Articles – Contrabass Conversations & Double Bass Blog Series – Perspectives on Early Bass Performance – Early Music Interview Series Part VI – Curtis Daily
This article was originally published on the Double Bass Blog on November 25th, 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.
Contrabass Conversations and the Double Bass Blog are continues is series on early bass performers. It will highlight many different perspectives on early bass/ violone performance. Our next guest is Curtis Daily. We hope that you will enjoy these interviews and glean a good deal of information from our esteemed guests.
About Curtis Daily:
Curtis Daily is the busiest early music double bassist in the Pacific Northwest. In addition to frequent appearances with Seattle Baroque Orchestra, he is the principal bassist with Portland Baroque Orchestra andTrinity Consort. This season he will also be performing with Tafelmusik Baroque Orchestra. He has also played in Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra,Pacific Baroque Orchestra, Walla Walla Baroque Orchestra, the Brandenburg Consort, and the Grand River Baroque Festival. Mr. Daily is the principal bassist of the Portland Chamber Orchestra and the Ernest Bloch Music Festival Orchestra and has been a long-time member of theOregon Bach Festival Orchestra. He is heard on recordings for Virgin, Hannsler Classics, Centaur, Wild Boar, Sub Pop Records, and NPR.
When and how did you become interested in early music, and how has it shaped your life musically?
I was freelancing in Portland at the time, 1988, subbing in the symphony and playing in the local opera and ballet orchestras. I got a call one day from David Kerr, a founding member of Portland Baroque Orchestra. He had contacted my teacher, Frank Diliberto, looking for a bassist perhaps a bit outside the symphonic mold, and Frank suggested me. I had no awareness of the early music movement at the time and in fact the only early music person I had even heard of was Jaap Schroeder (whom I have since have had the honor of playing with many times).
David asked if I had some gut strings I could put on the bass, since the group only played on gut. I thought that was pretty wacky but I had some old strings that had been given to me by a former and there was an entire week of work involved, so I accepted and strung the bass with gut.
The leader that week was Ton Koopman, and I was quickly hooked. He was the first person that I had worked with that actually spent a lot of time in rehearsing baroque music. The modern conductors I had played under would never do more than run through a piece of baroque music.
I can still vividly remember, though it was almost 20 years ago, Ton patiently rehearsing the continuo group in the opening subject of a W.F. Bach fugue, stressing to us the importance of it being shaped just so, as the other instruments would play it just as we played it.
I would say that my musical life has been completely shaped by this experience, as I only wanted to play baroque music on gut strings after that.
What instrument did you start on?
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?
I’m a double bassist, in modern terms, and don’t play the fretted violone. I played clarinet and saxophone in school, and I play the piano, but I wouldn’t say that they did anything for my approach to period performance. I stay away from baroque music on the piano.
Who were some of the early music performers who have had a lasting affect on you?
Leaders: Richard Egarr, Monica Huggett, Ton Koopman, Ingrid Matthews and Byron Schenkman, Andrew Manze
Cellists/gambists: Jaap ter Linden, Sarah Freiberg, Susie Napper, Mime Yamahiro
Bassoonists: Heather Carruthers, Michael McCraw.
Where did you go to college for your undergrad degree? Master’s? Doctorate?
I got kind of a late start with the double bass at age 26, so I went to Mt. Hood Community College for 2 years studying bass with Larry Zgonc, and then started working. I studied with Frank Diliberto, and Roma Vayspapir after that.
What ensembles have you performed in (period instrument or otherwise)?
On modern bass; Salem Symphony, Salem Chamber Orchestra, Eugene Symphony, Spokane Symphony, Boise Philharmonic, Yakima Symphony, Hawaii Symphony, Oregon Symphony, Portland Opera, Oregon Ballet Theatre, Portland Chamber Orchestra, Oregon Bach Festival (where in 7 summer festivals I never played Bach), Ernest Bloch Festival (where we played too much Bloch), Oregon Coast Music Festival for 13 years, and many many many more.
I played jazz for a living in Portland for 15 years, including 6 long years with the Darryl Kaufman Quintet, the house band at the Heathman Hotel. Darryl was kind enough to let me take nights off to do orchestra work when that side of my career started to grow, and I am ever grateful for that.
On gut strings; Portland Baroque Orchestra, Seattle Baroque Orchestra, Trinity Consort, Tafelmusik Baroque Orchestra, Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra, Pacific Baroque Orchestra, Bach Collegium, Otter Crest Music Festival, Grand Bend Baroque Festival, Montana Baroque Festival, Vancouver Early Music Festival.
What are among your favorite works to perform with these ensembles? Do any particular events stick out in your mind?
Anything by J.S. Bach, and the St. Matthew Passion in particular.
Performing all of the Christmas Oratorios numerous times with Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra last December was pretty incredible.
The first time I played The Four Seasons with Monica Huggett, though it was 14 years ago, is still very memorable.
Do you have any favorite performers you have worked with?
Joanna Blendulf and Tanya Tomkins alternate as the principal cellist in PBO and they are my current faves. Elizabeth Reed, who I work with in Seattle Baroque, is a fantastic player.
Mime Yamahiro is my favorite cellist of all time.
I have worked with Monica Huggett regularly for the past 14 years, and because I have known her for so long I sometimes take for granted that she is one of the best violinists on the planet….until she blows me away yet again, most recently last month with Vivaldi concerti. She’s way up on the favorite list. I’m honored to know her and grateful to be on the same stage with her.
Andrew Manze and Richard Egarr are phenomenal musicians and wonderful human beings. They make playing music so much fun that one has to wonder if it should be legal.
What advice would you give to aspiring double bassists who might want to immerse themselves in early music?
Get some gut strings and buy a baroque bow that works well. Order several bows from a few reputable makers to try.
Buy the Oscar Zimmerman Bach book and some good recordings of Bach, listen and practice.
The kind of modern playing education I got wasn’t totally bad for playing early music, but the gut strings themselves will tell us how to play sometimes if we just pay attention, and I think that having to pay more attention to the interaction of bow and string is one of the big differences between playing on steel and playing on gut.
Something I learned early on is that I can’t get every note, and in some instances it is better by far for the bassist not to try to play every note.
Listening for the overall effect of the bass in the ensemble is more important than playing every note. It’s good to remember that music was not always written with a particular bass instrument in mind, and more interpretive liberties can be taken than with parts that were specifically written for double bass, as came later on.
What are the advantages of using period instruments?
Period music is easier to play well on a period set up, once one gets familiar with the equipment. The timbre and feel of gut strings under the bow are conducive to understanding the music.
Have you undertaken any research in regards to period instrument performance?
I’ve read the usual treatises: Quantz, and Leopold Mozart for example, but I’m not a scholar. I performed the North American premiere on a period instrument of the Cimador concerto in G major some years back with Portland Baroque Orchestra, and answered some questions about it for an article in the ISB magazine, but that’s about all.
What information would you impart regarding what kinds of instrument played at the bottom end in the 17th to 18th centuries?
There seem to have been a lot of different types of basses in use. I have seen original instruments with 3, 4, 5, and 6 strings, in sizes of small, large, and in between, fretted and unfretted.
What sort of pedagogical materials do you use with students?
I don’t teach any more but when I did, I used Simandl and selected etudes and solos.
What sorts of materials (articles/treatises, etc.) would you suggest for an aspiring period instrument performer to understand performance practice issues regarding early bass instruments?
Quantz and Mozart are probably requisite. I found “Bach’s Continuo Group” by Laurence Dreyfus to be very interesting and helpful.
What, in your opinion, are among the most controversial issues regarding performance practice and bass instrument performance?
What instrument to play for what music. Not being a scholar has freed me from some of this controversy, through ignorance I guess, and I use what I have, which currently is a large double bass from Venice, c 1770. It was originally 3 string, and at some point became 5. It is basically similar to some instruments that I have seen from the 17th century and has a very powerful but controllable sound, so I don’t have any reservations about using it for all my work.
There are some players that will not use an instrument unless it has been identified in iconographical or written sources from the period, which is a very reasonable plan.
Unfortunately there wasn’t a whole lot written about the double bass instruments during the 17th-18th centuries so there might be some holes in the information available.
If one is playing the early classical Viennese bass concerti, it is certain that using a 5 string bass in Viennese tuning will make things easier.
What repertoire do you find work well on contrabass register instruments? Why?
The 17th-18th century orchestral literature all works well. I don’t hesitate to leave out notes especially in 17th century music, trying to imagine my role as more that of organ pedals and looking for those kind of big moments.
Also, if there are rapid progressions in the form of patterns that have large leaps in them I generally will not try for every note but concentrate on the important ones. The desire to get every note is something that I guess we have built in to us, but it is much more distracting musically to hit notes with an unwanted accent than to leave them out. When in doubt I ask my colleagues to listen to a couple of possibilities and tell me which they like best.
Often I will not play in arias that are in trio sonata form, but sometimes conductors will ask me to, and after listening to recordings of some of these performances I think that the bass sounds good when it is played in a very soft, lithe, and articulate way.
I guess I got a bit off topic here.
What aspects of period instrument performance do you feel that the majority of musical field are unaware of? What assumptions and misconceptions do period instrument performers need to present to future audiences?
I think it’s important to keep in mind that this is very dynamic music. Though there is greater awareness now, many musicians of modern schooling still seem to be mystified at the lack of dynamic markings and the purpose of the markings that are in the music, and the requirement that one must often make their own dynamic decisions based on what is going on in the rest of the score. With the bass, one often also has to make dynamic decisions based on the resonance of the hall.
Another thing to consider is that violin/viol family instruments had been in existence for 200 years or so by the time of the high baroque, so they were well sorted out in terms of design and sonic projection. The idea that baroque music is a wispy kind of thing is just wrong. Current research indicates that players were using very heavy gauge strings back then, and that says one thing for sure….they could play loud when they needed to.
What kind of basses and violone do you play on?
My current instrument is a 5 string double bass from Venice, c.1770. It was originally a 3 string bass but works well with 5, which it was converted to sometime in the past. I don’t use frets.
How long have you owned this instrument?
Do you play German bow, French bow? When you play violone, do you use a violone bow (large viola da gamba bow)?
I play underhand, in a style that is closer to modern German bow technique than viol technique. Somewhere in between I guess.
What is the pedigree of your stick?
When I started playing this music I couldn’t find a bow I liked, so I carved my own
(under the tutelage of David Kerr) and I still like it better than anything else I’ve tried. It is made of pernambuco with an ebony frog. It’s very simply made and has just the slightest camber bent into it, and is patterned loosely after a bow I saw in a museum in Germany.
What kind of strings do you use? What other brands have you used in the past?
I have used Aquila strings exclusively for the past 14 years or so. I am also currently the distributor for them but I started using them long before I started selling them so the only bias I have is that I like them better than any others I have tried. Previously I have tried various old stock strings, like ArTone and Red-O-Ray, both of which I liked but are no longer available. I also have tried strings from Dan Larson, Pirastro, and Damian Dlugolecki.
What kind of rosin do you use?
These days I’m using Oak, which was formulated way back when gut strings were still in common use in symphony bass sections, was unavailable for a long time unless one knew just where in rural Maine they could get a chunk of it, and now has been reincarnated by Arnold Gregorian, much to the good fortune of all bassists. I bought all three hardnesses, and generally use medium or soft. Sometimes a combination of two works well.
I also have used Pop’s and Carlsson, but I have to say that I don’t think Oak leaves as much residue on the strings as the others. Occasionally I will use the back of a knife blade to scrape any accumulated rosin off the plain strings. It can be very hard to get off just with a rag.