Nothing, if not Esoteric
An address to the Kean University Research Forum sponsored by the Office of Research and Sponsored Programs and Schering-Plough, 19 April 2007
Abstract: A report on efforts to advance the double bass as a chamber music instrument through the development of a new chamber music repertoire. Explanation for the need to elevate arranged chamber music to canonic status as a means of creating that repertoire. How what seems to be a very esoteric academic pursuit creates benefit for the wider community. Some propitious and serendipitous rewards that have flowed locally, nationally, and internationally from what may seem very narrowcast research and creative work. How a high specialty and its attendant activities inspire students and bring advantage to Kean University.
My academic pursuit—the focus of my research and creative activities beyond teaching—is nothing, if not esoteric. That pursuit can be described simply as an effort to advance the double bass as a chamber music instrument. Instead of presenting a paper today, I wish to report on how my quest has fared in the 10 years that I have been at Kean, and to recount some of the wide-ranging benefits it has spawned locally, nationally, and internationally. First, some definitions:
The double bass, as you know, is the largest bowed stringed instrument in the orchestra, and it is in the orchestra that it has traditionally been confined—at least within the scope of Western art music before jazz. It has a rather impoverished solo literature and, apart from some salient exceptions—has not been used in the great canon of chamber music written in the late 18th through the early 20th centuries.
“Chamber music” is difficult to define precisely. Sir Henry Hadow searches for a definition in his Introduction to Cobbett’s Cyclopedic Survey of Chamber Music (a quaint but resourceful book). [Compiled and edited by Walter Wilson Cobbett, with supplementation by Colin Mason. 2nd ed. London: Oxford UP, 1963, p. xi.] He quotes Augustine “Si non rogas intelligo” (if you don’t ask, I know), and concludes “All terms of art seem incapable of exact definition.” But he might have attempted this negative definition: “If you see a double bass carried onto the stage, its probably not chamber music you are about to hear.” What I emphasize with that statement is that the double bass has a meager chamber music repertoire, at best.
Since chamber music—which I shall define as music written for fewer than 10 instrumentalists, played one to a part, and performed without conductor—demands special skills in performance, the dearth of double-bass chamber music has unfortunate consequences both pedagogical and artistic. These skills mentioned involve myriad techniques that the best musicians carry with them into all ensemble performances including orchestral performance. The development of these skills through the study and performance of chamber music is a vital part of the training for all string players, except for double bassists. Therefore, the classical ensemble technique of most double bassists is woefully underdeveloped. Only the best of them acquire it in the degree that most fine violinist, violists, and cellists do; but bassists must acquire it willy-nilly.
It is vital then that student double bassists begin to play chamber music, and as a prerequisite, we must develop a chamber music repertoire for them to play. It is only then that this unfortunate circumstance in the training of bassists can to be corrected.
But the pedagogical reason is only one of two that cause me to fret about the dearth of double-bass chamber music. The bigger reason is that playing great chamber music well—I contend—is the highest artistic experience a performer can have, and double bassists are, by and large, denied this experience.
So, I took it upon myself to build a chamber music repertoire. I began by recognizing that the few masterpieces of chamber music that do include the double bass are disparate works: every one using a different combination of instruments.
To make meaningful the additions to the repertoire I was to create, I limited myself to pieces for three types of ensemble, the first of which was any duet; the second, the trio for piano, violin, and double bass (thus was born the Yardarm Trio); and third, the string quintet (comprising a standard string quartet with an added double bass).
In 1998, I brought this idea to Scotland in a paper I read at a conference sponsored by the Scottish Bass Trust and held at the University of Edinburgh. [“Double Bass Chamber Music: A Call to Action”] While at that conference, I had the privilege to play one of my Yardarm Trio arrangements at the Queen’s Hall during the renowned Edinburgh Festival.
A Brazilian musician having heard me read my paper and perform in Edinburgh subsequently invited me to a symposium held at the Universidade Federal de Minas Gerais, in Belo Horizonte. That symposium was Brazil’s first international conference exploring the nexus of performance and music scholarship. There I read a paper defending arrangement as a means to augmenting the double bass chamber music repertoire not by offering a historical justification, but by making a reasoned assertion that compares the arrangement of music to the translation of literary masterpieces in verse. [“In Defense of Arrangement,” Per Musi: Revista de Performance Musical, vol. 3, April 2001.] Platonistic, modernist and post-modernist ideas were used to martial an argument.
My work was very well received, especially since it helped Brazilian musicians, who were then negotiating with the federal government, which sponsors and regulates its most important Universities. Brazilian musicians hoped to establish the equality of creative work with scholarly research, and the legitimacy of having performers teach musical academic subjects—something that we have firmly established at Kean.
My paper and performances led to my being invited to participate in four international music events in Brazil. On my second visit, I was the featured international speaker and performer at a conference at the Universidade Federal de Goiás, where I described types of arrangements that I have championed and some arranging techniques that I use to create them. [“The Art of the Arranger: An analysis of the creative process and decisions involved in arranging chamber music,” Revista Música Hodie, vol. 2, no. 2, 2002, July 2003.] The various types extend from arrangements made to sound as if the composer himself wrote them—while possessing full knowledge of the modern double bass—to arrangements that are post-modern, neo-classic re-compositions.
One of my first arrangements completed at Kean for the Yardarm Trio, the Trio in E for Piano, Violin, and Double Bass, is a work based on Joseph Haydn’s great piano trio in that key, catalogued as Hob. XV/28. [Los Angeles: Ludwin Music Publishers, 1998.] Like other late piano trios by Haydn, it is a sorely neglected musical masterpiece. My arrangement, written in 1997 (the 200th anniversary of the piece), is more than a mere transcription of the cello part for double bass. As with many of my Yardarm Trio and other arrangements of chamber music, I tried to create a unique entity. I, to some extent, refashioned the work, making a new piece of chamber music: one including the double bass, written as if by Haydn, himself, possessing full knowledge of the modern instrument. The arrangement uses the double bass as a full partner in the ensemble, and, at the same time, works well both acoustically and artistically. Production of this and most of my other Yardarm Trio arrangements—more than a dozen now— was supported, in part, by released time grants from Kean University.
My reworking of Haydn’s 12 Celtic Songs (completed in 2002) is quite another type of arrangement. [Six Celtic Songs and Six More Celtic Songs. Ludwin, 2003.] For these pieces, I recomposed the Haydn to create music that fused 18th-century and 20th-century musical idioms, and purposely confused authorship. Haydn, himself, arranged many English, Scottish, Irish, and Welsh folk songs for the British market. Some of these—including the 12 I used—he provided with the accompaniment of a piano trio (piano, violin, and cello). His trio arrangements were meant to be enjoyed at musicales by musicians and their friends: they are not suitable for concert performance. Haydn arranged only one stanza of each song which he supplied with neither introduction nor ending. The instrumental tutti starts and finishes with the voice, and each strophe of each song is accompanied exactly the same way. In my concert arrangements for soprano and the Yardarm Trio, I thoroughly reworked the songs, providing them with introductions, interludes, postludes, codas, and codettas. For most of the songs, I varied the accompaniment of each strophe and provided instrumental commentary on the text. For a few of them, I restored a more folk-like character by use of the instruments and by making minor changes in harmony. I provided each song with an individual form and with distinct instrumental formulations. As always, I made the double-bass parts idiomatic and soloistic, and used the trio capaciously. The resulting adaptations were not meant to sound like Haydn; they are poly-stylistic and perforce neo-classical. The original songs are enchanting and Haydn’s touches (many of which I used) are brilliant. But I believe that my arrangements are starkly original and are proving worthy and welcome additions to the double-bass chamber-music repertoire.
My latest trip to Brazil this past January brought me to a chamber music festival held in the state of Ceará. As an aside, my colleague Dr. Matthew Halper likes to tease me by telling others: “Tony is very big in Brazil!” My work at the festival in Ceará is recounted in an article that I have made available for distribution today [“A Bassist in Brazil: Redux.” Classical New Jersey Society Journal, spring 2007]; so (although the trip is fresh in my mind), I shall not take the time to recount it here except to say that it allowed me greatly to influence the course of double teaching in north-east Brazil.
I worked there with beginning students, professionals, and teachers, and introduced them to approaches to the double bass and particularly to concepts of fingering that were utterly new to them. I brought to them ideas that opened new paths to development of their techniques.
An invitation from San Sebastian, Spain in 2005 led to my performing one of my arrangements for string quintet with the Cadei Quartet, and to my giving masterclasses at the Musikene. During my visit, I had extensive discussions with the Dean of that prestigious conservatory about recent attempts by the Spaniards to bring American-style music education to conservatories there. If double bass chamber music comes to be performed in Spain’s elementary schools because of my work in San Sebastian, the advantages could be very wide ranging.
I am hardly the only double bassist passionate about chamber music, but my work is unusual and has lead to my being invited to perform my own arrangements in recitals at the University of Virginia and the University of Colorado, where I was able to inspire students to pursue chamber music performance.
A number of universities around the country have also expressed interest in a special program that I founded and direct at Kean, namely the Concert Artist Program (formerly called the Affiliate Artist Program). This initiative allows us to bring onto the music faculty internationally renowned performers. Two features of the program are significant: that the Concert Artists teach our students, giving them weekly studio lessons, and in some cases coaching ensembles or teaching classroom courses related to their specialties, and that they perform a professional 8-concert chamber-music series here annually.
Because of the unusual combination of instruments contained within the Concert Artist ensemble (especially as it grew from its original 3 to its present 13 members), concerts on the chamber music series frequently featured arrangements. Since I program the concerts, they often feature works of double bass chamber music, and so the Concert Artist Program brings to coalescence my work as performer, arranger, composer, and teacher.
Of all the excellent improvements to our music department brought by our new faculty, I believe that the Concert Artist Program has done most to set unparalleled standards of faculty performance, to inspire our students, and to lift the reputation of the department.
The Concert Artist Program faculty has recorded two CDs. Both have been reviewed internationally. One was reviewed by the South African Bass Players Collective, and this led to my being interviewed on line and for my providing for the South Africans several essays for publication. Copies of our CD have been distributed to students in South Africa, and my work is helping to spread the development of music education and double bass chamber music in that country.
In summation, I feel that my work has defined some basic ensembles that give focus to double bass chamber music and allow for the delimited creation of a standard chamber music repertoire. It has further established that arrangements of chamber music can and should be elevated to full canonic status. It has created a body of arrangements that are published and that I have performed and continue to perform, and that give credence to making arranged chamber music part of the canonic repertoire.
As esoteric as my academic pursuit seems—indeed, is—the ancillary benefits that have arisen from it have been several. A summary of these benefits include: encouraging the elevation of performance to full academic status in Brazil, stressing the need to develop American-style music education in Spain, encouraging the fledgling development of double bass performance in Western classical music in South Africa, and establishing at Kean a professional chamber music ensemble that has brought onto the faculty musicians of real distinction. Having on our faculty multiple Grammy nominees, international competition winners, recording artists, and sought-after soloists and chamber musicians is a source of great pride for the Music Department.
Concerning my own work in general, I am proud that my research, creative work, performing, and teaching are so integrated at Kean. Music is a very highly specialized discipline, but here, we have established that musicians can function as generalists and still maintain the highest level of competence in their principal academic pursuits.
In order to build a double bass repertoire, I must research appropriate literature. I often conduct historical research in seeking context for my arrangements, and when writing program notes or edition notes. The arranging itself exercises my theory and composition skills. My performance experience is essential in helping me to judge balances and proportions in a work. All of the main subject areas just mentioned—performance, music history, and music theory are subjects that I teach at Kean.
I hope that my work and the diversity of my musical interests will inspire students in their pursuit of musical excellence. I hope the relationship of my academic pursuit to my teaching will serve as an account for why research and creative activities are essential for all university faculty. I thank you for your kind attention to this report.
Anthony Scelba, professor and Chair of the Music Department at Kean University, was the first person to receive a Doctor of Musical Arts degree in double bass performance from The Juilliard School—conferred in 1976. From the Manhattan School of Music, he has a Bachelor of Music degree conferred in 1970, and two Master of Music degrees (one in performance and one in education), both conferred in 1971. As a recitalist and a chamber musician, he performs and lectures internationally. He has just returned from appearances at II Festival de Música de Câmara do Centro-Sul e Vale do Salgado in Brazil. He was for five years a member of the Orquesta del Festival Casals in San Juan, Puerto Rico, and for 10 years served as principal double bassist of the New Jersey Symphony Orchestra. The founder of The Yardarm Trio, he is unusual among double bassists in specializing in chamber music, and has greatly expanded his instrument's chamber-music repertoire. He was a 1983-1984 winner of the Fulbright Performing-Artist Award for Seoul, Korea, has given master classes in Beijing and Shanghai. He has judged Brazil’s first National Double Bass Performance Competition, and has taught masterclasses at Juilliard, the Manhattan School of Music, the Universities of Colorado and Virginia, and at the Musikene in Spain, where he performed with Cuarteto Cadei. He has taught on the faculties of Baylor University, the Hartt School of the University of Hartford, and the Manhattan School of Music. He was appointed to the faculty at Kean in 1996, where, in addition to double bass, he teaches Music History, Form & Analysis, and Orchestration. He serves as Chair of the Department of Music and Director of its Concert Artist Program.