The double bass is not one of the great solo instruments. Those who play it do not normally have starring roles in music in the classical tradition. It is not an instrument associated with drama and extroversion. It is large and often lugubrious, its very existence can be treated as an extended joke.
It was a joy to see all those stereotypes confounded in 20 minutes of bravura composition and performance at the Barbican last week. Nicolas Crosse, with the Ensemble Intercontemperain played a new piece by a composer I had never heard of – Asymétriades, by Yann Robin.
Crosse made the double bass produce a range of sounds I could not have imagined with an energy and attack second to none, partnered by a small ensemble of 15 players, who not only provided a foil for the soloist but themselves produced sounds which it was sometime impossible to work out quite where they had come from or what combination of instruments might possibly have produced them.
There was one other tiny detail which made the performance novel for me. The ensemble and the conductor had printed music on ordinary music stands. But the soloist had something a little strange, a tiny music stand on which you might have arranged a postcard or, at a pinch, a miniature score. From where I was sitting, I could see no more than that, so it was only after the piece ended and the stage was being rearranged that I saw the stand had in fact held an ipad.
— Ensemble intercontemporain (@Ensemble_inter) November 27, 2014
A moment’s googling shows that ipad music readers are an entire category of their own (and have been around for several years, which suggests I don’t get out enough). It’s an unsurprising, inevitable development, even if I still can’t quite work out how Crosse was turning the pages.
But the question I am left wondering about is whether the ipad was intrinsic to the performance. The solo part was the most unrelentingly demanding of any I have ever seen. It wasn’t at all obvious when Crosse might have had the chance to turn a page had there had been pages to turn. Perhaps a way could be found, but there must be some limit case (even if this was not it) where the intersection of the technical demands of performance and the intentions of composer and performer make sheet music something close to a point of failure. And at that point, the ipad becomes essential: it gives the composer latitude to do things which he or she might otherwise be constrained from doing.
After the end of the main concert and after most of the audience dispersed, Michael Barenboim played Pierre Boulez’ two Anthèmes. He was alone on a stage large enough for a symphony orchestra, standing behind a music stand in a small pool of light. In the closing moments, the lights slowly dimmed to a complete blackout, leaving the hall in darkness. Except for the pale blue glow of an invisible ipad, illuminating Barenboim’s face from below.
The video below is a performance by Barenboim of Anthème 2, given at the Proms in 2012 performed with great virtuosity by both the soloist and the invisible sound engineers – with an entirely conventional music stand. Or rather with seven of them, lined up across the stage. He never turns a page: when he runs out of music on one stand, he simply moves on to the next.
Not all solutions are digital.