemith Sonata movement 2

Hindemith Sonata movement 3

Massenet Meditation from “Thais”

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September 22, 2006 Posted by | double bass, Music | 10 Comments

Milwaukee Symphony dives into iTunes


Last year the Milwaukee Symphony became the first American orchestra to sell archival recordings in iTunes. Their press release states:

The Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra announced the launch today of MSO Classics, an e-label created specifically for digital distribution of its recordings at the iTunes Music Store and other digital music stores and services, including Yahoo! Music, Napster, RealNetworks Rhapsody, and MusicNet outlets including AOL, Virgin, and HMV, via a worldwide digital distribution deal with IODA, the Independent Online Distribution Alliance. The Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra is the first American orchestra to distribute, through digital music stores, recordings previously unavailable for purchase. Performances on “MSO Classics,” an e-label owned by the Symphony, will be available for 90 days, beginning today, exclusively on the iTunes Music Store – the world’s most popular digital music store.

“The Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra has always been a pioneer – in the world of new music, through innovative programming and by being the first American orchestra to visit Cuba,” said Andreas Delfs, MSO Music Director. “Now a new age for classical music distribution has begun, and we are pioneers once again.”

I firmly believe that iTunes and other forms of online distribution will be a huge thing for symphonic music in America and the rest of the world. The “good old days” of frequent recordings beefing up the paychecks of symphony musicians are long gone. New methods of distribution need to be explored, and symphony orchestras are finally beginning to take some progressive steps.

I have written about classical music and iTunes several times in the past. You can read about other classical music/iTunes developments on these previous posts:

New iTunes innovations

Last holdout bands join iTunes
Big demand for classical downloads

It is great that the Milwaukee Symphony is also putting their music up on IODA Promonet. Many people may not be aware of Promonet–it is a service similar to the Podsafe Music Network, only for musicians on record labels. The PMN is generally for independent artists. Promonet allows podcasters to play certain tracks from artists on their podcast, and as podcasting continues to mushroom in popularity this will be an increasingly smart way to market classical music. Podcasting is great for narrowcasting to a specific audience. The audience for classical music is a small but loyal percentage of the population, and as podcasts continue to become more mainstreamed and more classical music fans start subscribing it will be perhaps the best way to market this music. Being ne of the first to market will be a very good thing for the Milwaukee Symphony.

The Milwaukee Symphony should start a podcast about their upcoming performances, play clips from their archives, and offer links to purchase the archived tracks from iTunes on their website.

I would love to see orchestras begin to organize their websites like a blog. Each week could be a new blog entry on the website. That entry would include a podcast for the week highlighting the music being played, links to download all of the tracks from the orchestra archives (for a fee), embedded video of an interview/performance clip with either the guest artist, conductor, orchestra musician, or music lecturer, a blog entry about what was happening behind the scenes for that week (see Brian Dickie‘s blog for a great example of this kind of blog), and Amazon/Borders/Barnes & Noble links to purchase albums containing these pieces. Orchestras could set up affiliate accounts with these three companies and thereby get a cut of each recording sale even if they had no involvement with the recording.

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September 11, 2006 Posted by | iTunes, Music, Orchestra, podcast | 1 Comment

Musician’s Etiquette


Matthew Wengerd bought this post to my attention recently. It is from oboeinsight, a great music blog. Oboeinsinght is definitely worth checking out, even if you don’t play a double reed instrument. The writing is insightful and educational and covers a wide variety of musical topics:

All-The-Time Etiquette

  • Rehearsals and performances should be scent-free zones. This doesn’t mean we allow body odor though! So use that unscented deoderant, but refrain from colognes and perfumes.
  • If you are sitting second, never play the principal’s solos while warming up! It’s just not done. Even at the rehearsals.
  • Don’t play other instruments’ solos either. Rude (again).
  • When the concertmaster tunes the orchestra, stop playing and be quiet. (Unless, of course, you’re playing first — then tune the orchestra!)
  • Be quiet. (I can’t tell you how many times I hear orchestra members yakking … sometimes even during performances!)
  • Don’t conduct. Really. You may think you know more than the conductor. You may think you can do a better job. And that could even be true. But it’s rude. Don’t do it.
  • Don’t stare at one of your colleagues when you aren’t playing. Even if he or she has a solo. That way, if a mistake is made, you won’t be accused of staring “because I made a horrible mistake” … believe me I’ve heard folks accuse others of this.
  • In the same vein … DON’T ever look over at someone after he or she has made a mistake! That is so incredibly rude it’s inexcusable. We feel bad enough when we make mistakes. We don’t need to know you know! Don’t grimace, laugh, shake your head, or anything else either. In other words: DON’T REACT!

Read the complete post here.

Musician’s etiquette consists of a great deal of minutiae not usually obvious to non-musicians. A non-musician might not even be aware that someone in the orchestra is being rude or obnoxious. Turning around and watching a colleague play a solo is considered very rude, for example.

Personal behaviors that are considered acceptable in daily life can be very distracting in the orchestra. Obvious frustration after making a mistake is not acceptable. Turning and looking at a person that has just made a mistake (even worse–laughing at them) is a bad idea.

Old disagreements and feuds boil and simmer over a period of years in an orchestra. The same may be true in an office setting, but musicians tend to be more highly-strung, sensitive, and insecure, so small slights take on a magnitude of their own.

Even though I like to think that I am a fairly tolerant person, I completely lose it when someone starts playing my solo to goof around before a concert. Even though I know the person is not being malicious or trying to show me up, some reptilian part of my brain kicks in and I have to resist the urge to slug them.

Perfume or cologne is a really bad idea for musicians. You may like how it makes you smell, but no one on stage does. If you want to annoy 25-50% of the orchestra (I can smell perfume on a musician from many rows away) then go for it, but it is probably not the wisest idea.

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September 10, 2006 Posted by | Music, Orchestra | 2 Comments

Ultradian Rhythms

Merlin Mann wrote a recent post on Ultradian Rhythms–cyclic biological occurrences in the human body. Many systems in the human body apparently work in 90 minute cycles. This is an interesting concept to ponder. Apparently, for maximum performance one should take a physical and mental break every 90 minutes. Concentration begins to suffer after 90 minutes, and these breaks supposedly reduce stress.

Interestingly enough, this is the exact point at which a symphony orchestra takes a rehearsal break. I will pay attention to my concentration cycles during the day for the next while and see if I can detect 90 minutes cycles in my daily life.

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September 9, 2006 Posted by | General, organizing | 3 Comments

Tackling the “Amati” bass – Part I

The very first double bass soloist I ever heard live was the extraordinary double bassist Gary Karr. I was fifteen years old and had only been playing the bass for a year. Gary Karr was playing with my hometown symphony orchestra (the South Dakota Symphony), and my teacher Charles Kreitzer had gotten me a ticket for this performance. This concert was a revelation for me–I had no idea that a double bass could be played like Gary Karr played it. Low rumblings and flute-like harmonics mesmerized me, and I knew from that point on that I wanted to be a double bass player.

I know that I am not the only bassist who has had this experience. Gary Karr inspired countless double bass players to pursue the study of this great instrument. When I ask my colleagues to name their first double bass solo record they almost always name something by Gary Karr. His televised performance of The Swan from Carnival of the Animals under Leornard Bernstein at Carnegie Hall propelled the bass into the spotlight as a solo instrument. I have an old record of this concert (which has been released on CD), and that track is my favorite Gary Karr recording of all time.

I had the opportunity to go backstage before the concert in South Dakota, and I saw my teacher and Gary Karr rehearse a duet for the concert. I marveled at his playing, but also at his small bass with the beautiful, sunflower-embossed tailpiece. Gary Karr frequently spoke of the sound of a bass as being like sonic chocolate. I never understood what he meant until I heard that bass up close. It had a complexity and beauty that I had never heard before. It was owned by virtuoso bassist and Boston Symphony conductor Serge Koussevitzky, and it was given to Gary Karr by Olga Koussevitzky, Serge’s widow, under unusual circumstances.

Fifteen years later I was asked out of the blue to play a recital on this magnificent bass. Gary Karr had recently retired from the concert stage, and he donated his bass to the Internatonal Society of Bassists. It was being loaned out at the moment to performers for use in recitals. I naturally agreed to it, although I was quite busy and hadn’t prepared any repertoire. This opportunity was not likely to come again for me. I would only have the bass for two weeks before the recital, and I began to get apprehensive about my ability to play well on a foreign bass in such a short time. Also, I had heard that the bass, while possessing a beautiful sound, was very difficult to play. I will describe in detail the experience of playing this bass in Part II of this post.

This bass has for years been attributed to the Amati brothers of Italy. Recently, however, the origins of this bass have been called into question. A scientific study using tree ring dating was recently conducted on this bass. You can read the conclusions of the study here. I wrote a short piece on this study for my recital:

Gary Karr had acquired the Amati bass (the bass that this recital is being played on) at a special party after his Carnegie Hall debut by Olga Koussevitzky, widow of bass virtuoso and famed conductor Serge Koussevitzky. She gave Karr her late husband’s bass in 1961 after telling Karr that she had seen the spirit of her late hus- band embrace Karr onstage as he performed. Before he became a conductor, Koussevitzky had been a virtuoso bass player.

Koussevitzky is said to have purchased the instrument from a French dealer in 1901 for $3,000. Nothing is known of its history before 1901, but it is reputed to have been made in 1611. Karr made all of his albums and played virtually all of his pub- lic performances on this magnificent instrument. He recently donated this famous instrument to the International Society of Bassists.

Most sources claim that the “Amati” bass was made in 1611 by the Amati brothers, Antonio and Girolamo, of Cremona, Italy. If this is true, it would only known dou- ble bass made by the Amati brothers. In 2004 this bass was carefully inspected and evaluated independently by four experts in bass design and style, and all agreed that inconsistencies in style suggest that the bass was constructed after 1611. The wood appears to date to 1761 at the earliest. Also, many attributes of this bass suggest a French origin. All of these facts suggest that this bass was not made by the Amati brothers. Nevertheless, it is a fantastic bass that has inspired countless bassists over the last few decades, and I feel very fortunate to have an opportunity to play this recital on it.

It is now commonly referred to as the Karr-Koussevitzky bass, but it will always be the “Amati” to me no matter who actually made it.

 

You can learn more about this very interesting double bass at the following sites:


Strings Magazine Article – “Parting Gift”

Angarano, Anthony – program notes for Gary Karr’s “Spirit of Koussevitzky” album from Hsiao-wei Cho’s website

Next time:

Tackling the “Amati” Part II – playing the bass

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September 8, 2006 Posted by | double bass, Music | 2 Comments

200 years of content accessible through Google News


Ars Technica recently announced that Google is starting the Google News Archive Search, a service that will allow for searches from selected sources up to 200 years into the past. Ars Technica reports:

You can think of the new search in one of two ways: a more specialized version of a regular Google search, or a much broader version of a Google News search. Queries to the News Archive search magazines, newspapers, and some Web-only publications for content, and can return results in a standard format or a new “timeline” view that makes it easy to follow the progression of a story over time. Searches can be limited by date if you want only early 20th-century coverage of the Titanic sinking, for instance. Just as we’ve come to expect from Google, searches are fast, the interface is clean—and Google has no current plans to make any money from the project.

Read the complete post here.

Google has a concise description of the new service. It will allow for timeline searches for a specific topic though a period of time, identify key periods of news for a specific name/story/event, and the popularity of the text being identified. It will be interesting to see how this service develops–it could prove to be an incredibly useful educational and research tool.

See more about this new Google development in this post from Google Blogoscoped.

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September 7, 2006 Posted by | Education, organizing, Tech | 1 Comment

Catalin Rotaru on the double bass

Catalin Rotaru at Arizona State University has some great online recordings (MP3) of himself playing some excellent double bass showpieces. Click on any of the links below–they will take you to Catalin’s recordings. Catalin previously taught at the University of Wisconsin – Stevens Point. I teach at the University of Wisconsin – Whitewater, one of the other satellite University of Wisconsin campuses.

Catalin is a great guy and an awesome player. Check out his playing below–it is definitely worth it.

  1. Giovanni Bottesini – Variations on “Carnival of Venice” (excerpt)

  2. Pablo de Sarasate – Zigeunerweisen (excerpt, originally for violin)

  3. Johannes Brahms – Sonata no. 1 in E minor for cello and piano (excerpt from the 1st movement)

    Catalin Rotaru: Double bass

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September 7, 2006 Posted by | double bass, Education, Music | 4 Comments

New podcast episode from The DoubleBassCast

I hope that any bass players reading my blog have already checked out The DoubleBassCast. If you haven’t listened to this podcast yet, stop reading this right now, open iTunes (or your podcatcher of choice), and subscribe to this outstanding podcast. You can also visit the website here. The DoubleBassCast (formerly called The BassCast) is really an excellent podcast. It is the only real double bass podcast out there, and, fortunately for us bass players, it is terrific. I have a couple of podcasts, but one consists of my live performances and one consists of MP3 practice tracks for double bass solos, scales, and orchestral excerpts. The DoubleBassCast is a REAL podcast, with interviews, commentary, in-depth discussion of excerpts, and the like. Episodes come out every 1-2 months (I’d love to hear more), but each episode is a polished gem of a podcast.

I listen to a lot of podcasts every day. I must spend a couple of hours each day listening to podcasts. Whenever a new episode of The DoubleBassCast I put all of my other podcasts on hold and listen to it–sometimes several times in a row. My favorite episode of The DoubleBassCast is Episode 105. In this podcast all the orchestral excerpts from a recent Tenerife Symphony audition are discussed. The commentary on each excerpt is intelligent and insightful, and it would be a smart thing to listen to for anyone preparing for a double bass audition.

The newest episode (Episode 107) features an interview with Dietmar Engels. Dietmar serves as Principal Bass for the Coburg Opera House in Germany. This episode is all about the Concerto for Double Bass and Orchestra by Jean Francaix. Dietmar talks about the process of preparing an unfamiliar concerto, and it is a very interesting interview. Check out the shownotes for this episode here.
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September 7, 2006 Posted by | double bass, Music, podcast | 1 Comment

Podcast for Teachers – Techpod


Podcast for Teachers recently celebrated their 50th episode. This podcast is produced out of Fordham University’s Regional Educational Technology Center in New York City and co-hosted by Mark Gura and Kathy King. It offers a witty and edgy look at news, trends, and innovations in the world of educational technology. I only recently stumbled across this great podcast after hearing an interview with Mark and Kathy on Podcast411. I learn several new things every episode, and I am slowly working my way back through their earlier episodes.

This podcast is a must for any teacher who uses technology in the classroom (which is basically every teacher these days). This show has become incredibly popular. In addition to thousands of downloads (I recently heard on the podcast that there are 400,000 subscribers worldwide), the show is broadcast on two internet radio stations. Every teacher should give this show a listen!

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September 6, 2006 Posted by | Education, Music, podcast | Leave a comment

New iTunes innovations


Fall is fast approaching, and that means new product announcements from Apple. I have written about some of Apple’s new developments earlier on my blog–you can find my previous posts here and here. Apple is set to make some new announcements in mid-September, and the word is that a new iPod Video is likely to be announced. The biggest anticipated new development for iTunes is downloadable movies. These movies are expected to be priced at $9.99 or $14.99. Either of these price points seem too high–one can go to Wal-Mart and pick up the same movie at a higher resolution and with special features on DVD, and people wth even a little tecnical knowledge can convert their existing DVDs to iPod format already. The convenience factor of direct iPod movie downloads will likely rack up a lot of sales for Apple (and the movie industry), however.

Some of the expected movie release titles for iTunes include American Psycho, Dogma, Cold Mountain, The Lion King, Aladdin, and Chicken Little.  You can find a complete list here.
Apple is notorious for keeping their new products under wraps, and the new Pod is no exception. The AppleInsider recently reported on some new features supposedly coming from Apple this month. :

Although the semi-official word out of Apple Americas is that invitations to the event have “not been sent” out, a seemingly inadvertent leak out of Apple Europe last week pinned the affair for Tuesday, September 12. It will be hosted by Jobs in a yet-to-be disclosed California location and beamed via satellite throughout the world.

Jobs will have much to talk about during the event, sources familiar with the chief executive’s plans have said, including new iMacs and a much-anticipated update to the iPod nano. But the real push, they say, will be tied to the big screen.

After what has seemed like nearly two years of rampart speculation and unbridled enthusiasm on the part of its fans, the Cupertino, Calif.-based Apple is ready to introduce its al la carte feature film download service as part of iTunes.

Though slightly battered in his negotiations with major motion picture studios, Jobs is expected to announce that flicks from at least one major studio will be immediately available for download starting at just $9.99 a pop. In very much the same way national television networks elected to join the iTunes video bandwagon after some initial hesitation, additional studios are likely to follow suit in the coming months.

This is great news for Apple and for iPod fans. Movies downloads are the next logical step after music video and TV show downloads. There are also rumors of an iTunes jukebox and a new 23 inch widescreen iMac. A video-enable AirPort Express base station is also rumored to be announced. It is also anticipated that the new Core 2 Duo chips will be added to Apple’s current desktop and laptop offerings.

It is widely speculated that the new iPod with video will contain a much larger screen. Here is a widely circulated “leaked” image of a new iPod video screen. Who knows if this is actually for real.

In related news, DRM problems with Sony audio from the iTunes music store have been reported. Apparently some tracks from Sony artists are being prevented from being downloaded. Read more on this subject on Kim Cameron’s recent post.

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September 5, 2006 Posted by | iTunes, Tech, Web 2.0 | 1 Comment