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Dominy Clements Interview with the Basso Moderno Duo - 2007


The Basso Moderno Duo is based in Washington, DC, and its members are Dr. Allan Von Schenkel – double bass, and Kristen Williams – piano. The Basso Moderno Duo is justly proud of commissioning over 100 lyrical works for solo bass and piano by some of the worlds most prominent and exciting living composers.

Composers from 37 countries and all 7 continents have written specifically for Dr. Allan Von Schenkel's virtuosic and highly individualized manner of double-bass playing. Von Schenkel studied composition with Dr. Richard Fiske, a gifted student of Nadia Boulanger. His mentors on the bass have been the world renowned Gary Karr, as well as Stefano Sciascia in Italy. He has performed throughout the world and has worked diligently to expand the repertoire with music that audiences will embrace. Kristen Williams, a talented pianist and soprano soloist, is a versatile artist who is comfortable performing in a variety of genres. She is the executive director of the Great Noise Ensemble, Washington, DC's premiere contemporary classical chamber music group. Recent piano performances include solo and collaborative work at THE ARC Theater in Washington, DC, The Jane Franklin Dance Company, and master classes in Castres, France. In order to continue growing as an artist, she currently studies piano with Robert Durso and voice with Cate Frazier-Neely.

The stated aims of the Basso Moderno Duo are to create a new repertoire for bass and piano from celebrated composers all over the world, and to bring these works to diverse audiences, communicating beautiful, lyrical music from composers from entirely different backgrounds and experiences than that of our own. Through these works the duo hopes to bring peace to their audiences and start a constructive dialogue of understanding between the citizens of our country and those of our composers. As well as creating new repertoire for bass and piano, the duo introduces non-traditional classical music audiences to new music by performing new works, educating at the same time by speaking about the composers and their approach to music.

In the initial e-mail contact with Basso Moderno, the musicians were keen to emphasise their passionate advocacy of new music. They concluded: "We often ask ourselves questions like ‘what would happen if the world’s greatest Australian Aborigine composer was to write for us’?"

DC: I am greatly intrigued by the thought of someone like an 'Australian Aboriginal' composing for your duo - have you made steps in this direction? This raises questions about music being an 'international language': have you encountered cultural differences which have produced either fascinating results or impossibly difficult problems?

BMD: There are great music talents to be found in all musical cultures. The Basso Moderno Duo is excited by the idea of creating a new repertoire from composers whose musical voices reflect cultures not often heard in concert halls. We feel that there are highly talented composers throughout the world and that their music is valuable to audiences everywhere. Composers often borrow from cultures outside of their own, but what happens when they compose music for non-traditional performers. We ask the question: What happens when a talented Australian Aboriginal writes for bass? Ron Nagorcka, a self-proclaimed naturalist, composed 'Down Under Dance for Bass and Didgeridoo'. His music is influenced by the nature sounds of the Australian bush. The new work is both melodic and highly rhythmic.

Some of the challenges of performing contemporary music is going from simply learning the technical demands found in the score, to realizing the unique musical language of each composer, and then to finally perform the work in a manner we believe the composer intended. Take for example, 'Serenade in Bells' Garden' by Jan Freidlin of Israel. This demanding work is one of the most beautiful and rewarding pieces written for us. It took a great deal of time to put the piece together, technically, and then begin performing it consistently with a musical voice that is unique to Freidlin. This bass masterpiece is fascinating because the music is as effective as the images that the composer writes in his program notes. "Imagine a garden with a large variety of plants and flowers of all sizes, but instead of having leaves each plant has different sized bells."

DC: Always intrigued by unusual instrumentations, I recently reviewed a fascinating Alphorn CD by Ary Shilkloper in which he performs a number of parts, overdubbing each piece. Have you been involved in electronic recording techniques, or worked with composers who manipulate the sounds of the instruments?

BMD: When working with dance, we often perform along with recordings. We recently composed a piece titled 'Inspired by Nature' and have given several performances with dance companies. In this piece we create a sound sculpture using the sound of water, leaves, and rocks alongside both live and pre-recorded bass and piano parts. In Yoko Ono-Lennon's 'Secret Piece II' (composed for us and premiered at the Smithsonian Hirshhorn Contemporary Art Museum in Washington DC) we perform along with a recording of birdsong. Playing along with recorded sounds allows us to play with a large palette of musical environments and indirectly changes the overall balance and sound of our instruments.

DC: Can you describe something of the idiom(s) in which you perform?

BMD: We have the belief that music does not have boundaries. We aim to give concerts where each piece is unique. We carefully programme pieces so that each piece naturally leads into the other. Generally speaking, we have pieces that are very lyrical such as the vocal-inspired commissions 'Nocturne' by Ned Rorem and 'Winter Hubris' by Lee Hoiby. We have intensely rhythmic pieces such as Puerto Rican composer William Ortiz whose 'Soiree at La Playa Hotel' reflects the energy and society of a cafe/bar in that country. Pauline Oliveros composed 'Blue Heron' for us. It is a piece that requires an intense improvisation following her musical approach known as Deep Listening. One could surmise that the diversity represented in our program aims to blur the boundaries of music while demonstrating that music voices throughout the world use similar musical devices. We also have several pieces which involve audience participation. One of our most successful pieces is 'PA-ALULUNG' by Jonas Baes of the Philippines. The audience is given a number of small nails, bells and other found objects in which they create a beautiful and lively texture for the solo bass and bowed cymbal. A dialogue is developed with the audience which typically results in an exciting moment for everyone in the room. One step further are Performance Art works like 'Seshin: the elephanturtlefrog' by Guillermo Silveira of Argentina, where we wear costumes and recite Japanese Haiku. We are currently in production of our own Performance Art composition '69 Ways to Fall in LOVE' which includes live music with pre-recorded sound sculptures, film, dance, 2 actors and prose.

For us, it is just as enjoyable to perform a piece from say Antarctica as it is to perform Icelandic composer, Atli Heimir Sveinsson's 'Song of Fury and Sorrow'. What is important to us that we are able introduce the musical voices of talented composers from all over the world with audiences that otherwise would not have been exposed. It is a great thrill when we are able to take them from the stage of being passive audience members to active listeners.

Rather than thinking in term of idioms, the Basso Moderno Duo carefully programs recitals around themes. We also commission composers based on the needs of a programme. During a recent recital, at the Smithsonian American Art Museum in Washington DC entitled "Ten Fiery American Premieres", we sought out new works that were 'Fiery' or 'Dramatic' in nature. Another such program is 'Black Enterprise: Music of African American Composers'. This fantastic program includes pieces such as 'Aria' by H. Leslie Adams, 'Sinister & Sacred Variations' and 'Whimsy' by Harold Colin Cowherd, and the newly composed 'Heptandral Fantasy' by Gary Nash.

Each composer has a dynamic and original voice. Often composers write for specific concerts, knowing their piece will make it into other programmes. Programming works based on themes allows us to perform in as many idioms as there are composers, and we are able to give concerts that have a great deal of variety. In addition, all of the works we commission are 3-5 minutes in length, which allows us to perform 15-20 pieces in any given recital.

DC: It seems you have a wide variety of sources, but are you interested in avant-garde techniques?

BMD: As highly trained musicians we feel confident that we can perform whatever is brought before us. We are willing to execute any demands by the composer. The Basso Moderno Duo is interested in all types of music and we view our role as being to educate and share our enthusiasm for new music with audiences. We bring to composers passionate performances and openness as well as unconditional acceptance of their music.

DC: With your commissions, have you collaborated greatly with composers in order to get the best out of them and your instruments?

BMD: When working with composers, we begin the relationship by providing a great deal of information to them. We ask composers to write the score at sounding pitch (like the cello and not transposing down one octave). We also provide a detailed description of the range of the solo bass on our website. There are many advantages of the high solo tuning (A d g c), which sounds one fourth higher than standard tuning. This tuning allows the bass to have a much larger range - four and a half octaves - from three ledger lines below bass clef to two ledger lines above treble clef. In addition, this extreme range allows for many possibilities and colours. We conceive the bass as having six separate voices/registers - ways of highlighting to composers the variety of colours available to them. Finally, we ask composers not to think bass when they are composing because there are many stereotypes that are just not true. They are asked to write anything that they would like, with no limits, and from there we work with composers to solve any problem areas. In this way each piece has its own challenges and the Basso Moderno Duo grow as artists not only technically but also conceptually. It is gratifying to create a repertoire because the literature is not defined by what has been done but rather by what is possible to do.

DC: Working with other art forms such as dance seems to be an important element in your work. Is this a creative choice, or do you see it as essential to surviving in a market which demands more than just the old formula of 'musicians on stage'.

BMD: Dance is beautiful. Often dance allows the audience to take on a more proactive role when listening to new music. Since they are more often than not listening to a piece for the first time by a composer they probably have not heard of, dance seems to open doors to understanding. We believe that by seeing a dancer move to the music that it helps the first-time listener relate to what they are hearing. Often the music we are performing is based on a dance such as our most popular encore piece Tango No.2 by Spanish composer Sonia Megias Lopez. This piece is a success either with or without dance but when it is choreographed then goes from being an exciting encore to being an event!

DC: Are you likely to be touring in Europe anytime soon?

BMD: The Basso Moderno will be giving concerts in Spain and Italy in October 2007. All of our concerts are listed here.

DC: What are your most recent commissions?

BMD: We have just given the premiere of 'Canzona Bassa' by celebrated American composer Leo Kraft. With this piece, Kraft has contributed a great gem to the bass repertoire. It is certainly the work of master as he uses a variety of textures, melodic phrases and intensities to write a piece that builds and grows from beginning to end. We are currently learning the recently completed 'African Dreams' by Italian Composer Antonio Giacometti. This four movement work is the result of the composer’s research of Saharan and Sub-Saharan music with particular emphasis on the use of pitch collections and polyrhythms.

DC: What are your future plans?

BMD: Having recently incorporated we are now organizing several annual programmes. We have created the Basso Moderno Commissioning Fund, in which tax deductible donations raise money to commission new works. Part of these funds go towards the Basso Moderno Composition Competition (BMC2), a new music competition in which composers can submit new works for solo bass and piano.

We also host events such as the Basically Modern Contemporary Music Festival. In addition, we are actively starting contemporary music concert series in a number of cities. These concerts give us the opportunity to present a different programme in each concert as well as work with other performers.

Our long term goal is to commission a piece from composers in every country and we have currently commissioned composers in 37 countries and all seven continents. We are currently working with the Embassy of Uruguay in Washington DC to commission an entire programme of new works by leading Uruguayan composers. This opportunity is the result of many successful performances of 'De Introitum Vigiliae' by Juan Jose Iturriberry.

All of these projects reflect our mission to promote the new works of living composers and to serve the contemporary art community. The Basso Moderno Duo hopes to be viewed as true advocates and a vehicle for composers all over the world.

Dominy Clements


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