This article was originally published on the Double Bass Blog on April 16th, 2008. 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 continues its series on early bass performers. It will highlight many different perspectives on early bass/ violone performance. Our next guest in our early music interview series is Richard Myron. We hope that you will enjoy these interviews and glean a good deal of information from our esteemed guests.
About Richard Myron:
Richard Myron is an immensely experienced period bassist who has worked with a number of prominent American groups such as Concert Royal, the Brewer Ensemble, the Smithsonian Players and Orchestra, the Connecticut Early Music Festival, and many other small ensembles. In Europe, Richard has performed with la Petite Bande, Anima Aeterna, Les Arts Florissants, Concerto Vocale, the Ensemble Mosaïques, Al Ayre Espanol, Hesperion XX. Richard Myron was a founding member of the Freiburger Barockorchester and Il Seminario Musicale and has also worked with l’Arpeggiata and Les Basses Réunies, a group consisting of only bass instruments.
When and how did you become interested in early music, and how has it shaped your life musically?
My interest in early music goes back to my studies in New York at Juilliard—Albert Fuller gave a course in historic interpretation, and I was fortunate enough to understand his message.
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?
Well, I play double bass(3, 4 or 5 string) and violone(6 string). I can also play a little(self taught) viol; Funny enough, I started on the Fender bass—I still love to play it!
Who were some of the early music performers who have had a lasting affect on you?
As I said before, Albert Fuller was a major influence, as was Jaap Schröder. I started in New York, and there were many great colleagues, still active on the New York scene who helped me to understand what this new world was all about – having Myron Lutzke or Freddy Arico as a continuo partner was surely a great way to start. Ed Brewer and James Richman brought me into their groups, and I will always be grateful to them for that. When I came to Europe, I met Gustav Leonhardt – that was a shock – he is surely one of the most elegant musicians that I have ever met; Jordi Saval, William Christie-there are many more, I have tried to learn something each step of the way.
Where did you go to college?
I received Bachelor and Masters degrees at Juilliard, as a student of Homer Mensch. He was a wonderful teacher whose teaching was so universal that I have been able to use it very well in my early music work.
What teachers and schools would you recommend students look at for college focusing on early music?
At the risk of sounding too chauvinistic, I would say come to Paris!! At the conservatory, we have a fantastic faculty and the chance to play in first class facilities. In any case, this generation of students has a rich choice – Indiana University, Mannes College – and of course, the more traditional way of coming to Europe – I now believe that to be essential –for many reasons, language, culture, tradition. Early music here is a basic cultural entity, like jazz in America
If you studied early music at university, who were some of the faculty who had a lasting affect on you?
Did you do any summer festivals during your college years (Oberlin’s Baroque Performance Institute, Gamba Society Conclave, Boston Early Music Festival, Berkeley Early Music Festival, etc.)? If so, were these valuable experiences to you?
Unfortunately, I did not go to those festivals – I recommend them to everyone interested in learning something new.
What ensembles have you performed in (period instrument or otherwise)?
In New York, I worked with Concert Royal, the Brewer Ensemble, the Smithsonian Players and Orchestra, the Connecticut Early Music Festival, and many other small ensembles. Here in Europe, I have traveled a lot—I have been lucky to play with many first class ensembles – la Petite Bande, Anima Aeterna, Les Arts Florissants, Concerto Vocale, the Ensemble Mosaïques, Al Ayre Espanol, Hesperion XX. I was a founding member of the Freiburger Barockorchester and Il Seminario Musicale. More recently, I have been working with l’Arpeggiata and Les Basses Réunies, a group consisting of only bass instruments thatI started with Bruno Cocset, my colleague at the conservatory, a great musician, and a great friend.
What are among your favorite works to perform with these ensembles? Do any particular events stick out in your mind?
Difficult to single things out!! I have a great nostalgia for the concerts at Christmas time of the Messiah with the St Thomas boys choir, one of the things about New York that I miss the most. It’s best to say that I have had a great chance to play the music of different countries with groups from those countries –what a great way to learn about different styles!!
Do you have any favorite performers you have worked with?
When everything is in the groove, everyone is my favorite!
What can we learn from studying early music?
Most of all, we can learn about why we play music in the first place, and surely we can learn about where our current vocabulary came from.
What advice would you give an aspiring double bassist who might want to immerse themselves in early music?
Play the violone!! This is very important. Don’t compromise about strings – round wound bass strings are a must! Try to relate the language of the music to the language of the composer, and never forget that presence and loudness are two different things!! The greatest compliment for any bassist in any situation is that he or she is easy to play with!
What are the advantages of using period instruments?
The same as using modern instruments to play Carter or Xenakis, or a Hammond B-3 for gospel. The instruments hold the answers to the problems that are posed by the composers. When playing 17th c music with the right instruments, it’s like playing contemporary music with our modern instruments today – we are all looking for the same kind of satisfaction from our work.
Have you undertaken any research in regards to period instrument performance?
Of course – I have never stopped reading source material and discussing with colleagues who play other instruments what they think.
What information would you impart regarding what kinds of instrument played at the bottom end in the 17th-18th centuries?
I can’t say that I know for sure what was going on 300 years ago!! judging by age of some instruments that exist, and by the written descriptions, we can be pretty sure that there were, in addition to cellos and basses de violon big double basses, and smaller violones –––––– I would warn everyone to be careful about what names appear, and to not misjudge the instrument because of a terminology that was at that time very local.
What sorts of materials (articles/ treatises, etc.) would you suggest for an aspiring period instrument performers to understand performance practice issues regarding early bass instruments?
The sources – Praetorius, for example, or Quantz, just to name two, are essential. Paintings are a good way to see what some of the instruments must have looked like. Modern sources such as Tharald Borgir’s Italian continuo book, or Laurence Dreyfus’ Bach book are really excellent – these two really force the serious reader to think about what is or isn’t possible. In the end, for my taste, everything is open to discussion. We should try to put ourselves in a frame of mind that encourages thinking about real practical solutions that add to the beauty of the music –not just try to freeze a time in history and hope that we fill the numbers in correctly!! Muffat talks about a 16 foot, well played, as something that makes all of the other instruments sound better – Bach was a fanatic about the 16 foot organ registers.
What, in your opinion, are among the most controversial issues regarding performance practice and bass instrument performance?
It all goes back to square one – what is a violone – when do we use it, etc. I am now quite convinced that the instrument that Monteverdi calls “contrabasso” is most likely a violone in G. The writing itself tells me this more than any source. The continuo register can always be played at pitch, the tutti passages rarely go lower than G – all can be played an octave lower to provide a 16 foot register that doubles the cellos, also used for tuttis more than for continuo! But, big basses also sound great in the Monteverdi bass groups, hmm………………..
What repertoire do you find work well on contrabass register instruments? Why?
I like to use Bach suites with my students in the lower octaves. This develops clean, clear playing in the register that is called for in continuo playing. In my class, we try to go just until Bottesini played on a three string instrument, in passing by Dragonetti, and the Vienna school with the tuning, of course.
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?
That musicians now are probably no different than before – this music should sound fresh and new, and should not conform to traditions, old or otherwise. There is no “progress” in art and human feeling. People should be aware that we are not failed modern players – that is fortunately changing, but the idea is still around. Those who think like that are more than likely afraid to accept that there is another way to do things, and we should try to encourage them to open their minds to something new. I have seen the most hard-core “modern” pupils transformed by a Bach Cantata played on period instruments. This is my generation’s most important contribution, and most essential task – to raise standards that remove any doubt about our sincerity and the serious nature of our work.
What kind of basses and violone do you play on?
My main bass (4 string) is a wonderful Busan, 1743. I have two instruments by Willibrord Crijnen, a wonderful Dutch builder who works in France; a double bass inspired by my Busan that is set up with three strings, and a violone in G that was inspired by several models. We started with the idea that we didn’t want to copy, we wanted to try to make a new instrument from that time period. For the basses, I have lots of tunings that I use, we can discuss that when we speak in person!
How long have you owned these instruments?
I bought the Busan in 1978 – The 3 string was Wil’s first instrument of the 21st c., and the violone was made about 3 years ago, following the unfortunate theft of a Vogel model by Dom Zuchowicz.
Do you play German bow, French bow? When you play violone, do you use a violone bow (large viola da gamba bow)?
I have always played French bow, I am much more comfortable with it. For the violone I use a viol bow and underhand grip, but for some special repertoire like playing a duo with a cellist, for example, I have a light clip on model French bow that I use overhand.
What is the pedigree of your stick?
I am a firm believer in using contemporary bows – we are responsible for keeping the art of bow making alive!! For the bass, I have three baroque bows by Charles Riché; all are simple round sticks, curved, not cambered, one made of European beech wood with a clip on frog, and two made of snake wood, one with a screw for tightening, the other clip on. For the violone I use a bow modeled after the bow in the painting of Marin Marais here in Paris, made by Basil deVisser of Amsterdam. For later repertoire, I have a bow made of ironwood by René Groppe, which is cambered. A Dragonetti style Peccate copy is in the works. I have two bows by Sylvain Bigot one a Tourte copy, the other Peccate—these are really 19th century modern bows (fantastic for Bottesini, for example). The most modern of the bunch is a Fettique model made by Augagneur and Bergeron. You can see, I am very partial to French bow making, which has always been outstanding, and I think still is very special.
What kind of strings do you use? What other brands have you used in the past?
Strings – what a headache!!! For the wrapped bass strings, I use Kürschner – I find them to be the most reliable, and the most flexible. For the violone, I use Pirastro for the G and C.The pure gut strings are a mixture of different makes – for the middle strings on the violone, I found that Gamut are terrific (polished catline). I think that his strings are also good on the bass.I have a stock of very old Pirastro strings in perfect condition that are really fantastic; Charles Riché rectifies Sofracob string with great results and I mix and match a lot—the Kürschner varnished high strings for the violone are quite good – in any case, I have never stopped searching and trying!
What kind of rosin do you use?
I have been using Swedish rosin for more than 30 years (Carlsson is the best for me). I also have some Pop’s that is pretty old – I find that when it dries out a bit it is better than new. If I could find something that was as good as Oak was, I would start using it right away!