Today, a new video of my work for double bass, Sparrow, is out with the Riot Ensemble. I’m really pleased with the result, and I wanted to write a little about the work.
The piece came out of a close collaboration with Marianne Schofield, who helped shape it from the very start. Our first exchange was about which pieces we particularly liked. I’m a big fan of Giacinto Scelsi’s works for double bass; Marianne mentioned Rebecca Saunders’s Fury, Dai Fujikura’s Es, Scarlet Ibis and Bis, Beat Furrer’s Lotofagos, and Stefano Scodanibbio’s Alisei, among others. I’ve compiled the works we discussed in Spotify and YouTube playlists.
Marianne highlighted Fujikura’s astonishing use of harmonic pizzicato, which resonated with me. I was also astonished by the way that harmonics as high as the 11th harmonic came out on Furrer’s Lotofagos. These works thus provided a technical jumping-off point for mine. Marianne and I discussed these technicalities, building up a sonic repertoire for the piece.
The other component of that language came from the specific tuning I used for the double bass. I’ve recently written using modes built out of fourths, symmetrically divided by semi-augmented seconds. This seemed like the obvious place to turn when writing for the double bass since it is conventionally tuned in fourths. As a result, I chose symmetrical tuning, in which the bottom string is tuned up a semi-augmented second, and the top string is tuned down a semi-augmented second. This tuning, to me, implied the following mode on D.
With this tuning, and the desire to write using chords based on the natural harmonics of the bass, I had a lot of my material provided for me. The next step was to see what was possible! I wrote a big list of my desired harmonic pizzicato chords and sent them over to Marianne. We worked out which of these worked, and tried some initial melodic material.
For me, a lot of the harmony came down to different shades of D. There’s the D mode above, and then there are the natural harmonics on the D string, which give the beautiful D major sound that the piece ends on. This is the fun thing about these modes which subdivide fourths: you’ve still got these strong dominant and subdominant functions, but the thirds of the chords are totally changed. The rhetoric of tonal harmony is used in a foreign language.
For example, the central section’s bowed double stops harp on the A string, providing a sound that is almost like a dominant peroration in conventional harmony. But the resolutions are surprising. In bar 108, for example, there’s a clear dominant-function harmony, that leads to chord III instead of chord I. But, because of our odd thirds, chord III is based on F quarter flat. It is a very interrupted cadence; I like the sound.
Alongside this modal drive, I became interested in the different types of consonance and dissonance available to me. The open fourths and fifths are consonant, as are the sweet major tenths based on the 5th harmonics. But I also found that, as the mode became established, its various ‘thirds’ (whether semi-diminished, semi-augmented, or inverted into various sixths and sevenths) began to sound surprisingly consonant. Take bars 107 and 110, for example. The semi-diminished 10th and semi-augmented 6th sound consonant to me, by this point.
By contrast, the semi-diminished or semi-augmented fifth creates a bell-like clang. This harmony takes a more prominent role as the piece moves on, culminating in the dramatic pizzicato chords in bars 129 and 133.
Alongside harmony, timbre was this piece’s other driving force. I wanted to explore the whole range of the bass (the piece spans four octaves) and a wide sound set. There were two key poles of contrast: harmonics vs not, and pizzicato vs arco. This initially corresponds to a set of thematic areas. There’s the simple pizzicato melody that opens the piece (A) and a faster pizzicato melody in bar 29 (B). There are also two principal arco themes: in bars 45-48 (C) and bars 89-98 (D, in excerpt above). These get refigured. B reappears in arco harmonics in bars 62-75, the harmony of C provides the basis for fast pizzicato section in bars 126-133, and A finally appears arco at the end of the piece.
The harmonic work that began my writing created valuable constraints, shaping my composition all the way through. But for most of the process, it was an intuitive exploration of melody and timbre that followed simple structures with deceptively regular phrasing.
I’m pleased with the result. I also had an unusual amount of fun writing it! It was a real pleasure to work with Marianne on it. I’m enormously grateful to the Riot Ensemble for recording it, getting it on Radio 3, and releasing this wonderful video.
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