This is the start of what will be a blog series dedicated to writing about the conceptualization of a new Concerto for Double Bass and Chamber Ensemble. This new work was commissioned by Matthew Gibson, a DMA performance major at Michigan State University. I've already begun work writing the piece this summer, and its premiere is scheduled to occur sometime next academic year (or the 2017-2018 season). There will also be a piano reduction created with the concerto in the future.
While I've had some experience writing for double bass (certainly for band and orchestra), this is the first opportunity I've been given to feature the bass as a true soloist. With every new piece, there are always a number of questions to be answered that open up new (and hopefully different) paths to explore. With that in mind, the first part of my process for this new concerto has involved discovering these thoughts and ideas.
Because I currently don't have any interesting pictures right now in relation to this topic, enjoy some more pictures of my cats. They are beautiful creatures.
QUESTIONS, QUESTIONS, AND EVEN MORE QUESTIONS
Before a single musical note is even written, I decided to start with formulating the most basic ideas of the piece. Much of this came from the discussions Matt and I had when we talked about the commission. For example, the duration of the work, a basic instrumentation list (is it a solo piece? For multiple players? And, of course, what instrumental forces will be used?), and so on can all be determined from this process.
Duration - This new double bass concerto will be (as a ballpark estimate) between 15 and 20 minutes in length spread across multiple movements. Since the estimate has already been set in stone, this can bring up any number of further questions delving more into the specific details of the piece:
That's quite a lot of ideas to come from just determining the length of the piece! However, they're all necessary to the process because if I don't know what it is I'm looking for, or if the idea for the new work isn't strong enough to generate what I'd potentially want to express musically, then I ultimately won't know where to begin writing. With all of that in mind, this brings us to the next part of the planning process:
Instrumentation - For the full score of this double bass concerto, the accompaniment will consist of a chamber ensemble primarily made up of winds and brass. There will also be 3 percussion players involved (one of which who will be on timpani) and piano. The inclusion of a piano part here is separate from the piano-reduced version of the piece that will be created later on. All in all, the group consists of 12 players in total, a semi-large force in comparison to a full chamber orchestra or concert band.
Some of you may be thinking, "Why chamber winds? Why not just orchestral strings, or use a chamber orchestra?" A number of double bass concerti use this instrumentation to great effect (Nino Rota's Divertimento Concertante and Frank Proto's Carmen Fantasy, to name a few). Orchestral strings have a very lush, colorful, and harmonious sound that's also rich, vibrant, and clear no matter how thick the ensemble texture can get. It's a well-balanced force which both pushes the double bass to experiment with new colors and sounds complimented with playing off of the sounds of the other stringed instruments... These are all things that I didn't want to utilize whatsoever with this piece.
The benefits of writing for a chamber ensemble is that the group is so unique and interchangeable that one can be flexible with the number of players and specifically what kind of instruments they wish to use. One of the decisions I was very adamant about when discussing the piece with Matt was to avoid using stringed instruments in the ensemble (yes, pianos have strings in them, but that's not the point) to put the position of the soloist more outside of their comfort zone. This will allow them to stand out as a more unique player within the ensemble. And, it will give the soloist a chance to interact more with individual players as opposed to large forces of similar instruments. This will be especially clear when these interactions involve extended techniques from the solo part.
The absence of further string players in the group does present some drawbacks, though. In a full concert band setting, it is very rare that the double bass can heard unless the instrument has exposed solos or is part of an intimate moment with thinner textures. While this work will certainly be using fewer players, I am still presented with this problem given the selection of the instrumental forces due to the various different kinds of timbres I will be using. It's possible that some of these timbres may clash with the sound of the double bass and cover it up completely within the texture. My goals for this concerto's orchestration will therefore be partly trying to overcome these situations as much as possible, especially as the texture becomes thicker in the ensemble. This will be easier to accomplish with the number of players given in the chamber ensemble.
I've described many of the technical aspects behind the formation of this new double bass concerto, including a decent number of the questions that have been answered and riddles that have yet to be solved. In Part II of this introduction, I'll delve more into what the concerto will be about and what kind of roles the soloist and accompaniment will be taking on. Stay tuned!