Let me ask a question: What is the most fundamental material element of any and all music? I would propose that beneath any stylistic, emotional, or intellectual consideration, it’s sound itself. Strip away all of the permutations of musical style and we are left with the universal underlying natural science—some would say magic—of sound.
Over the past few decades a growing number of intrepid double bassists have been exploring the sonic aspects of the instrument, delving into the tone, overtone, and noise possibilities inherent in the upright’s giant amalgam of wood and wire by using hands, bows, extended techniques, and other implements and accoutrements.
It was the work of French bassist Joelle Leandre that first opened my ears (exploded them is more appropriate) to many of these possibilities. Foregoing a promising career in European classical music, she dove headlong into the avantgarde, and has consistently broken new ground both as a composer and an improviser. Her music and approach literally changed my entire life, and I simply cannot recommend her work highly enough. Of course, Joelle is not alone; other great bassists such as Barre Phillips, William Parker, Mark Dresser, and others have explored in similar territory, though from different directions.
When I became inspired to follow these musicians—not to their destination but on their journey—I found not only the tip of the iceberg of sonic possibility in sound and expression, but I also began to find my own voice on the instrument. Freeing myself of stylistic and formal concerns to focus on the bass itself and my own personal relationship to it helped me to find a personal way of approaching and hearing the bass, and more important, of hearing what I wanted to hear from my instrument.
So my humble suggestion to you, fellow bassist, is to spend some time (if you don’t already) exploring the raw sonic possibilities of your instrument. Instead of writing out possible exercises, which might be contrary to the point of encouraging you to do your own sonic exploring, I instead offer a few suggestions of possible ideas to use as springboards.
Idea 1: When it comes to exploring the raw sound of your instrument, it might be good to start by experimenting with the most elementary thing: the overtones of open strings. Overtones are not only the building blocks of sound and pitch, but are well represented on the bass due to its long string length. You can start by just playing an open string with the bow on upright or with your fingers on electric, playing long tones and altering the bow pressure (or pick/finger attack) and placement on the string of the bow (or pick/fingers). You might feel like a beginner again, but that is part of the point—to hear the instrument again with fresh ears. Listen to how the overtones change the sound the harder you dig in, or how they change relative to bow or fingers placement. Try creating phrases from the permutations of timbre as you normally would with a melody or rhythm. If you’re having fun or getting ideas, take this exercise in whatever direction you want to: do the same thing with the other strings, with different stopped pitches in different registers, with double or triple stops, etc.
Idea 2: Next try this same idea, but instead of open strings explore the harmonics on each string consecutively. Notice how the bass loves to project the harmonics. Find the G harmonic on the G string (where a C# would be if it were a fingered or stopped pitch) and then slowly slide your finger towards the scroll or headstock, listening for the change in pitch as the overtone series plays out before you. There are many potential sounds and ideas embedded in harmonics that can change the way you hear the instrument once you start focusing on and experimenting with them. Bassists have been doing this since Dragonetti’s day, and with ever-expanding results (witness for instance Mark Dresser’s encyclopedic knowledge and creative use of harmonics).
Idea 3: This third idea may seem like the most obvious, but it is something many of us do not do enough of in our practice: simply following your own ears, working back from focusing on the world of sound to that of notes and rhythms.
Start by playing one note, any note, and then follow with the pitch your ear wants to hear next, then follow that note and the one after that in the same way, trying to go on like this for 15 minutes or so. Try not to consciously think of chords, scales, tempos or meters, but just let your inner ear guide your phrases. Use as much space, or as little, as you want. If you find yourself falling into a groove or a tonal center, don’t worry and just go with it, but don’t force yourself to stay there either. Do this with whatever techniques or sounds you want or can think of. This has the added benefit of being a great ear training as well as technique building practice.
Remember, You are the one making the music. So make music you like and enjoy the process.