Friday, March 20, 2009

tilting at bass mutes

This weekend the CPO performs Don Quixote, the Strauss tone poem that is really more like a tone-novel. It's hard to think of another piece of symphonic music that ties together so many stories, characters, and conversations -- all while maintaining a fairly straightforward theme and variations structure, though with some odd twists.

Among the odd things in the bass part of Don Quixote is the indication on page 1 that the section should put on mutes. The mutes remain on through two pages of loud, melodic bass lines, covering a wide register. You would think he made a mistake, as we're asked to play fff (basically as loud as humanly possible), but he repeats the instruction, two more times: mit dampfer, meaning keep the mutes on!

Unlike brass mutes, bass mutes often won't cut the sound a great deal. What they do is to alter and impede the vibrations of the bridge, and so they have a greater effect on the color of the instrument. When played softly, as they most commonly are, mutes give the bass a somewhat subdued, veiled tone. When a bass is played loudly with a mute, however, there's an almost comical quality of struggle and tension, like a duck squawking madly. During loud playing, the vibration of the bridge may actually dislodge a wood mute and send it flying off the instrument. More often, we use rubber mutes which stay on the bridge a little better, but won't change the sound as much.

I think that Strauss was looking for that quality of hapless squawking, the orchestrational equivalent of tilting at windmills -- and so I'm a bit disappointed when we ignore the mute indication and just play it normally. Sure, it's a strange and senseless think to demand, and only the most perceptive and informed listeners will notice the difference -- and yet it's a brilliant way of depicting a strange, senseless person who makes a habit of struggling against inanimate objects. (Which would be a fairly accurate description of bass players in general...)

The concert tonight features a fantastic soloist, our own principal cellist Phil Hansen. Tickets may still be available, check out the CPO website for more information!


Brian said...

Understandably, some string players have an aversion to the mute as it makes the instrument sound quieter and uglier - things most string players spend a lot of time working on how NOT to do... Also, there's the visual and often audible distraction that comes with putting on/taking off the mute, which is of course most noticeable with the bass. If the composer wanted the mute, it probably should be used. It's not like they indicate which mute to use as with the brass sometimes. I think the little round rubber mutes that hang out near the tailpiece when not in use are a good compromise between giving a bit of sound quality change while not been too much of a hassle for the musician. Of course, they rattle around down there on certain notes, so it's still a nuisance.

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