On Sollima, Ponzini and electric bass

January 26, 2010

Electric bass and Chapman stick virtuoso, Guido Ponzini (www.guidoponzini.eu) has ventured into the area of the gamba and has recorded on his 6-string viol a version of Terra Aria by the cellist/composer, Giovanni Sollima, originally conceived for 6 or 12 celli, Editore Casa Musicale Sonzogno di Piero Ostali, Milano, as posted on YouTube, 8 Jan 2010.

Compare this with the YouTube video of Sollima playing Sollima. Ponzini’s version has a nervous, earnest gutsiness which contrasts with the composer’s own interpretation where the lyricism of the melodies shines out a bit more over the arpeggiated bass. The sound in Ponzini’s video is heavily geared toward the bowed and pizzicato bass lines. Other videos by others of the same piece point up the soaring melody lines in the upper registers a bit more. The gamba gives the composition a new dimension and having just read Siblin’s book on the Bach ‘cello suites, the piece itself is obviously in that long tradition of virtuosic arpeggio-structured pieces for gamba/cello which we’ve known from Hotman and Marais and Bach and Abel and through to Paolo Pandolfo’s piece, Albanese on his album, Travel Notes. What marks Terra Aria off from earlier pieces is the throw-away, raffish ‘ornament’ of the last, very fast, three notes of the arpeggio. The arpeggio figure is played quite high on the instrument and obviously requires the use of a barre.

Ponzini takes the piece at a very fast tempo which makes it all the more compelling, in contrast to other so-called minimalist music which has a much more searching, enigmatic character – Arvo Part’s Spiegel im Spiegel for violin and piano couldn’t be more different. And I just can’t imagine that piece played on a gamba, notwithstanding versions being available for ‘cello and viola.

I suppose its unrelenting repetitive character and relatively slow-moving harmonies allows it to be categorised as minimalist, but we would apply the same to the very similar preludes by Bach and Abel. While the musical formula is the same, its cultural context differs: in the Baroque, it would have been seen as the idea of ongoing life, bubbling and evanescent. Some Baroque and Romantic composers used a similar technique in describing the whirling of the spinning wheel (la roue); today, it’s viewed as reflecting the mechanistic dynamism of our industrial environment. In Albanese, Paolo Pandolfo uses a similar contrast to Sollima between a serene, poignant melody and a nervous arpeggio bass. The muted trumped seems to represent disdainful Fate while the bass line, straight out of a Bach Passion, seems to represent the relentless human spirit. The whole is set off with the cruelty and despair of the song’s lyrics, about an Albanese refugee, the Albanese, reaching the shores of Italy.

For more of Sollima, see also his Aria #8 on YouTube.

By extension, see also Ghigo85, “BassLab”, a YouTube video posted on 7 Jan 10.

And further, Ponzini’s video posted 1 Oct 09 on YouTube, where he plays “Promised Land” composed by Nobuo Uematsu, taken from his Final Fantasy VII: Advent Children, with its vivid 16th-century viol consort sonorities: it sounds like a piece for three viols by John Taverner (c1490-1545, not the modern day John Taverner). There is a link on Uematsu’s website to a piano score of Final Fantasy.

This Uematsu piece is simultaneously Oriental and European. The melody is strongly modal and Japanese in flavour, as well as being straight out of late 16th century English music. The strong cadences make it hymn-like in a European way, reinforced by the homophony. I understand it underpins visuals of a destroyed Christian church in the Final Fantasy film. The original piece shows some interesting touches of harmonic shift (the domain of the inner of the three parts of the transcription surely) but in many other respects it displays all the sobriety and almost sentimental character of key episodes in Japanese anime film music. It obviously underpions strongly emotional scenes in the anime film. No matter where they are in the world, anyone under 30 will identify keenly with Japanese anime culture and the music that goes with it, so I imagine these gamba transcriptions will resonate particularly with that age group.

As with other anime music, Final Fantasy has already ‘escaped’ its original medium, been published as piano music and entered the concert hall as a choral piece. The YouTube commentary mentions lyrics in Latin; I’m not sure where these fit in exactly – they may have been added later. At the risk of reading too much into the cultural context, there may be an unstated link to Portuguese evangelism in Japan during the 16th century (when Japanese playing gambas were taken on a World Tour to Spain and Italy).

Ponzini’s transcription is for three gambas – we glimpse his score in the opening seconds – and he has certainly tweaked his recording equipment to give the gamba unusual resonance and depth of character. This music may not particularly excite gamba players already knee-deep in English 16/17th century music, but borrowings from anime films might be an interesting source of new material for gamba. Anime might be beyond the ken of older players, but anime and anime music are absolutely endemic and integral to the lives of anyone under 30. I will listen to the soundtracks of Miyazaki movies with renewed interest from now on!

Ponzini recorded a CD in 2009, Plugin Contemporary Music (which features the gamba), following on from a CD in 2007,  Twilight Town (which doesn’t feature gamba, but features bass and stick), available as an import from Amazom.

Finally, see Ponzini’s Koans for Koalas: notebook for bassplayers.

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