Articles – Contrabass Conversations & Double Bass Blog Series – Perspectives on Early Bass Performance – Early Music Interview Series Part III – David Miller

This article was originally published on the Double Bass Blog on October 18th, 2007. For other installments in the Early Bass Performance – Early Music Interview Series, as well as many great resources for the amateur, student and professional double bassist, please visit the Double Bass Blog and the Contrabass Conversations Podcast.


David Miller with the Jefferson Baroque Orchestra

Continuing Contrabass Conversations and the Double Bass Blog’s series on early bass performers, highlighting the many different perspectives on early bass/ violone performance.

Our next guest is David Miller who performs with the Jefferson Baroque Orchestra. We hope that you will enjoy these interviews and glean a good deal of information from our esteemed guests. We hope that you will enjoy these interviews and glean a good deal of information from our esteemed guests.

About David Miller:

Among many modern orchestras, bassist David Miller is a member of the Jefferson Baroque Orchestra. Directed by musicians who are among the most respected Early Music performers and teachers, the Jefferson Baroque Orchestra presents music of the 17th & 18th centuries as it was presented then: as something fresh and new. Searching for the sounds and performing styles of the period the Jefferson Baroque Orchestra uses instruments, techniques and singing styles as close as possible to those that Baroque composers and performers would have known; the orchestra plays from editions free from 19th century accretions, or from facsimiles of original prints or manuscripts; the Jefferson Baroque Orchestra chooses performing venues for intimacy and acoustic clarity; and we try to play and sing in such a way that the music seems as new as when the ink was still wet.

The for more information on David Miller & the Jefferson Baroque Orchestra, please visit http://www.jeffersonbaroque.org/.

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When and how did you become interested in early music, and how has it shaped your life musically?

At U of Iowa I began (1972) as a Music Theory Major before I transferred to a Double Bass degree (1976). I studied older music styles, but never played in the college Baroque group, focusing on orchestra, Jazz band, and the center for New Music. Like many jazz bassists, I liked the common threads between Jazz and Baroque music: the bass as the foundation of the continuo, and the improvisational “feel” of the music and its expression.

Upon moving to Oregon (1993), I was recruited to play in the Jefferson Baroque Orchestra. At first it was a change from the usual orchestra playing. Later, after playing with the ensemble for a time, rehearsing with able performers, and obtaining a “Baroque” bass, it became a new source of musical ideas that influences my teaching and performance in other music groups.

What instrument did you start on?

I began on a standard orchestra bass. I then inherited a German bass of unknown origin, probably 19th century, from my brother in the mid 90′s. Steve Bacon, a local instrument repair person with some experience in old instruments and performance practices, set it up for playing in the Baroque style.

In addition to violone, what other instruments (period instruments or otherwise) have you studied or played? Have these informed your approach to period bass/ violone performance?

No other baroque instruments. I have always been a bassist. my study has been mostly orchestral, but much of my background has been jazz ensembles. Listening is the ultimate learning tool in any performance, but it pays off more in Baroque music where the emphasis on the printed page is the beginning, not the final answer.

Who were some of the early music performers who have had a lasting affect on you?

Rob Giggins (violin) was the first conductor of the Jefferson Baroque Orchestra that I worked with. a gifted performer, excellent improviser, and musically eclectic, he emphasized attention to detail of the music, sensitivity to your fellow performers and what they are doing, and flexibility to change your performance when the music goes in a different direction. He would spend 30′ tuning, another hour getting exactly the right bow stroke, and the rest of rehearsal getting the group to shape the performance around the text. Then, at the dress rehearsal, he would change the way we played the music because it sounded memorized.

Michael Sands (CA), Rob’s American teacher, who has guest conducted several concerts here. His approach is to work with the string players to get the right sound (bow stroke, pressure, placement, etc), changing it for every movement. He was always able to keep the focus on what we would do in the performance.

Marc Vanscheevwijck (U of Oregon) is a cellist who performs with us occasionally. Although his musicological background is extensive, his playing is improvisational, changing the expression every time he performs, fitting in with whatever the group is doing, and trying not to dictate the “right” answer.

Peggy Gries (WA, U of Oregon PhD Candidate) is the present conductor of Jefferson Baroque. She is a builder of our group, taking it from a pick-up ensemble of occasional performers to a more polished group of dedicated players. Her emphasis is to first understand the music as it was played, then pick up the instrument to recreate it as possible.

I have listened to very few CD artists: I have been directed to Andrew Manze and Reinhart Goebel, but I also discovered some Cecila Bartoli from my vocalist office mate.

Where did you go to college? Undergrad? Grad school? Doctoral work?

BA – Sioux Falls (SD) College 1968. Band director/music history teacher was a musicology student at U of Minnesota. MA – U of Iowa 1977. Eldon Obrecht bass teacher. Was a music theory student initially, but never studied with or played in the Baroque ensemble. Studied with Jim Clute of MN Orch after graduation. Had several lessons with Warren Benfield of Chicago Symphony, and attended a summer clinic with J.B. Vandemark of Eastman.

What ensembles have you performed in (period instrument or otherwise)?

Jefferson Baroque is the only baroque group. Various small orchestras of the IPO (that is the Illinois Philharmonic, a regional orchestra) variety, 3 of which had active string quintets playing public school concerts. Iowa Center for New Music during college (1972-1976) – performed 20th century ensemble pieces and small jazz ensembles.

What are among your favorite works to perform with these ensembles? Do any particular events stick out in your mind?

Re: Baroque, I still like Messiah, even after thousands of performances (good and bad). I am still rediscovering Bach and Handel, and discovering the likes of Buxtehude, C.P.E. Bach, etc. I enjoy performing a piece that you think you know, only to discover a completely different approach will bring out new music and expression.

Do you have any favorite performers you have worked with?

See above.

What can we learn from studying early music?

That singing is the ultimate expression in music. That music is nothing without that expression, and that that expression can be added to any music. That a music ensemble is a collaborative experience depending on the sensitivity of the performers. That there is no single right answer to performance practices. that the life of a piece of music can be brought back in performance, even if we don’t exactly replicate the performance practices of the time. That one can change the meaning of a piece with a small change of expression. That a little background knowledge of a piece can add life to what seems a simple piece of music.

What advice would you give an aspiring double bassist who might want to immerse themselves in early music?

Play in any groups that you can. Play with the best performers you can find. Study the music, study the history, study the instrument. Be open to new ideas, new styles.

What are the advantages of using period instruments?

Transparency, the ability to hear the other performers while playing. Expression, the ability to get a more vocal (living) sound with a tempermental string. The ability to get a different sound on every note.

Have you undertaken any research in regards to period instrument performance?

Indeed, I never stop studying and researching, for example most recently, the history of bowed string instruments, which are inextricably tied into the history of the earliest human domestication of horses, and early horse culture, in general.

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What kind of basses and violone do you play on?

“Violone” see above. Also an early 19th century hawks bass, set up as an orchestral 5-string.

How long have you owned this (these) instrument(s)?

Hawkes since 1981. “Violone” since mid-90s.

Do you play German bow, French bow? When you play violone, do you use a violone bow (large viola da gamba bow)?

German bow. I use a borrowed bass gamba bow for Jefferson Baroque.

What kind of strings do you use? What other brands have you used in the past?

Gut G and D, metal wrapped gut A and E.

What kind of rosin do you use?

Pops, same as orchestral playing.

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For  more information on David Miller & the Jefferson Baroque Orchestra, please visit http://www.jeffersonbaroque.org/. For other installments in the Early Bass Performance – Early Music Interview Series, please visit the Double Bass Blog (http://www.doublebassblog.org/) and the Contrabass Conversations Podcast (http://www.contrabassconversations.com/).

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