Jeremy Kurtz-Harris


Chamber Music and the Bassist, Part 2: Thoughts on Arranging & Adapting—with Words of Wisdom from

by Jeremy Kurtz

[This article is part of the larger “Year of Collaborative Music” initiative. For more information on the work that the International Society of Bassists is doing with YCM, click here.]

In the previous post on chamber music, I wrote about the wealth of chamber music with bass that exists and that rarely gets performed. For those of you who still haven't visited the link, I'd urge you to check out Paul Nemith's site for proof. But digging up lesser-known repertoire is only part of the “solution” for bassists who want to devote more time to small group chamber/collaborative music projects.

Another important option is to arrange existing music for an ensemble that includes bass. As Peter Seymour of Project Trio mentioned to me recently, this is a skill that all of us can develop. If you can read a score, then you can generally figure out what lines are most important, and can assign those to different instruments. It might not be easy at first, as there is a learning curve with orchestration and musical analysis, and just figuring out what sounds good. Like all skills, though, it gets easier the more you do it.

Peter should know, as there was practically no repertoire for a trio with flute, cello, and bass when Project Trio formed. With the looming deadline of their first concerts and recording project, the Project members had no choice but to learn to arrange and write for themselves, and it really paid off. After several years, they have amassed quite a repertoire for their group and are now performing full-time as an ensemble. [For more on Project Trio, as well as Sybarite5 and the Punch Brothers, you can read my article on the three groups in the January 2011 Issue of “Strings” magazine, or see part of the article here.]

One of the most successful and prolific arrangers—and composers—of chamber music for the bass is Frank Proto, whose Liben Music catalog is filled with well-crafted chamber music works with bass. Proto's own compositions have made a huge impact on the current bass repertoire, but the impact of his arrangements have not been small, either, and have opened up a great deal of “non-bass” music to those of us who don't have his arranging skills. I was curious to know how Frank got involved in all of this, and asked him about it earlier this year when YCM started. The following is his story, which I found very instructive in terms of how one can start to do arrangements in a direct, no-fuss manner.


Frank Proto: I joined the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra in 1966. Whenever we went on tour I used to haunt the music shops for any music involving the bass and I came up with some chamber pieces by composers that I'd never heard of. When we'd return, I'd get a group together to play the pieces that I'd purchased to see what they sounded like. Most of the time we struck out, but a violinist, violist, and I decided to get together one day and play some standard string trio literature with me playing the cello part on the bass. I'd improvise octave changes on the fly and the whole thing would be very low-pressure—just for fun. After a while, they decided that the bass wasn't so bad in that setting and we decided to prepare a little concert.

We worked a bit more seriously on several pieces and gave a concert, which was well received. I think we played a Haydn trio, some Corelli trios, and a couple of early twentieth century German trios—all stuff written for cello. We talked about doing another concert and I said that we really need something that's originally for the bass; we're always stealing from the cello! They agreed and we all looked around. We found a couple of Skorzeny trios that were fun to read but not something we really wanted to perform. So I "volunteered" to write us a piece, and the “Trio for Violin, Viola and Bass” was born.

At the same time we were playing more and more of the standard literature: Beethoven, Mozart, Bach, etc. and really enjoying it. I thought that the stuff sounded terrific with the bass playing the cello part and thought that other bassists would enjoy the experience too, so I made editions and published them.

Bassists have traditionally missed out on the meat and potato stuff of the nineteenth century and here's a way to remedy that situation. They don't have to even play the music in public if they're afraid of being criticized for playing transcriptions. Reading through the pieces with a violinist and violist just for fun is a great experience!

The same thing happened with the duos. I'd get together with a violinist and we'd read through some literature that was written for violin and viola, or cello or two violins—whatever. Again, I'd make octave adjustments on the fly. We went the same route: performed some concerts and gradually got more serious about it. It turned out that the violinist also played dynamite viola so she started playing the violin parts on the viola, making octave adjustments on the fly. We discovered that the bass and viola really blended well together and did a couple of concerts and even made an album of some of the works. The Gliere was always a favorite and has remained so for 30 years now. Of course, I couldn't leave it there, so I wrote us some pieces to play and record, too. We still do this today, and we recently released a CD with a new Duo (no. 2) for violin and bass and a new duo for viola and bass.

Arranging chamber pieces so that the bass can participate should not be a big production. Most eighteenth century and quite a bit of nineteenth century cello parts can be played simply by adjusting the octaves. With just a bit of experience, the bassist should be able to do this on the fly. What helps—and here comes a "chicken and egg" problem—is that "musical" chops become as important as the "technical" ones. And how do we improve our musical chops? By doing more of this kind of playing. And if we do more of this kind of playing? We improve our musical chops! Of course it might be difficult at first, especially if one is sight reading, but the more one sight reads the better sight reader one becomes (another chicken and egg.)

To some, what I'm talking about is heresy, so I'll make it even nicer by saying that when you make changes to accommodate the bass you not only mess with octave transpositions, but in some cases you even have to (gulp!) change actual notes. Sometimes it's as simple as changing chord inversions, but double stops and chords have to be adjusted too. This is not about making a note perfect urtext or a "historical" edition. This is about having some fun playing some great tunes. And besides, if you want to play them in public for some human beings, that's OK, too!


Thanks to Frank Proto for sharing his thoughts on all of this. In the next post on chamber music, I'll be discussing bassists who have taken the step of forming their own groups so that they have a dedicated ensemble where they can perform chamber music. If any of you have a favorite group (octet or smaller), particularly a lesser-known one, please let me know about them.