Things such as I have learned about the string bass in recent times

I’ve recently made the acquaintance of a very interesting young artist in Portland, OR, one William Gibbs, bass player by trade, who has taught me about a very interesting practice engaged in by a very slim number of bass players. Namely, tuning in fifths.

Theses players tune their basses exactly as cellos, an octave lower: C-G-D-A. Will’s assertion is that it allows for much more accurate tuning with the orchestra’s cello section (which of course makes perfect sense) and what’s more that it gives a more articulate response on the instrument all around.

We also talked about other tuning systems for the bass, like the D Major or so-called ‘Viennese tuning’, which is demonstrated by my former colleague Owen Lee here:

This is obviously a gag, but to hear the tuning played properly, Owen made another video which you can view here.

Now, Owen claims that this is the way basses were tuned in the classical era of Mozart and Haydn, but Mr. Gibbs complicated this view for me a bit, and told me that bass players historically used a wide variety of tunings, often tuning their instruments to the piece they were playing. We tend to think of low Cs as simply a matter of having an extension or a fifth string, but the idea that bassists would have treated their instruments almost like transposing instruments clarifies a great deal, particularly about the Beethoven symphonies (the 5th and 6th in particular).

Usually I just can’t with all this bass stuff. Bassists tend to be REALLY into bass to the exclusion of all else, and it’s just too bass for me, but this tuning in 5ths is something that I’m really convinced by and I think needs wider mention. I imagine learning it would be like converting from a QWERTY to a DVORAK keyboard, but if certain intrepid bass players would give it a shot, maybe we could get a good sample of data and see if it’s really worth the effort.

This is definitely going on my agenda when I convene the World Association of Musicians, along with converting the double horn from a transposing instrument in F to a non-transposing instrument reading alto clef, deciding the ultimate meaning of the tenuto, and rendering official once and for all the status of the ‘unaccented mark’.


This summer, two of my new bébés shall be ushered into the world:

Monday, June 13, 7:30 pm
The Dwarf Planets: Band Edition (premiere)
Baldwin High School Wind Symphony
Adelphi University, Garden City, NY

Really looking forward to this one. The concert features new works by SIX composers, including Paul Moravec, whom I consider to be something of a celebrity. Major props to by boy Scott Dunn for his efforts in commissioning and promoting new music. I’ve worked with his students before and I’m really looking forward to doing it again. I’ll be on hand to conduct.

Sunday, July 17, 5:00 pm
Acadia Fanfare, world premiere
The Pierre Monteux School, Hancock, ME

Acadia Fanfare Poster - small

The Monteux School is really home for me, the place where I learned so much of what I use in my music-making every single day, and I feel privileged to give back with a new piece for orchestra that celebrates the school and the natural beauty of Acadia National Park. I’ll be there the whole week leading up to this, and Monday, July 11, we’ll also do “The Itsy Bitsy Spider“.

IN BETWEEN: I go to China for 11 days with Metropolitan Youth Symphony to cap off my season as their Interim Music Director. I’ve never been to China before, but I’ve been taking Chinese lessons for the past 10 months and I’m boldly going to attempt giving my concert speeches there in Chinese (你门好, 我叫白威廉!) which I think will come off as charming if not intelligible.

ALSO: I will, at some point, recommence making “Ask A Maestro” videos. I have sooo many great topics: How does a composer know when a piece is finished? What jobs can a musician do? How do you know what key a piece is in?

I also want to do a lightning round video at some point where I just answer a bunch of short questions about classical music, so if you have any little ones or big ones or anything in between, you can always submit them on the Ask A Maestro tab above.

The Jungle Book

I haven’t seen the new Jungle Book, and I’m not going to, because I’ve listened to the soundtrack, and it sucks.

Specifically, it sucks in comparison to the soundtrack from the 1967 animated version, which I think is Disney’s best, both in terms of songs and score:

The music in the current soundtrack about as bland a generic Hollywood action score as I could imagine. It’s competent, but where are the spices of the orient? Where those trilllzzz at? Where those Randall Thompson strungs at?? Where the hell is the alto flute doubling low-register clarinet mixed with some dope-ass muted hornzz???

Now we just get a little Zimmer here, a little Horner there, and a whiff of Elfman to tie it all together. Nary an attempt is made to place the action in India, and that was a real opportunity to improve on the ’67 version which employed only a vague (though delicious) brand of Orientalism.

The current score sounds more like “Colors of the  Wind” meets “Lion King” meets “Titanic”. Why not incorporate some Indian tablas or a spicy sitar lick? Or perhaps something reminiscent of Elgar and empire? I know I’ve made this complaint before, but why oh why can’t we have film scores that contribute to the movie’s setting?

Luckily, I can do more than bemoan bad Jungle Book music in this post, because I’ve just discovered a new (old) composer: Charles Koechlin. You want Jungle Book music? Baby, you got it.

Koechlin was a wildly prolific, long-lived (1867-1950) French composer who was obsessed with Rudyard Kipling in general and The Jungle Book in particular. His music is a fascinating mixture of French Impressionism, Scriabinian eccentricity, and an almost Webern-esque exquisiteness, and the whole adds up to way more than the sum of its parts.

He wrote gobs and gobs of music, and I’ve just bitten in, but I haven’t yet to be disappointed. After you finish with the Jungle Book music (of which there is more) I’d direct your attention to Les Heures persanesHe also wrote an orchestration treatise which is said to be among the most complete treatments of the subject, so I’ll get back to you on that once I can track one down.

Isn’t it fun having a new composer in your life??