Why gut strings?
Why ancient instruments?
Why all the trouble?

I was listening to a few versions of the Paganini Variations for One String the other day. I'm playing the piece, albeit in a new version that i arranged with Haruko Tanabe. Our arrangement is for solo Double Bass and Viola d'Amore, and it contains some quotes from other pieces. More about this version can be found in the FUKUSHIMA PREPARATIONS chapter elsewhere in this blog.

Several things struck me. First of all, i found two bass players who apparently missed the bit about the "One String" and who from time to time made a short excursion to the second string for comfort. Naughty boys. This, of course, spoils the very "raison d'être" of the piece. It's the only thing that makes it worthwhile to spend all the blood, sweat and tears. If you don't stick to the one string, what's the point? 

On the other hand, i like a bit of anarchy and disobedience myself, so i'll let it pass. I'm in a good mood.

Anyway, that's not what i want to talk about. It's the sound of the modern solo bass. Nowadays i often find it hard to listen to for more than 30 minutes. Somewhere along the way i've fallen out of love with it, i've become disenchanted you might say. It doesn't speak to me. Many bass players seem to have come to an agreement about the kind of sound they want to produce, a kind of "international standard sound", without anyone asking if this is really the best we can do, soundwise. 

It's a clean, projecting sound, an attempt to imitate the (modern) violin or cello without ever reaching that impossible goal. A sometimes more, sometimes less hysterical legato-vibrato sound colour aimed at pleasing the ear. An obsession for purity, and a desire for uniformity from string to string and from position to position. All best accomplished with modern (steel or compound) state-of-the-art strings.

In short, simply a beautiful sound. What's not to like?
What's wrong with modern strings?

Gut is rough, full of parasites (if not in the strings themselves, hopefully, then at least in their sound). Parasites: a nasty word for everything that actually makes the sound "alive" and complete. All these little sounds and noises that are sanitized away in modern strings. Pasteurized and purified.

We cut out all the little details that make the sound interesting and vibrant with life - leaving only the allegedly "pure" core.

"Pure" equals boring, in my opinion. It also equals distance from what is inherently human, from what is "normal", what is basic reality and real life. We've gone way too far in this quest for purity. Purity, with its obvious religious connotations of god-like "immaculity" (apparently a non-existing word, but look, here it is), may be essential in medicine and for drinking water, but in music it's not always important or even desirable. There's no purer sound than a sinus wave. There's nothing much interesting about those, is there?

Of course, it's all a matter of priorities, of choice, of taste. But it's good to think these things over instead of just following the herd and the general consensus; instead of simply accepting what we've been taught by predecessors - unthinkingly, obediently, uncritically.

I remember a true story Marcel Ponseele (probably the world's foremost baroque oboe player) told me. A lady wanted a refund for a CD she had purchased in a record shop. The CD was flawed, she said: "I can hear the musician breathing, and i hear the sound of the fingers on the instrument. I want my money back".

There it is: the illusion of purity at its most ridiculous. There is a whole recording industry that is aimed at surgically removing any hint of a human being behind the musical instrument. How far can we go in de-humanising our music?

For me, "noise" is an integral part of the musical experience. Especially in the classical field, or in any music where truly acoustical instruments are being used.

Sure enough, composers don't usually notate the normal breathing sounds of the performer or the extraneous noises of bow hair on strings and of fingers on keys, of valves being opened and closed, the occasional squeels and squeaks of reeds, or the thump of piano pedals being manipulated (or rather "pedipulated". This is a real word, by the way).

But to me, they are all part of the musical experience, as long as they don't become more important than the musical narrative, the story the musician is telling. Trying to sterilise the actual music-making is a neurotic occupation, a compulsive cleanliness disorder.

The attraction of playing on gut strings then, is in the fact that it sounds more human. If "telling a story" is what you're after (and i certainly am) then the sound of gut is right up your alley. If "speaking" rather than "singing" is what i want to do, gut strings do a far better job of it than modern strings do. 

They also produce a rich palette of "parasites" that closely resemble those of a normal speaking voice. When engaged in conversation, or in narrating, the human voice is full of little sounds that make it... well, human: breathing, swallowing, hesitating, interjections, mmhh's and aah's and oh's, and all those little details that it would be impossible to catch in writing and that make the story come alive. Infinite variations in dynamics, accentuation, articulation, words half swallowed, vocals shifting in pitch up or down, traces of regional accents or dialect, even the occasional scratching of the head or jaw while talking, folding your legs or shifting position. All of these elements combine into and are integral parts of a whole, of a communicative experience.
(This "impurity" is also what makes the difference between a "classical", schooled singing voice and most pop, folk and rock singers. And although this may sound like a blasphemy, especially coming from an opera musician, i usually much prefer the latter).

The way we talk, and interact with our listeners, changing the way we express ourselves according to the glimpses we catch of our counterpart's expressions of agreement, sympathy, or boredom and anger, this is all part of the whole package.

And in music we should cut away all these little but essential elements in order to keep a "pure" core of sound, detached from our human reality? I don't think so.

Again, it's a matter of opinion and of personal priorities. But we as musicians whose business it is to communicate with an audience, should at least reflect on these things and base our way of playing on the outcome of our reflection. 

It's a fact that using gut strings, playing at a lower pitch, using "ancient" bows and frets, allows me to be far more articulate. I am no longer attracted to the smoothness of modern string playing. I often find it bland and tasteless, and the only way we know how to give back some life to our sound is to apply liberal amounts of left-hand-shaking (also known as vibrato).

Especially on a double bass, there is so much we can do with a different approach. Bass players have enormous freedom to do as they like. Different sizes, numbers of strings, shapes, bow holds, frets or no frets, and especially different tunings allow us to explore sound worlds the other string instruments can only dream of. Instead of trying to imitate them (in the very best case scenario, that's all what we can aspire to be: poor imitations) shouldn't we go our own way rather than to be the frog that wanted to be  a cow and blew himself up in the process?

Let's shake off this fear of not being taken seriously as string instrument players. Let's get rid of this inferiority complex. Let's stop trying to be violins or cellos. Let's embrace imperfection of sound. Perfection is death. Japanese pottery artists purposely avoid perfection in their work by adding a touch of imperfection, a "grain de beauté". Gut strings can be rich in grains de beauté, in character. Character always beats purity.

Think it over (but don't over-think it).


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