Monday, September 21, 2009

Composing for the Bassoon: An Interview with John Steinmetz

(I first heard John Steinmetz, as both a bassoonist and composer, during the last Claremont Music Festival,  34 (!) years ago.   Nowadays, he's one of the most active classical musicians in greater LA and along the west coast, and his composing and performing has been extended to teaching and lecturing (If you don't know it already, I strongly recommend John's essay on Resuscitating Art Music which is one of the most sensible statements of its sort.)  This interview took place, via email, over the last week or so.  John's answers were usually so complete and well-articulated that my questions were mostly superfluous.)  

DJW: We take the bassoon's range for granted, as a good utility player with both a distinctive bass and altissimo and a central tenor range designed mainly to blend. For new music, can we extend the extremes and,  in the middle, how much pitch flexibility is there for microtones,  
bending, or even slides?

JS: The bassoon is a treasure-trove of weird and wonderful sounds. Whenever writing extended techniques, work with a player. My favorite  pieces using extended techniques were composed with players' help. Working with a player ensures that the effects are playable and that they sound  expressive and musical. The player's involvement also reassures other bassoonists that the effects are workable.

Low Notes

Wagner and Mahler sometimes wrote low A for the bassoon (there must have been bassoons with that note, but nobody makes them now). The Nielsen wind quintet ends with this note. Players insert a cardboard tube in the bell to change the lowest note from Bb to A. Paul Chihara uses this effect in his Branches. The tube disables low Bb and messes with intonation and resonance of other notes.

There are fingerings for "pedal notes"--really multiphonics with a strong low pitch. (For low A, finger low F and lift the left hand 3rd finger. Lip down and give it lots of air.) On some bassoons with some reeds, some players can play low A, low Ab, low G, and maybe lower. The pedal notes 
sound much clearer when reinforced by another instrument. Very few players are practiced at this.

High Notes

Notes higher than D (2nd line in treble clef)--the highest note in the Rite of Spring bassoon solo--are possible, and the repertoire includes Eb,  E (Ravel piano concerto, Harbison wind quintet, Daugherty Dead Elvis) and even F (Wozzeck, West Side Story Dances). (According to legend, Bernstein wrote the high F in West Side Story as a prank, to tweak his friend who  
would be playing the bassoon part. But his friend saw the note before the first rehearsal, practiced it, and played it to spite Bernstein. So this prank note stayed in the  score. Some players just leave it out, because it is doubled by other instruments.) Some bassoonists practice these very high notes and can play them reliably, but some players struggle with them. On some bassoons they require special reeds and bocals (the metal neck) that may limit the  
effectiveness of other notes. Notes above D are simply less trustworthy, they are difficult to play staccato, and they are much easier to play when slurred from a nearby lower note.

Some players have figured out ways to play even higher notes, and you might enjoy including these exotic sounds if you're writing for one of those players. I recommend not writing very- or super-high notes unless you know who's going to play the music.

Bends and slides

The bassoon has lots of flexibility for bends and slides, but each note is different in its capabilities. (The bassoon, as Lou Harrison once quipped, is the only woodwind not spoiled by the Industrial Revolution. It never got modernized or standardized or homogenized, and this the source of its character and the reason for its quirky acoustics and illogical fingerings.) Some notes can be bent with lip pressure, some bend up but not down, some vice versa. In general, higher notes are easier to bend than lower notes.

Finger glissandos are easy on open tone holes (holes that are not covered with a key); slowly sliding the finger off the tone hole produces a slide of a half or whole step. Covered holes may produce slides by opening/closing the key slowly. Some players are good at slides and bends;  
others find them intimidating. (I have been surprised that the relatively easy glissandos in my Sonata scare some very accomplished players.) Some players have worked out ways to play glissandos that cover a wider range; write these only for such players.

Here are some easy slides that work upward or downward: in the bass staff,  from A to B, from B to C, from C to D, from D to E, from E to F--and the same notes an octave higher (upper E to F is iffy). These glisses can be joined to produce a longer gliss that may or may not be perfectly smooth.

Low Bb to B-natural can make a slide up or down by moving the key slowly.  Same thing for low B-natural to C.

High note finger slides sound beautifully plaintive. It's easy to slide between high B and C and between high C# and D.

Bending pitch is more challenging at soft dynamics, when wind pressure can't be varied as much. (Players control pitch through a combination of wind pressure and lip pressure.) Players who use stiffer reeds will probably have more trouble varying pitch.

Bassoons are designed with "sweet spots" so that notes sit comfortably at a particular pitch level where maximum resonance occurs; bending notes forces them away from that comfort zone, where they may not resonate as much. Often a note gets softer as it bends away from its accustomed place; players have to compensate for this in order to maintain an even dynamic,  
and that compensation is unfamiliar to most bassoonists, although it's not too hard to learn for somebody interested.

Jazz bassoonists Paul Hansen and Michael Rabinowitz have worked out ways to bend and scoop notes appropriately for jazz styles. To do this, they have evolved flexible, responsive reeds and playing style.


Microtones are easy on many pitches, using altered lip or wind pressure or using special fingerings. Changing a pitch microtonally may also change its timbre. Very few players practice playing consistent, repeatable microtones, but all experienced players are used to shading the pitch of a note to fit its context.

Timbre changes

The bassoon can vary the timbre of most notes by opening and/or closing keys farther down the bore. This has the effect of adding or removing harmonics. This doesn't work for notes below low D. Alternate fingerings, available for many notes, can also be used for timbral effects. The low Eb and Db keys, used for resonance in many fingerings, can be opened or closed to alter the timbre of many notes.

DJW: Am I right that if you want specific sounds — like multiphonics — which are highly sensitive to the combination of player and instrument, some caution is in order when using them in pieces which you expect will be played by players you can't work with personally? This  
suggests that composers might usefully think of the bassoon very differently in solo and ensemble, particularly orchestral, contexts.

JS: Yes, I think this is a useful approach, and it also makes sense because special effects in orchestral writing are usually part of a big  texture, and so may not require as much specificity as the more exposed sounds in chamber music or solo pieces.

But, as usual, it depends. For me the first question is something like "What's the expressive purpose?" That helps me to know why a sound matters, or what matters about it. And when I know that, I can more easily figure out how to handle the technicalities. For instance, sometimes the mood or color or energy of a piece requires a very particular multiphonic sound. In that case, the composer must work with the player to find out how to produce a sound that fits the context, and if the piece is intended to be played by various people, then it will be important to use a sound that is easy to reproduce.

In other cases it's possible to give partial information about a sound and let the player work out how to do it. You can ask for a multiphonic that includes a certain pitch, or that has a certain quality ("noisy" or "includes some low sounds" or "gurgling, unstable" or "like a blender").  You might even be able to say "any multiphonic" if that suits the expressive purpose.

There are some multiphonics that any player can get, such as low F plus the right thumb Bb key. Other multiphonics are fussy and take some practice. Still others work only on some bassoons. There are books and charts about this stuff, but composers have been misled; always have a  
player try these things. One starting place is an old article of mine called "A Few Easy Multiphonics for Bassoon"  (These multiphonics are not as universally easy as I once thought, but some of them do work for many players.

DJW: How about the contrabassoon? It's gotten some attention from composers lately as a solo, even concerto, instrument. Is this a specialist instrument or will every professional bassoonist have access to and be able to double on it? What is a robust, reliable range for the  
contra? I've had the impression, in comparison to the bassoon, that there seems to be a lot less standardization and even some substantial recent innovation. Are we going to be hearing more from the contra in the future than just an "octave lower, octave slower" bassoon?

JS: Many bassoonists play contra, but not all. Not every bassoonist has access to a contra, and even those who double vary greatly in their comfort with the instrument. You're right that the instruments themselves also vary wildly; some are hard to play, and others work really well. Some have keys that are missing on others, so some intervals and trills are more difficult on some instruments. On the other hand, we now have some really terrific contra players, many of them members of symphony orchestras, with beautifully maintained instruments, sometimes with customized improvements. These people play with gorgeous sound, beautiful intonation, and technical elan. They have already started influencing the future, by commissioning and premiering works that feature the contrabassoon.

The instrument is designed to supply contrabass notes, so in my opinion it sounds best from (written) low Bb up two octaves. Because the contra usually plays a supporting role, most bassoonists are not experienced with playing solos on it, or with playing high notes. Notes above the staff tend to sound stuffy and can be unstable, although there are players who sound beautiful up there. The solo in Ravel's Mother Goose goes up to written G above middle C, and ensemble music in Schoenberg's Chamber Symphony goes higher. Recent virtuoso solo pieces have the contrabassoon screaming and wailing all the way up to (sounding) middle C. Jon Deak calls for contrabassoon multiphonics in Hyde and Jeckyll, but as I recall he lets the player  
choose. (And it's hard to tell the difference between a contra multiphonic and its low notes!)

During the 20th Century, composers sought expressive intensity by using instruments' extreme registers and special effects, but remember that all instruments have a "normal" range in which they are the most expressively supple, and in which the fullest, most resonant sound is available. Using notes and effects outside the normal range can be striking and highly expressive (I use a lot of this stuff in my own music), but in my opinion the most promising expressive potential is found in the normal range. I think this is especially true of instruments like the contrabassoon that were built to serve a particular function. (I'm also thinking of all those high-register double bass solos that overlook the gorgeous and absolutely unique sound of the instrument's low notes.)

I've heard about a new instrument, the contraforte, that a few players are trying. Apparently it is louder and has a clearer sound. We might be hearing more of those in the future.

DJW: I've recently heard that some players have taken up doubling on the French bassoon, with its different bore and keywork, for French orchestral repertoire. Is the difference between the systems too subtle, or might composing especially for the French bassoon be of interest to composers?

JS: The French and German bassoons diverged more than 100 years ago, and have developed separately since then. Although they play an overlapping  repertoire, they sound quite different and have different strengths. It  looked for a while like the French bassoon might go extinct, and many of  us thought this tragic. That instrument has a compelling sound, a superior cantabile, and a fleet and fantastic high register. Fortunately the French bassoon still has its champions, and as you say some orchestra players are now doubling, playing the French instrument for French repertoire. It's a wonderful instrument and it might very well be of interest to some  

Here's the Jolivet bassoon concerto played on French bassoon and on German bassoon.

DJW: With many composers coming from the keyboard, or even computer samples, we don't always get articulations for wind instruments right.  Moreover, there's a raging discussion about under- or over-marking scores. Do you have any suggestions about markings we have to make or markings we ought to be cautious about?

JS: In general, notation should help performers understand and realize the music's expressive intent. A mark that clarifies intent is good. A mark that helps the player to clarify intent for listeners is good. If the intent is clear without extra marks, don't add them.

It's not so simple, though. The marks available are insufficient to communicate the subtleties of phrasing and articulation that are possible, so we composers need to notate our music in a way that helps the player make good guesses about how to help this particular music to sound its  
best. In my experience as a player, seeing the notation is sometimes not enough; I may have to play and hear the music before I know what it needs. To make matters worse, many marks have ambiguous meanings or multiple meanings, and the same marks mean different things to different instruments. Even in standard repertoire people don't agree about what certain notations mean. There's a lot of confusion built in.

Here's my over-simple answer about how many marks to use: use enough to help the performers know what the music needs, and don't use any more than necessary. Sometimes adding marks helps; sometimes adding marks creates trouble. This is an art, not a science, and musicians have different tastes about how much information they want to see, and what kind. When you get stuck or confused, ask yourself about your musical intent.

Perhaps (this is just a guess) some music reveals its needs and character relatively quickly and easily, often on first playing, but other music becomes expressively clear only after a great 
deal of practicing and careful decoding of intricate notations. Both kinds of music can sound spontaneous and beautiful, but the second kind relies on lots of marks and lots of practice to make its intentions clear. In any case, there's no one right way to solve the notation problem.

Have a player play what you have written to see if it means what you thought it meant.

In standard repertoire as well as in new music, players often play differently than the notation instructs, in order to better serve the musical intent. We will slur unslurred notes, tongue notes under slurs,  shorten or lengthen notes, and so on. This is usually good news, because  even if the composer makes a notation mistake, the player will still try to serve the music.

Slurs. I think composers are most often confused about slurs. On strings and keyboards, slurs convey information about phrasing, but on the bassoon and other wind instruments, slurs are primarily instructions for articulation. The first note of a slur begins with a consonant--the tongue creates a "ta" or "da" by touching the reed--and then the notes under the slur are connected without tonguing, like notes sung on one vowel. When a new slur starts, the player makes another consonant. So if you want notes smoothly connected, like a melisma on a single vowel, put them under a slur. It's okay to slur across two notes of the same pitch; the player will tongue gently to separate the notes but make them sound smooth. Check with a player to make sure your slurs are possible; some note combinations are difficult to slur.

Articulation. An unmarked note is started with the tongue. The player won't know how hard or gently to tongue it (what consonant to use, or how accented to make the attack) and so will probably use a middling articulation until figuring out what the context calls for. If you want a  
series of notes to be tongued very gently--almost slurred--use a slur with dots or dashes over the notes, or just put a dash over every note. Because these notations have multiple meanings, add words that say "very smooth" or something similar. (For string instruments, slurred staccato produces notes with space between. Wind players looking at that notation will be  
confused, because sometimes it means "play this as a string player would," but sometimes it means "very gentle articulation.")

Weight. Accents indicate heaviness of attack. This is done either with harder tonguing or extra wind, or both. A dash can mean "lean on this note," but sometimes it means "make the note long." It's okay to put an accent or dash under a slur; the player will connect smoothly but give
emphasis with the breath.

Length. The bassoon is capable of a great variety of lengths, from a super-short staccato to a very long, smooth articulation that is almost like a slur. In between are more possibilities than there are notations.  Use words to indicate the expressive character you want, and this will  
help the player to know how short to play the notes with dots, or how long to play the notes with dashes.

An unmarked note is usually held for its full value. If you want the note shorter, then either make that clear in the character of the music, or put a dot above the note, or notate a shorter value. A dash sometimes means to play a note full value. A dot and dash together mean "a little bit shorter."

Dynamics not only indicate loudness; they are also clues to expressive character.

DJW: Finally, is there any recent repertoire for bassoon, as soloist or as ensemble instrument, that stands out for you as examples of getting the bassoon right?

JS: This is a great question! There are many, many ways to get the bassoon right, since the instrument is versatile. Here are a few pieces I have  enjoyed playing or hearing. Maybe that means these are well written for the bassoon. These are just a few that come quickly to mind:

Mario Lavista, Responsorio for bassoon and two percussion. Recorded on "Bassoon Images from the Americas," Albany Records, TROY 608. Expressive writing that includes evocative multiphonics.

Donald Crockett, Extant for bassoon and chamber ensemble. Published by MMB music. Xtet plans to record this.

John Deak, The Bremen Town Musicians for wind quintet. Short audio excerpt available here.

Wind Quintets by John Harbison, Elliott Carter, and David Maslanka. Also Carter's woodwind quartet, Eight Etudes and a Fantasy.

There's a very pretty bassoon solo in the middle movement of John Adams' Naive and Sentimental Music.

Alex Shapiro, Deep for contrabassoon and electronics. On "Notes from the Kelp," Innova 683. Audio clip available here.

Alex Shapiro, Of Breath and Touch, for bassoon and piano. On "Beck and Call," Crystal 846. Audio clip here.

Bill Douglas, Partita for Bassoon and Piano, published by TrevCo.

Gernot Wolfgang has written several terrific bassoon pieces.

David Maslanka, Music for Dr. Who, for bassoon and piano. A short piece that takes the bassoon into some unusual expressive territory, with very expressive use of some extended techniques.

For good or ill, my ideas about the bassoon inform my compositions for the instrument. See the list here.

Also, to hear another set of possibilities, check out the jazz bassoon playing of Doug Hansen and Michael Rabinowitz.


Adrienne Albert said...

John has a wealth of information on his instrument as well as the communication skills to get points across succinctly and engagingly readable. I'm going to come back to this blog when I get stuck writing for bassoon, as well as other questions he generously answers. Thanks for posting this article, Daniel.

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