As I've continued to compose this new concerto over the summer, part of me has felt incredibly grateful for the fantastic collaboration I've had with Matt Gibson (the bassist who commissioned the piece). A good collaboration is incredibly essential to the writing process, especially when it comes to writing a new concerto. For this experience, my collaboration has only been with the performer (the sole commissioner), but more often than not, composers will also interact with the conductor of the new piece too since they are also vital to this process. Matt has been very open to try out some of the ideas I've had for the piece, and while some of them haven't worked, they've ultimately contributed to the learning process I've discovered in writing a double bass concerto. I've learned much more about this instrument than I previously knew before, and much of that has come from my collaboration with Matt.
Take, for example, the various extended techniques for the double bass. Standard ones, found in more contemporary music, include playing with the bow near the bridge or the fingerboard. Then there's others like the "seagull effect," a really cool variation of a string glissandi.
Essentially, the player produces an artificial harmonic at a very high position on the fingerboard, then performs a glissandi up and down the string without altering the finger position of their hand. The result is fluctuations of different glissandi constantly restarting through this one motion as the player moves through different fundamentals of the harmonic series (or various overtones and wavelengths at different pitches and octaves, but that opens up another large discussion). In application here, the resulting sound is like a seagull's cry.
An example of this effect is famously found in George Crumb's Vox Balance for Three Masked Players, played by the cello. David Biedenbender (whom I studied with back at Michigan State during my undergrad) also uses this technique for double bass to great effect in his recent work for wind ensemble Cyclotron. You can hear more of what the seagull effect sounds like 3 minutes into the video below:
Another technique common for all string players is "col legno", or to play with the wood of the bow on the string as opposed to the hairs. When a passage is marked like this, the player will naturally play off the string, or "battuto":
There have been several passages in the concerto that I wanted to try and have the player draw their bow on the string, or "tratto", but this ultimately doesn't work for several reasons. So as not to ruin their performance bows, players will tend to use practice bows for "col legno" passages because too much of this effect will damage the bow (especially for "tratto" passages). The effect produces more of a percussive, wooden sound as opposed to distinct pitches. For "tratto", this sounds ugly, and not in a good way. Thus, I'm only using "col legno" for a very few number of passages, and it's always off the string.
I'm glad they approve.
One extended technique Matt and I have discovered has, to my knowledge, rarely been used.
Why the question mark? We're still testing out the technique.
The Langlois effect was coined by Hector Berlioz in his 1844 treatise for instrumentation and orchestration. In his treatise, Berlioz writes that, during a particular performance, one of the bass players in Paris (named M. Langlois) "gripped the top string between his thumb and forefinger instead of pressing it against the fingerboard, and by going up high near the bridge, he obtained some extraordinary notes of high power."
The most noteworthy example I was able to find of this was in Richard Strauss's famously controversial opera Salome. Start at 2:21 in the video below, featuring one of the final scenes in the opera:
Hear that pinching sort of crying sound in the background? That's the double bass performing the Langlois effect. The tone quality is much different from that of playing near the bridge or the fingerboard. While sounding pinched, there's a definite resonance of tone with this effect, unlike the thinner or subdued tone qualities found in other extended techniques.
In this excerpt, though, the effect is played at a soft dynamic - it's accented, but still within the soft dynamic. What Matt and I are testing is to see if we can obtain the same quality from the Langlois effect, but within the whole range of the dynamic spectrum at various places on the top string.
Much of these extended techniques appear in the third and fourth movements of the concerto (apart from various types of pizzicati, or plucking the string) because it was difficult to introduce them in a fluid, organic, and consistent way for what inspired me to compose the first two movements. The first movement (last talked about here) introduces the concerto and establishes more of the overall structure and tone of its orchestration.
The second movement, "Land of the Free," envisions more of the rural American landscape - notably, the places which best represent its historical settings, such as the national monuments and museums in the Washington, D.C. area.
The form for this movement has a more fluid structure than the previous movement. Although bound by the motives and themes of the concerto, it's composed as if scoring for a historical documentary unearthing the fabric of American history for the "tourist" (again, the soloist's character in the piece). Exploring these places, you can feel the richness of the country's history and its ancestors come to life in new ways - both in the nation's proudest moments, and even its darkest times.
This sense of nobility starts out with one simplistic goal, an idea seemingly impossible to reach but nevertheless obtainable: freedom. Independence.
In the movement, this idea starts out with a simple, gentle lullaby based on this piano progression:
As this idea comes to fruition, and later becomes a full reality, the music becomes gradually more complex and intricate. And although this progression transforms on this journey, the basic idea remains the same:
The second movement of this concerto balances the nobility and majesty in this region of the countryside with the darkness imbued from parts of how history shaped these lands. The bassist serves two roles equally balanced out: primarily as the "tourist" character, while sometimes also the foundational bass line for the whole ensemble:
Movement III of the double bass concerto is much more light-hearted and fun, exploring the sea side in the style of a jovial sea shanty. But, more on that later.
On a side note, if you ever find yourself writing a playable piano reduction for your larger-ensemble pieces, here's a great tip: Try to avoid three staves as much as possible. If you have to sacrifice some material, keep what you feel is the most important framework for a particular passage/the whole piece. I've had to rewrite some of the passages in my piano reduction numerous times due to these problems:
Who said anything in life was easy, though?