Wednesday, December 20, 2006

the elephant in the room

Classical pianist and blogger Jeremy Denk wrote an incredible poetic ballad, Mighty Contests, on his blog "Think Denk" this week. If you visit to read it, do yourself a favor and listen to Denk's reading, offered as a an audio link, and follow along. The whole seem might seem excessive and silly, but musicians really do devote this kind of painstaking thought, argument, and hand-wringing to restaurant choices. I've sometimes wondered how much more we'd all accomplish if we could all just stop obsessing over such things - then again, so many of the best musicians I know are also very dedicated foodies, and maybe there is some kind of correlation there. We live and die by our taste, I suppose.

Another story of life on the road appeared this past weekend on NPR's All Things Considered, with a piece on bassist Gary Karr's various travel disasters: "Karr's Double Bass Find Biggest Threat at the Airport." Two of Karr's basses suffered neck snaps on flights, which may partly explain why he quit touring. My bass also cracked at the neck on a flight - the date was September 4th, 2001, so my little tragedy didn't draw much sympathy. Still, ever since then flying has been an awful, stressful, and expensive ordeal. I get the sense that things are only getting worse.

Karr tells how back in the day, bassists took their instruments with them onto the plane. Then, when seating became more cramped, he had to buy two first class tickets, but at least got to choose two meals, and eat both. (What an epic might Jeremy Denk have written in such a situation!) These days, I feel lucky if I manage to get my bass on at all. Airline counter agents are ever-more vigilant about the weight limitations, no more than 100 lbs. for any piece of checked luggage. This sounds reasonable, but it is quite difficult to pack a bass securely in a hard-shell trunk at that weight. If the agents choose to weigh mine, it usually tips the scales at 108-112, triggering a long round of refusals, pleading, phone calls to supervisors and baggage handlers, etc. My trunk is hardly the worst offender, either - the Kolstein trunk shown here weighs nearly 150 lbs. with a bass inside.

The future of airline transportation with basses will apparently require massive alteration of all our instruments. A Canadian luthier has begun fitting basses with removable necks - ironically, after all those basses snapped at the base of the neck on flights, now they'll be coming apart by design. It's a brilliant solution, if an expensive one - not only is the case much smaller, but it even relieves the pressure and tension on the instrument, possibly even improving the sound. A belt of some sort maintains just enough tension on the body of the instrument to keep the sound post in place.

I don't have any pictures of this new system, and I am not quite ready to submit my own instrument to the knife. For now anyway, I'll just keep testing my luck with the counter agents.

Visit Jason Heath's Bass Page, which features several more horrifying yet entertaining tales of travels with the bass.

1 comment:

Manola Blablablanik said...

That is just aweful! Can't they see you guys aren't trying to hide anything? They should give you a break!