Il Devastatore

New York Press: BOOKS: Cuba and Its Music by Ned Sublette

Double bass virtuoso Giovanni Bottesini gets a mention in this New York Press review on a book I wanna read: “Cuba and Its Music”, by Ned Sublette:

Cuba even gets back to the Havana opera company’s Giovanni Bottesini, “one of the first contrabass virtuosi” who “revolutionized the instrument by using a violin-style bow” named Il Devastatore.

I just love that Bottesini named his bow The Devistator — there is nothing subtle about a name like that. This goes to further illustrate that we classical bassists, even historically, are a bunch of raucous, feral party animals that are obsessed with power tools. We are often obnoxious, tend to dress strangely, and keeping time—much like sobriety—is apparently optional. (And by time, I mean clock time, not metronome time. Tempo is critical, no matter how late you are or how many drinks you’ve had.) Would you ever find a violinist or cellist naming their bow an instrument of wanton destruction? If one did, I’d like to play some chamber music with them.

Back when I was in college at NEC, we used to sit in Brown Hall and see if we could get the old windows facing the Boston YMCA to rattle. To pull the strings on a bass in such a way that it makes the whole room shake isn’t terribly hard, but it’s often overlooked and requires some practice and concious effort to get used to. Basically, you play a bit closer to the bridge, apply a moderate amount of torque from the full span of your arm, and pull the bow in a speed that is sensitive to the note you are playing. If you’re making the right contact, you will feel how fast the bow should move because it will feel like it’s naturally moving against the frequency of the vibrating string. Slower for lower-pitched notes, and faster as you ascend the register. But it’s those low notes you want to blast to activate sympathetic vibrations in big hall windows.