Tuesday, October 09, 2007

Masterclass with Francois Rabbath

The french double bassist and composer Francois Rabbath was in residence at Ithaca College and gave a masterclass on September 20th. Thirteen bassists from Ithaca College and Eastman's School of Music performed a solo work or etude written by Mr. Rabbath. This provided a rare opportunity to gain insights not only from a superb musician but also from the composer.

Mr. Rabbath was born and Syria and taught himself to play the double bass using a book written by the French bassist Edouard Nanny. He moved to Paris in hopes of meeting Edouard Nanny, but the Parisian teacher had already died. He ended up staying in Paris to study music and became one of the most influential bassists of our time. In particular he formulated a whole new method of playing the double bass based on extension fingerings rather than the traditional method of smaller, more rigid fingering positions.

Most impressive to me was his intuitive understanding of all aspects of creating music. Composition, musicianship, technique, performance. As a both composer and player he puts a strong emphasis on visualizing the music. Each of his own pieces were written with a specific mental image in mind. "Iberique Peninsulaire" was inspired while he was walking through the desert and came upon a rose-colored lake. Another piece he wrote around the birth of his first son. He and his second son performed a piece at the masterclass which depicts a huge whale being hunted.

What sets Mr. Rabbath apart is his physical awareness of playing. His bass is truly an extension of himself. Nicholas Walker, professor of double bass at Ithaca College, told an anecdote about the dress rehearsal before Mr. Rabbath's recital the previous evening. He described how Mr. Rabbath complained that the floor of the stage sloped down toward the audience. They first attempted to test this by rolling a quarter down the stage with no success. Finally they found a level, and sure enough, the stage floor sloped down a millimeter over half a meter. Mr. Rabbath could tell because the instrument didn't quite feel right.

Finally the insight which blew me away the most was his belief that wood has memory. A bow keeps its curve because the wood has memory. He told us that as string players we teach the wood of our instruments to vibrate, and it remembers the vibrations. We can either teach it well so that its sound improves with time, or we can kill it. Mr. Rabbath's genius is understanding how to show a bass how to best to vibrate.

For two and a half hours on a Thursday evening, about forty people saw a musical genius at work. His love for playing, teaching and composing was contagious. He was an inspiration, and many years from now I will still remember that wood has memory.

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