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Boring Double Bass Parts
Last post Sun, Aug 08 2010 by Mr String, 22 replies.
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Posted on Sat, May 22 2010 01:41
by ericsandmeyer
Joined on Tue, Jan 22 2008, Posts 16

When writing for orchestra, I want to keep my musicians challenged and "entertained" but my scores often have double bass parts which are long series of whole notes to keep the harmony anchored.  Sometimes when I try to give them something more interesting to do, that needed anchorage is lost.

Perhaps this is because some of my ideas are conceived at the piano where the left hand sustains a harmony while my right hand is doing something.

Any ideas on how I can keep my basses from falling asleep with boredom?  I've tried alternating octaves with intevening fifths, etc.

Any good orchestration guides/books that deal with this topic?

Thank you for your helpful answers.

Posted on Sat, May 22 2010 05:22
by Guy Bacos
Joined on Sun, Jan 16 2005, Quebec, Canada, Posts 1995

I don't think it's because they are conceived at the piano, my advice would be to take a step back at the composition level. if you look at any well written piano piece, such as  Beethoven Sonatas or any Brahms piano works, the base line has a life of its own. So you might want to work that aspect before starting the orchestration. You could still enhance the bass line through orchestration techniques, but don't count on it too much without a strong bass line right from the start.

Posted on Sat, May 22 2010 07:28
by noldar12
Joined on Thu, Dec 04 2008, Posts 582

 As a long-time amateur bassist (play primarily the solo literature now though), it struck me that some composers did tend to write boring bass parts (Copland is one example - though I do like his music).  It seems to me that it helps to think in terms of counterpoint when writing bass lines, rather than just vertical harmonic structure.  If thinking in terms of vertical structure, it can be helpful to use inversions - to not always give the root note to the bass.

As for actual bass parts, have a look at Beethoven and Brahms symphonies, Mahler's #1 and #2 also come to mind, as does some of the R. Strauss tone poems.

Posted on Sat, May 22 2010 09:17
by DaveTubaKing
Joined on Fri, Feb 27 2004, London, Posts 770

One composer who wrote magnificent bass parts (which ever instrument) was Havergal Brian of whom it was said he wrote from the bottom upwards. Quite a few of his symphonies are available on Naxos I think.

David Carter https://sorabjiorchestralmusic.wordpress.com/
https://www.youtube.com/...UCoEithAEjsd4IBViwsfQFwQ

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Posted on Sat, May 22 2010 21:17
by William
Joined on Sun, Nov 24 2002, USA, Posts 5709

I remember writing a bass part that was really bad because I was concentrating on melody and countermelody and the bass was just the bottom notes of the harmony.  I think the way to avoid this is to think of it as someone playing an instrument - what do they want to do as they stand there in the orchestra?  Just saw away at the bottom of droning chords, or actually play a musical line?  Each part ideally should be an individual line that sounds good alone.  Not easy to do, though.  Bach was probably the greatest at that ever.  Beethoven wrote really good bass parts in his symphonies which were the first examples of separating the orchestral basses from cellos which they previously had been shackled with.

Posted on Sun, May 23 2010 01:48
by ericsandmeyer
Joined on Tue, Jan 22 2008, Posts 16

William, I sort of went off on what you posted about and looked at just my bass part.  As the computer played through it, I imagined myself playing in a section.  Suddenly, some very interesting bass parts came into view and clarified the compositional intent a bit.  I spent today revising accordingly.  I will give it a try with the rest of the parts! 

Here are a couple of more questions this process is raising...

1)  Is it "dangerous" to go into the orchestration phase too early?  Given Mr. Bacos' feedback, I sense that some composers get to a more defined state of affairs before deciding what instruments are going to play what.

2)  Or can it be valid to orchestrate as one completes the composing?  (I noticed that the orchestration and the compositional process all come out "as one" in my imagination.)

3)  I need to do a LOT more score study than I have done.  Does copying scores help understand orchestration?  Playing the parts individually on the piano?  Other methods?

Thank you to all who have replied.  I am in the midst of some great talent and I sincerely appreciate you guys taking the time to provide helpful feedback.

Eric

Posted on Sun, May 23 2010 02:13
by Guy Bacos
Joined on Sun, Jan 16 2005, Quebec, Canada, Posts 1995
ericsandmeyer wrote:

1)  Is it "dangerous" to go into the orchestration phase too early?  Given Mr. Bacos' feedback, I sense that some composers get to a more defined state of affairs before deciding what instruments are going to play what.

Not quite what I was suggesting. People work different ways, there are no rules.  I was saying your weak bass line is not because you wrote it on the piano. 

Posted on Sun, May 23 2010 03:19
by ericsandmeyer
Joined on Tue, Jan 22 2008, Posts 16

Ah!  I understand now.  Thanks, Guy. Smile

Posted on Sun, May 23 2010 17:15
by William
Joined on Sun, Nov 24 2002, USA, Posts 5709

As Guy said each person works differently.  It might be bad to go into orchestration too soon as one might end up just playing with orchestral sounds and have no real musical ideas. This happens a lot especially with MIDI and film music.   Remember that Bach wrote the entire Art of Fugue with no scoring whatsoever - just pure, great notes.  On the other hand you might actually have a concept for specific instruments that is built into the music from the beginning so it would be good to just start writing the score.  The fact you mention that you think of it "as one" suggests that latter approach.  Copying scores is good but the best way nowadays to learn about orchestration is to do a serious MIDI performance of a classical piece.  I enjoyed doing those because it immerses you in the music as much or more than playing in an orchestra or conducting.

BTW Havergal Brian is a very interesting and bizarre composer.  I remember hearing the instrumentation list for his Gothic Symphony - it is huge, far bigger than R. Strauss or Mahler.  Do you have that list available Dave? I have an LP with it but not at hand.  I believe it is one of the largest orchestras ever assembled. Even so, it has been performed and recorded many times now.

Posted on Sun, May 23 2010 21:15
by DaveTubaKing
Joined on Fri, Feb 27 2004, London, Posts 770

The Gothic - 7 flutes (2 piccs, 4 and 1 bass); 8 oboes (4, 2 Cor anglais, oboe d'amour & bass oboe); 12 clarinets (2 Eb, 5 Bb, Corno di bass, 2 Bass, 1 pedal) 5 Bassoons (3&2); 8 horns, 10 trumpets (4 Eb cornets, 5 trumpets, Bass trumpet); 5 trombones (3 tenor, 1 bass, 1 contra); 4 Tubas (2 euphs, 2 bass): 4 timps (2 players) Heaps of percussion; Harps (2 parts with as many players as possible); Organ.

Strings 20, 20, 16, 14, 12

4 SATB choirs and with each choir an extra brass group of 2 trumpets, 2 trombones, 2 horns and 1 tuba and 3 tymps.

That's a total of 32 woodwind, 55 brass, 6 timp players (16 timps), about 10 perc, 82 strings, 1 organ. 186 musicians and as many chorus as you can fit.

David Carter https://sorabjiorchestralmusic.wordpress.com/
https://www.youtube.com/...UCoEithAEjsd4IBViwsfQFwQ

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Posted on Mon, May 24 2010 01:02
by William
Joined on Sun, Nov 24 2002, USA, Posts 5709

 Holy crap!

I knew that thing was big.

All right, Bacal. This piece shouldn't take long at all.   Maybe a couple years, tops.  The Rite of Spring was a nice little exercise, but now you need to get to some real work.

Posted on Tue, May 25 2010 14:22
by gabriel81
Joined on Tue, Nov 17 2009, Wien, Posts 259

Wow!

As i was missing Soloists I just doublecheked on wikipedia.

So "Only" 1 Soloist Quartet (but in addition to this also on children's choir)

Thanks for the hint, i think i need to get this on CD (As live performances seem to be quite rare)

Regards

Gabriel

Posted on Fri, May 28 2010 04:22
by rverne10
Joined on Tue, May 26 2009, Michigan, USA, Posts 133
ericsandmeyer wrote:

Any ideas on how I can keep my basses from falling asleep with boredom?  I've tried alternating octaves with intevening fifths, etc.

Any good orchestration guides/books that deal with this topic?

I'm studying the Bach four part chorales-there's some great stuff there. The protestent chruch hymnals (sorry, I was born into it) actually have some fairly good examples of fine bass parts. Baroque composers were acutely aware of the issue you mention-look at Handel's Messiah and see what he does with the bass parts in his choral writing-now you're talking some complex counterpoint but still . .

On the subject of books that teach the subject,  I can't say it too many times- Harmony and Voice Leading by Edward Aldwell and Carl Schlachter (search Amazon.com) is the best ever. Next best and still very good since that first one is a platinum, is The Complete Musician by Steven G. Laitz. This book looks at counterpoint pretty closely where as Aldwell deals exactly in what his title says but he never  touches on the formal rules of the different species of counterpoint. Interestingly, if you can wade through it (and I mean as in getting out the hip waders),  Arnold Schoenberg's book entitled simply Tonal Harmony offers a light that has not been seen since, some of what he says is quite fascinating and is very useful while other parts are devoted to a mistaken concept of acoustics. It's pretty easy to leave that part behind; some of his examples have some fantastic bass parts. The book is available in a 'Lite' or student version so you can look at that too.

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Posted on Fri, May 28 2010 18:44
by ericsandmeyer
Joined on Tue, Jan 22 2008, Posts 16
rverne10 wrote:
On the subject of books taht teach the subject,  I can't say it too many times-

Thanks for the referrals on the books.  I am not familiar with the Harmony and Voiceleading book you love.  I looked it up on Amazon and I'll have to save up a little to get it, but it seems to have a lot of devotees.

Your post (and other posters here) have got me thinking more about the basic problem I am trying to address.  I agree that counterpoint and voiceleading is a key component to writing good bass parts.  I have studied counterpoint (piston) in college and went throught the Fux Gradus extraction (The Study of Counterpoint by Alfred Mann) on my own.  I think that there are times when one can create a nice polyphony with a stimulating bass part when:

  1. The compositional nature of the music demands a more polyphonic texture, and;
  2. The harmonic rhythm is relatively swift

The sections in my own composition where I was concerned about the basses rolling their eyes were areas that had a very very slow harmonic rhythm and the texture was quite monophonic.  I'll describe the style as being somewhat "cellular" like Part, Gorecki or Adams, etc.

Here, the texture does NOT lend itself to much (or any?) real polyphony a la Bach chorales.  I've found rhythmic figures for the inner parts to perform and they make musical sense (I heard them in my imagination, or at least their shadows).  But what I heard in my basses in my imagination was long, sustaining harmonic anchors. 

Problem is..it's snoozeville for the bass section.  I dated a bass player in college and she complained about playing "goose eggs" and that a real orchestrator or composer would not do that.  She also hated playing Carmina Burana because of the boring bass parts.  I said, "yeah, but when you put it all together with the choir and sit in the audience, it's pretty powerful."  She would just look at me and show me her part with all that repetition.

A nice solution was to pretend I was one of the players in the section in my own composition.  This focussed my imagination and attention to the bass parts and I think the changes I made helped the overall music too.  It's just such a difficult thing...to get all the instruments to make solid contributions to the whole AND make each part interesting and able to stand alone. 

I really like the idea of doing MIDI mockups of real scores to get into the music and do some directed study.  I am thinking of doing Ravel's Mother Goose suite, or possibly La Tombeau.  This might help my harp writing too, which is just awful and embarrasing right now.

Thanks again for everyone's helpful suggestions!

Posted on Fri, May 28 2010 19:43
by William
Joined on Sun, Nov 24 2002, USA, Posts 5709

Those are all excellent ideas.  You already know what you are doing.  Especially dating a bass player!  On harp the main thing to remember is do NOT make it pianistic.  In some respects, the harp is lke a special color that comes in briefly then leaves, but should never drone on and on like a piano accompaniment.  Also it is fundamentally diatonic rather than chromatic so you have to think of the pedal settings.  But you probably already know all that.

your last post brings up an interesting question especially in reference to the Carmina Burana. There are lots of other pieces like that, which sound awesome overall, but are horrible to play for certain members of the orchestra.  For example - Mahler's 2nd.  That is maybe my all-time favorite work of any kind in any field of endeavor ever done by any human being.    And yet, I remember playing the fourth horn part in it and it was so BORING!  The part that is.  Just blowing like hell on doubled notes and not getting heard over the general pandemonium.  But to the audience it was wonderful.  Or another example - what in God's name does a poor little oboe player do in a Bruckner symphony with all those maniacal brass players roaring and blasting all around him?    Except in a rare solo, not a hell of a lot...

So does a composer care about that or not?  I tend to think of it as somewhat of a compromise. In other words, you could write something totally boring that would sound great when combined with the other sounds somewhat like a single note on an organ while boring in itself sounds great with all the others.  OR... you can just try to write as contrapuntal and musically interesting a line as you can that still sounds good overall.  It is a continual question, though obviously Bach accomplished something of an ideal with his treating absolutely every part like a melody (in his chorales at least). 

One other thing about this which also interests me a lot - I have realized that I am writing for smaller and simpler ensembles, and getting more interested in smaller combinations of instruments.  With a smaller orchestra or a chamber ensemble you naturally have more interesting parts to write because each instrument simply has to do more and can therefore become more expressive and interesting in itself.  When you write for a gigantic orchestra there are going to be more uninteresting parts inevitably.  

Posted on Sat, May 29 2010 17:47
by rverne10
Joined on Tue, May 26 2009, Michigan, USA, Posts 133
ericsandmeyer wrote:
Sometimes when I try to give them something more interesting to do, that needed anchorage is lost.

Read what this writer has to say about the subject you mention.

http://www.gresham.ac.uk/event.asp?PageId=45&EventId=680#

Professor Roger Parker FBA,
 The Badke Quartet

I found this discussion fascinating. I found it Helpful to listen the work referenced Mozart, KV 465 Quartet in C major.

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Posted on Sun, May 30 2010 00:47
by ericsandmeyer
Joined on Tue, Jan 22 2008, Posts 16

Thanks so much for that, that was a wonderful example of democracy of instrumental parts.  I am also pleased to see the first fiddle player who is from my small hometown in Idaho and now in one of Britain's premier quartets.

Here's to "thematische Arbeit"  Smile

Posted on Thu, Jun 10 2010 07:15
by mirazhov
Joined on Sun, Jan 24 2010, Posts 4
ericsandmeyer wrote:

Any ideas on how I can keep my basses from falling asleep with boredom?

Any good orchestration guides/books that deal with this topic?



A boring bass part, is NOT an orchestration problem. It is a harmony problem. So orchestration books will not help you; but rather harmony books. I fact, even the most elementary harmony books start to put stress on developing a good bass line from very early on. For example, Mutli's "Collected Problems in Harmony", begins to focus on writing interesting bass lines, as early as the chapter on inversions of main triads!
Posted on Thu, Jun 10 2010 15:40
by JJP
Joined on Mon, Apr 28 2003, Burbank, CA USA, Posts 69
mirazhov wrote:
 A boring bass part, is NOT an orchestration problem. It is a harmony problem. So orchestration books will not help you; but rather harmony books.

     This is some of the best advice given on this thread.  I hear so many people wanting to study orchestration as if it is the golden key to interesting composition when they truly lack a solid foundation in harmony, voice leading, and counterpoint.

     Last year I orchestrated some string sessions that involved the basses playing little more than a single note for two days of recordings.  Were the boring bass parts the fault my shortcomings as an orchestrator?  Certainly not.  The harmonic voicings of the composition gave me no other option.  Nearly every cue was over a pedal tone.  There was not enough harmonic development in the composition to allow any other orchestration.

     This recording received glowing reviews and some prestigious awards.  I think this is just the style that is accepted in many soundtracks these days.  Unfortunately, I sometimes think it is also because of the inability of some composers to think harmonically.  I'd love for us to get away from drum loops and pedal tones but that's what is selling these days.  Therefore many composers see no need to study more than the manuals of their sequencers and sample libraries.

     Read those harmony books, or take some classes.  Learn a little jazz piano or guitar and study some Bach chorales and inventions.  It will change the way you write in ways you can't imagine.

     Studying how to mix colors won't do much for an artist who can't conceive an interesting sketch.  Happy music making!

Posted on Thu, Jun 10 2010 18:03
by ericsandmeyer
Joined on Tue, Jan 22 2008, Posts 16

Assumptions are being made.  But it's my fault for putting the question out there like I did.  Next time I'll know better.

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