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Bert Turetzky — An American Original

Abstract:

Bertram Turetzky, born in 1933, emerged as a transformative force in the world of double bass following a pivotal event in his early career—the tragic suicide of a composer friend. This event ignited a profound passion for collaboration with contemporary composers, driving Turetzky to explore every conceivable sound, noise, and effect on the double bass. His groundbreaking efforts, documented in the influential 1974 book “The Contemporary Contrabass,” created a repertoire that pushed the boundaries of music and noise, marking a distinct era in the instrument’s history. With over 300 works composed for him, Turetzky’s enduring commitment to advancing the possibilities of the double bass is unparalleled.

Bertram Turetzky’s journey from a jazz bassist to a versatile performer unfolded through studies at New York University and Hartt College of Music. His dynamic career spanned symphony, opera, contemporary, and jazz, with a parallel commitment to teaching. Serving as a Professor of Music at the University of California, San Diego, until his recent retirement, Turetzky’s impact extended beyond performances, influencing generations of musicians. His exploration of early music, exemplified by the revival of Dragonetti’s works in the early 1960s, showcased his diverse interests and contributions.

Turetzky’s compositions, including “Reflections on Ives and Whittier,” highlight his ability to blend simplicity with mesmerizing beauty. Published in 1980 and still in print over 30 years later, this work offers bassists a platform to showcase a different facet of their instrument. The piece’s concept, described as a “random canon,” relies on virtuoso listening, allowing performers to create a free expressive sound. Utilizing all-natural harmonics in A major, the composition unfolds with a slow and effective introduction, leading to solos and accompaniments played at staggered intervals. The music, characterized by simplicity and accessibility, offers moments of gentle serenity amid the 21st-century hustle.

Bertram Turetzky’s impact on the double bass community is undeniable, dividing its history into distinct eras—BT (before Turetzky) and AT (after Turetzky). His collaboration with contemporary composers and advocacy for groundbreaking sounds shaped a repertoire that remains influential. While Turetzky’s own compositions reflect a timeless quality marked by skill, warmth, and humanity, his contributions to the double bass extend beyond historical boundaries. As Bert Turetzky, at the age of 88, continues to inspire and perform, his legacy echoes through both historical and modern musical landscapes, leaving an indelible mark on the instrument and its community.

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ISSN: 2792-8349

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International Journal of Music

Early in his career, while teaching at the Hartt School of Music in Connecticut, Turetzky’s life took a change of direction. A friend, a composer, committed suicide at the age of 26. It was thought that the composer despaired because no one would perform his music. This dramatic episode illustrated to Turetzky that modern composers were desperate to have their works performed, and if he wanted to play music on his instrument, he needed to collaborate with them. Along with Henry Larsen, a clarinetist, Turetzky formed the Hartt Chamber Players and sought out the new music of living composers. “Whatever was written for us, we would play it all. We didn’t stick to what was ‘safe,’” he says.

Paul Hormick. Double Bassist (Spring 2003)

This one event completely changed Bertram Turetzky’s life but also changed one aspect of the repertoire and direction of the solo double bass for decades to come. Almost single-handedly, he persuaded composers to explore every sound, noise, and effect possible on the double bass, pushing the boundaries of music/noise to the limit and creating a repertoire that is possibly unique in the history of the instrument. His book The Contemporary Contrabass, written in 1974, was described as “a milestone in the search for new timbres, at the same time futuristic and traditional;” it related in great detail the many sounds that were possible on the double bass and was based on much research and exploration in the 1950s and 60s. More than 300 works have been written for him, and still, at the age of 88, Bert’s passion for the double bass is as strong as ever.

Born on 14 February 1933 in Norwich, Connecticut, Bertram Turetzky took up the tenor banjo at the age of 12 or 13. He switched to the guitar in high school, having fallen in love with jazz, and then changed to the double bass, which he described as “the core of everything, the glue between the harmony and the wind instruments.” Paul Hormick writes:

He made a commitment to become a professional jazz bassist. If his playing was not top notch, he had, as he says, “the energy, commitment, and drive” needed for success. A letter from a classmate, on the occasion of Turetzky’s 50th high school reunion says that, of the class, Turetzky “was the only one who knew what he wanted to do, and went out and did it.”

Paul Hormick

He subsequently studied at New York University and Hartt College of Music of the University of Hartford. He slowly changed direction from jazz to everything else a bassist is asked to do — symphony, opera, contemporary, jazz, teaching, and recitals, featuring many of the new works that were being written for him. For many years he combined his hectic performance schedule with teaching, first at the Hartt School of Music and from 1968 as Professor of Music at the University of California, San Diego, where he retired as Distinguished Professor Emeritus only a few years ago.

Alongside his passion for contemporary music, Bert has also played a wealth of music from the 15th and 16th-centuries. He has transcribed works for every possible combination of instruments, but usually including the flute, which was always played by his wife Nancy, and the husband and wife partnership have been fearless in their promotion of music for this rare instrumental duo. The vast majority of repertoire for flute and double bass today was either written for Bert and Nancy or inspired by them. Bert has an interest in any repertoire that features the double bass and has championed many chamber works that are unknown or forgotten.

Bert has composed and transcribed many works for double bass. For some years, his interest in the music of Domenico Dragonetti (1763 – 1846) was a passion. In the early 1960s, he edited six waltzes for unaccompanied double bass by the great Venetian bassist. Published by McGinnis & Marx, the pieces had been completely unknown and unavailable at the time and still in manuscript. This one publication and his subsequent recording in 1975, Dragonetti Lives!, which featured three of the waltzes, a solo for double bass and piano, and a Duo for cello and double bass, probably kick-started the resurgence of interest in Dragonetti’s music which is taking flight in the 21st-century. Although Bert Turetzky has spent most of his life playing modern music and creating every possible sound and noise that the double bass can produce, his own compositions, on the whole, are far more traditional and accessible. He has composed a whole range of music for double bass, probably for his own use or for his students, and into his 80s, the desire to compose and perform is as strong as ever.

Reflections on Ives and Whittier was completed in 1980 and is scored “for either contrabass quartet, ensemble, or solo contrabass with self-prepared tape.” It was published two years later by Elkan-Vogel, Inc. (Pennsylvania), and is still in print over 30 years later. Although recorded twice by the composer, this is a work that deserves to be far better known, particularly on this side of the Atlantic, and is a music of great beauty, imagination, and atmosphere which really does dispel the notion that the double bass is only an orchestral instrument.

Bert Turetzky writes:

Growing up near Putnam’s Camp, the Housatonic at Stockbridge and the Danbury Fair has made me feel a close affinity to the music of Charles Ives. In 1970, a moving performance of “Serenity” (1919) touched me deeply. I found a score and discovered John Greenleaf Whittier’s text — “The Brewing of Soma.”

Soon I began to be haunted by the Whittier text and the Ives song found its way to the piano. Using the text as a springboard for improvisation, the work began. The notion of a solo-ensemble piece, in natural harmonics, came to mind in 1974. A rough “mockup” was made and presented in several concerts. The excellent responses and feedback was inspiring. In a plane back from a Mexico City concert in 1977 I dreamed of an 8-track version. In 1978 the kind assistance of a National Endowment of the Arts composer’s grant made it possible to do the studio work properly. The dream was remembered and the work realized.

Bert Turetzky

In The Village Voice, Gregory Sandow described the piece:

For one live and several recorded basses, in which diatonic harmonies, changing slowly and seemingly at random in one voice or another, ebb, flow, overlap and blend… At times, as a friend pointed out, the gentle slightly wheezy sound of many basses playing together was like a modest organ in one of the small country churches that Ives might have attended when he was young.

Gregory Sandow

The piece’s concept is remarkably simple, but the effect is mesmeric and gently beautiful, and evocative — simplicity is the key here. The composer describes it as “a random canon,” which is as each player performs the same or similar music but within their own time frame. The dynamics are generally quiet, piano to mezzo-forte, and “Virtuoso listening is required of the performer(s) to make a free expressive sound, developing well-shaped phrases, and relating one phrase to another and the other performers or tape.”

The piece is in A major and utilizes all the natural harmonics in that key. A slow and effective introduction, played in long notes by one solo bass, sets the relaxed mood of the piece, and there are six solos or six accompaniments then to select at random. At the end of the introduction, the other players enter at staggered intervals of five to ten seconds and then play one solo and one accompaniment, and are then free to select any of the solos or accompaniments which they feel add to the overall mood or structure of the performance. The composer suggests that solos of “a restricted pitch range” are chosen initially, but as the piece develops to a climax, more adventurous solos could be chosen. The piece should have a beginning, a middle (“an ensemble climax of density more than volume”), and an end. After the piece has reached its climax, it should slowly fade away little by little.

The key to a successful performance is for each performer to structure the solos and accompaniments to what is happening in the piece. If, for example, you hear solos being played and can’t hear where and how to enter in a musical way, simply play an accompaniment. If there is too much of either material being “sounded,” then listen and enjoy until it feels like time to participate once again.

Bertram Turetzky

The simplest ideas are often the best, and Reflections on Ives and Whittier is a case in point. There is nothing here to challenge either performers or audiences, only a few minutes of gentle serenity and calm in the midst of the hustle and bustle of the 21st-century and an opportunity to display a different aspect of the double bass. The music is simple and accessible, lyrical and gentle. It is also a great opportunity for bassists to develop their skills at playing harmonics across the entire register of the double bass.

One musicologist divides the history of the double bass into two periods — BT (before Turetzky) and AT (after Turetzky), which is certainly the case with the 300 or more works written for Bert. However, his own music has a much more timeless quality about it — this is music written with skill and expertise, warmth and humanity, and music to be enjoyed and performed. What more can you ask…

Conclusion

Bertram Turetzky, an American original, stands as a transformative figure in the realm of double bass, leaving an indelible mark on both its repertoire and direction. The pivotal moment in his early career, marked by the tragic suicide of a composer friend, ignited a passion for collaboration with contemporary composers. Turetzky’s groundbreaking efforts pushed the boundaries of music and noise on the double bass, creating a repertoire that remains unparalleled in the instrument’s history. His influential book, “The Contemporary Contrabass,” and over 300 works composed for him underscore his enduring commitment to advancing the instrument’s possibilities.

Born in 1933, Turetzky’s journey from a jazz bassist to a versatile performer encompassing symphony, opera, contemporary, and jazz reflects his dynamic and committed approach to music. His dedication to teaching and performance spanned several prestigious institutions, leaving an enduring legacy. Turetzky’s exploration of early music, particularly his contributions to Dragonetti’s revival, showcased his diverse interests.

Among his compositions, “Reflections on Ives and Whittier” stands out, demonstrating Turetzky’s ability to blend simplicity with mesmerizing beauty. This composition, like many others, transcends temporal boundaries, offering bassists an opportunity to showcase a different facet of their instrument.

The impact of Turetzky’s advocacy for contemporary music is undeniable, dividing the history of the double bass into distinct eras. However, his own compositions exhibit a timeless quality, characterized by skill, warmth, and humanity. As Bert Turetzky continues to inspire and perform, his contributions to the double bass community echo through both historical and modern musical landscapes.

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