Posts Tagged ‘Matthew Coley’

Performance Wrap Up – Bass Festivals

Saturday, March 14th, 2015

In January and February, we performed at two local bass festivals: at the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater on January 10, and the Chicago Bass Festival (held in Highland Park at the Ravinia Festival grounds) on February 1.

UW-W Bass Fest

The drive to get to Whitewater, Wisconsin from Chicago is long. I got a ride there from Julian, and his tax filing for 2015 will show this gig as responsible for 200+ miles that day. And it was really, really cold! But don’t get me wrong, I love playing this festival (as I love any playing). It’s small, but Bradley Townsend is dedicated to getting young bassists in Whitewater and the surrounding areas the exposure to players and techniques.

I had originally planned to have the group play Frank Proto’s 1964 Quartet at both festivals. But a last-minute personnel change scuttled that plan. And I think that Bradley was a bit disappointed that we didn’t bring that challenging piece to his audience. Nonetheless, we were well-received. And we’ll revive that challenge for next year!

My friend Matt Erion made a recording of the performance for us, but I’ll be honest I haven’t listened to it, and probably won’t for some time until I stumble across it one day attempting to declutter my computer.

Chicago Bass Festival

I brought some better recording equipment to the Chicago Bass Festival, and I have listened to that recording a few times now.

The MYA van getting snowed in at #BassFestBlizzard

The MYA van getting snowed in at #BassFestBlizzard

First, that was quite a day! It had snowed Saturday night, and was still snowing Sunday morning as I got packed up to drive to Highland Park, IL. The weather service was forecasting blizzard conditions for 2 pm, meaning the drive home (about 5 pm) would be quite an adventure! And getting there was an adventure, too. When I got to the exit for Highland Park, there were two cars stuck on the exit ramp. I slowed down, but made the decision to pass the exit: I don’t think my Mazda2 had the ground clearance to make it through the drifts collecting on the roadway. I had enough time before the festival start, and Apple Maps on my phone, so I took the chance that I would be able to find my way back from the next exit.

Arriving at the festival after making it through the backwoods of Highland Park. Snow fell throughout the day.

Arriving at the festival after making it through the backwoods of Highland Park. Snow fell throughout the day.

The festival was definitely still on, and I arrived in time. Ben Rusch, the coordinator, was manning the front desk, since his student volunteer(s) had not arrived. We knew we would have some stories to tell from #BassFestBlizzard. In the end, I believe about half of the registered attendees actually made it that day. I was relieved that by noon all six bassists and our marimba player were present!

I was happy to be there in time for David Murray’s class on dancing to the Bach ‘cello suites. If you hear he is offering this again, I encourage you to attend … it will open your eyes on the performance of these staples of the adopted bass repertoire.

As always, I was really happy to be a part of the festival.

A wise person I know reminds me to treat the recording of a live performance as something unique, and to not judge it too harshly. There are stresses and conditions when performing live that are specific to live performance, and until you as a group have a lot of experience together, you won’t sound as good as you do when rehearsing. As I said, wise words. But here is some reflection and analysis of our performance. (.pdf: Program Chicago Bass Festival.)

Dream Time – the sound is rich and full! Listening back to it, I really remember why I wanted to have Julian Romane as part of the group – he has an attack sound that is really sort of marvelously aggressive. The performance has a lot of excitement and energy and I love the piece. But our execution is bedeviled by rhythmic sloppiness, missed entrances and the occasional intonation woes. I know it could have been better. I wish I had had both the time and the discipline to record our rehearsals and really make everyone listen to them so we could have identified problem spots and ironed them out.

Quartet 1987 – as in the other pieces, there is a really good sound across the group and it’s such a emotionally rich piece to play. But there are the occasional rhythmic / ensemble problems. And my own occasional pitch inaccuracy (oh damn, that was supposed to be a dominant rather than a major seventh chord!) But still, there is a real emotional resonance across much of the performance, and I’m happy about that! I can see also that some of my colleagues suffer from the same occasional lack of concentration that I do (missed entrances). But there is also some great ensemble playing, rhythmically tight and exciting.

At this point in the program, we added two more bass players to the mix, bringing us to a total of six on stage!

Livre – the texture of four basses playing the vibraphone part works very nicely, and Josh Harrison and Doug Johnson carry their parts beautifully. And happily there is only one moment—but very very obvious—when one of the pizzicato voices (one note per measure for each of the other four bassists) miss an entrance.

Rural Sketches – a much better recording than the premiere. Doug Johnson and Andy Anderson doing great work on those highest voices. And the more I listen to this piece, the more I like it. Matthew Coley’s marimba playing seems flawless. The articulation of the basses is sometimes lost, which is probably more a function of the microphones and their placement than of our performance or the piece. Ensemble is good (Well, except for that one impossible bit) (but where would we have been if not for our conductor, Leslie B. Dunner!).  Neal Rodack, playing with us for the first time, acquitted himself quite well. I am enjoying listening to our performance; I wish we could do it again with more rehearsal time. (audio only) and (video).

bass sextet with marimba

The Chicago Bass Ensemble, with Matthew Coley, marimba, and Leslie B. Dunner, conductor, at the 2015 Chicago Bass Festival.

Running this group is something I really love doing. And also something that I find really challenging. Why? Because it’s not working the way I’d like it to. I really want a collaborative atmosphere, with a committed group of the same people, constant across gigs. I want the group to sound really polished and exciting. And I haven’t been able to achieve that.

But it might be for lack of trying.

I have always preferred a model of rehearsals dedicated to a specific performance. Rehearsing every week with no specific goal in sight has always seemed to me to be the mark of an amateur ensemble. But I have to admit that in the earlier years of this group, that was the model we followed, and we did sound better for it. My mistake there was probably that at some point I should have been more aggressive about finding “ends,” that is to say some kind of performances. Doing so would have kept up the interest of two critical players who ended up declining to participate further (at the time).

So, as a leader I think I must renew the effort to stabilize the group’s membership, and return to a regular practice schedule with the goal of sounding good. Further ends will materialize as needed.

This is quite a long post. Have you read all the way through it? Were you at either of these performances? What did you think? Do you play in a band or an ‘ensemble’ of some sort? What is your organizational style and what are your goals? Let me know in the comments.

February 1, 2015, Chicago Bass Festival

Tuesday, December 30th, 2014

Once again, we’ll appear at the Chicago Bass Festival!

February 1, 2015, on the grounds of the Ravinia Festival – see the link above for details. Festival registration for full participation is $50 ($45 for MYA members), but if you inquire, you can purchase an “observer” ticket for $15. This allows you to watch all the lectures, workshops and performances, but not actively participate. Perfect if you’d just like to see us perform.

The festival begins at 9:00 am, and we are currently scheduled to perform at 1:00 pm in Bennett-Gordon hall.


  • Josh Harrison
  • Doug Johnson
  • Julian Romane
  • Jacque Harper
  • Andy Anderson
  • Neal Rodack
  • Matthew Coley, marimba
  • Leslie B. Dunner, conductor

At this performance, we’ll reprise the piece we premiered in March, 2014, Rural Sketches for marimba and six double basses!


  • Anderson: Quartet 1987
  • Osborne: Dreamtime
  • Jeanrenaud, arr Harper: Livre
  • Iachimciuc: Rural Sketches
  • Byrd, arr Cameron: Ave Verum Corpus

This is the program as a .pdf file.

updated 8 Jan with final players, and formatting changes

updated 16 Jan with information about the Observer ticket. See the second-to-last question in the Bass Festival FAQ. And added schedule information.

Thinking of Touring

Thursday, May 8th, 2014

After our successful premiere of Rural Sketches, marimbist Matt Coley and I have been kicking around the idea of taking the piece on tour to some colleges in Nebraska, Iowa and Minnesota, at the end of October and early November 2014.

What an exciting idea!

Of course, when I have thought about taking the Chicago Bass Ensemble on tour, I have thought way too big, imagining all sorts of cool, intimate concerts in old chapels throughout the south of France. It’s probably much more realistic to get several of us into a van and drive around the midwest. There is the added challenge of doing this with six basses and marimba (I usually think of no marimba and only four basses), but what the heck, nothing ventured nothing gained.

If it works out, there would be performances at the University of NE Omaha, Iowa State University, Carleton College … and a few more that we have yet to think of. We would also record the piece while we’re out there. (Apologies to those of you who live in Iowa and Nebraska and Minnesota — I am writing from the current center of my world, Chicago, and EVERYwhere else is “out there.”) A kickstarter campaign might help fund the recording.

There’s nothing concrete to report on this, inquiries have just begun. It would be premature to say any more than I have already.

I would love to hear from you that you’re excited about this the way I am!! Leave a comment, or better yet, put me in touch with the music department at your favorite Nebraska-Iowa-Minnesota college or university!

How Many Rehearsals?

Monday, March 31st, 2014

I’m writing this post just as I arrive home from our performance at the Chicago Cultural Center, premiering Rural Sketches by Igor Iachimciuc with Matthew Coley, marimba (click for more details).

If you were in attendance today, thank you so much for being a part of a lovely audience! I really hope that you enjoyed the piece. If your interest in double bass music is piqued, please join our mailing list to learn about future performances!

One of the most common questions I’m asked about any piece of music we perform or concert we give is “how many rehearsals did you have?” I have to admit, it’s fun to give the answer and watch people’s surprise at it. I won’t be able to see all of your expressions as you read this, but please feel free to leave a comment.

How many rehearsals did we have, with all the performers, for this piece? One. An hour before the performance.

Go ahead, take that selfie of your amazed expression and send it to me…

Now, that’s the “shock value” answer. For a variety of reasons, we had only the one rehearsal, this morning, with everyone in attendance. We had six rehearsals with some subset of the group together. The smallest group we had for a rehearsal is three. Several times we had four of us. Matt drove from Iowa to Chicago to rehearse with us one time, a week ago, and that was the first rehearsal that Leslie B. Dunner joined us to conduct. But only five of the bassists were present for that.

It’s a real testament to the professionalism and skill of all my colleagues that we are able to put a piece together in few rehearsals. But, if I may make a broader point, this is not uncommon for professional musicians. We all work hard at refining our skills so that we can make music with little or even no rehearsal. Just like doctors and lawyers and all kinds of other people, we work hard “behind the scenes” preparing for the moments we get on stage (or in the surgery or in front of the jury). I’m sure that Andy, Doug, Charlie, Josh and Julian spent at least as much time preparing on their own as they spent in rehearsal with the rest of us. Not to mention the years of study to master the instrument itself. Same for Matt. And Leslie — for conductors this situation is even more extreme: nobody gets unlimited time in front of an orchestra to “figure out” how to conduct. Conductors bring years of study and intense personal preparation into every movement of their baton.

Your question “how many rehearsals did you have?” was an innocent one, so I won’t harangue too long, but please, the next time you enjoy a piece of music, remember this. Yes, the musicians put this together in just a few rehearsals. Yes, that seems pretty amazing. But it’s not magic: it’s long hours of private preparation that make it possible. And if you hear about musicians striking for “better pay” remember that the hours of rehearsal that they get paid for are only the tip of an iceberg of practice room time that has brought them to a level of skill that makes those few rehearsals very productive. (End of soapbox.)

Again, my warm thanks for coming to today’s performance, for reading this blog, for being interested in what we do.

I’d love to hear from you in the comments.

Jacque Harper

Stages of Preparation

Thursday, March 27th, 2014

In an e-mail that I sent to my mailing list last night, and in a tweet that I sent a few days ago, I hinted at the stages I’ve gone through in preparing Rural Sketches for its premiere (See March 31 for more on the premiere). Here’s some additional thinking, using the framework I sent in my e-mail:

  • excitement at the idea of bringing something new and cool into the world
  • panic when you see the composer’s first ideas, which all appear completely unplayable
  • scramble to find players capable of it
  • shared relief when you find that the other players think it’s unplayable, too
  • curious intrigue as you find moments in the piece that give you a chill up your spine
  • excitement returning as you find out it’s not impossible and actually is going to be pretty cool
  • realistic acceptance that you need a skilled conductor to guide you over the finish line.


Back in October Matthew Coley reached out to me to see if I was interested in co-commissioning a piece. He had a venue in mind for the premiere, and a date. And a composer, for that matter. I said yes. That starts the excitement: A new piece! An opportunity to perform!

Because, that is what all of this is about, sharing something with an audience. I know that sounds like a platitude, but if you’ve never done it, you can’t really know what a pleasure it is to have someone who has listened to you share with you their experience, and to know you brought that about.


A composer in the 21st Century is challenged to always come up with something fresh. Since recorded music can be heard everywhere and repeatedly, for a modern composer there is pressure to always come up with something new, rather than repeat ideas or even simply polish a good idea through repeated exploration. So Igor’s score naturally includes extended techniques, tricky rhythmic combinations and unfamiliar harmonic language. Now, no performer wants to be Leopold Auer (you are asking yourself, “who?” aren’t you) and refuse a piece as being too difficult. So I wrote back with some suggestions, gritted my teeth and got to work trying to figure out how some of these things would work.

On reflection, of course, it’s not that bad, but that part of the story comes later.


A recurring problem for me, finding the players. Chicago Bass Ensemble does have a core group, the folks I like best to work with, but many of them were not available for this particular date. I also held out on filling the final chair or two, wondering if I needed a particular skill set (I was thinking about Stewart Miller or Bill Harrison in the event I needed an experienced jazz player). Of course, holding out got me in trouble as days and weeks passed and everyone I contacted was busy. The good news at the end: I’ve made new connections with Andy Anderson and Charlie Macko, and all six slots are filled.


The first rehearsal we had, on February 28, was just Andy, Julian and myself. Each of us arrived with our worry spots: “what do you think about this measure, how are we going to do that?” and “do you really think we can take that movement at that tempo?” But it was all good-natured, as is typical of bass players: Congeniality and collegiality rule us. And that shared experience brings a lot of individual relief, as in “I’m not alone!”

Excitement Returning

As momentum built, as we had more rehearsals together (but note: as of this writing, we still have not had all six bassists and the percussionist together in one room at one time), we have started to find those moments where the piece “comes together:” where something coordinates, hangs in, resonates, and dare I say it, something sublime emerges.

(A few of my personal favorites:

  • mm 296-297, in the movement called “Lullaby”, a lovely little pizzicato melody strung across all six basses;
  • the pedal-tone like chords of basses 4, 5, and 6 in the first movement, mm 9-15;
  • mm 252-253 in the movement “Harvest” where all six basses play an aggressive rhythm, that was a fun one to figure out;
  • the end of “Lullaby”;
  • …and at this point I could go on.)

I can’t wait for an audience to hear it!


We did realize, however, that as enthusiastic as we were all finding ourselves, there is definitely stuff that doesn’t “just work.” I had casually been discussing this possibility with my teacher Leslie B. Dunner, and the rest of the performers agreed: we would benefit from having a conductor. I wrote a little about this earlier.

Now that we’ve had a rehearsal with Leslie conducting, I know it was the right thing to bring him in. It was a minor shock to go from the very light-hearted, congenial, kidding around, “what are we doing” atmosphere that characterized our early rehearsals to a much more structured format with Leslie truly leading us toward a vision for the piece. But once I got past that, I really enjoyed seeing what an ‘outside’ perspective–i.e. someone who didn’t have to be concerned with where to put fingers and what bow speed to use–could bring to the piece. And honestly, Leslie is an extremely talented composer and conductor. With just a few days study, he really understood the piece.

And so, with just a few days to go before the premiere on March 31, I am excited, panicked, scrambling, excited again . . . and looking forward to it.


Sunday, March 23rd, 2014

I very pleased — and also relieved — that for our performance on March 31 we will be joined by conductor Leslie B. Dunner.

As a group, we’ve been doing our best to get ourselves through the piece, but there comes a time when having a neutral party holding the beat is helpful. Here’s an example:

Screen Shot 2014-03-23 at 7.17.07 AM

And another (looks simpler . . . isn’t):

Screen Shot 2014-03-23 at 7.19.07 AM

Anyway, Leslie and I go back as far as my undergraduate days. I studied conducting with him for a term or two (loved it! frantically waving my arms in front of the student orchestra for the opening of Carmina Burana, rescued by my friend Britt Ravnan who showed the strings what I was meant to be doing!) and played in the orchestra under his direction for four years. Basically, I was learning how to play the upright bass with a bow, and he humored me and had me play part of my audition pizzicato . . . but enough embarrassing stories about myself!

I would share some embarrassing stories about Leslie Dunner to balance out this post, but I haven’t got any. He’s a consummate professional as a conductor (as opposed to the stories you hear about temperamental and emotional conductors, at his angriest I have seen Leslie stamp his foot. Once.), and he taught me the meaning of the word “nosh.”

I’m really looking forward to working with him, even briefly, again after many years.


Monday March 31, 2014
12:15 pm
Chicago Cultural Center

We will be premiering Rural Sketches for Marimba and Six Double Basses, newly written (the laser toner is still warm!) by composer Igor Iachimciuc.

We are the guests of percussionist Matthew Coley on the Cultural Center’s Classical Monday series.



Rehearsing for a Premiere

Thursday, March 13th, 2014

This is just a super-quick reflection on what it’s like to rehearse a brand-new piece.

(I’m referring to our upcoming premiere of Igor Iachimciuc‘s Rural Sketches for Marimba and Six Double Basses.)

It’s challenging. For over a week, I’ve been fretting about my part, and about the piece in general. Is it too hard? Do we have enough rehearsal time? Will the players I’m working with be up to it, and will they take it seriously? Did I make a huge mistake in commissioning a new work by a composer I don’t know well?

I won’t say I’ve been losing sleep over it, because I haven’t, but it’s been a source of worry for me. I want the performance to go well. I want Matt Coley to be pleased he chose to collaborate with me/us. I want people who attend the performance to be impressed by the idea of six bass players as an ensemble (I’m not imagining that this performance will be an springboard to the big time, but it is likely to be the best-attended performance we have given).

All that worry!

And then in rehearsal, I’m with my colleagues, and we’re kidding around, and commiserating about how hard this bit is or what did the composer think he was doing when he wrote that, and we’re playing the piece, and getting through some spots and falling over on others, and finding the moments we love to play, and I’m having a good time because I’m really in that moment and I stop worrying and just get it done.

It is now the next morning. I still feel pretty good. If I can just get enough practice time, and everyone else does too, this will go okay. I’m still worried, but less so. And I think that’s just about right.

March 31, 2014, Chicago Cultural Center

Monday, February 24th, 2014

Monday March 31, 2014
12:15 pm
Chicago Cultural Center

We will be premiering Rural Sketches for Marimba and Six Double Basses, newly written (the laser toner is still warm!) by composer Igor Iachimciuc.

We are the guests of percussionist Matthew Coley on the Cultural Center’s Classical Monday seriesRural Sketches will be second on the program.

The Chicago Cultural Center lists this on their Classical Mondays page, but doesn’t give much detail. The link from that page goes to Matt’s schedule, but he’s such a busy guy, he doesn’t have time to write much there.

For this concert:

Conducted by Leslie B. Dunner

Rural Sketches by Igor Iachimciuc consists of ten movements:

  1. Morning
  2. “Tsurca” game
  3. Bycicle in the field
  4. The flock
  5. Forgotten well
  6. The story of the old man
  7. The dialogue at the gate
  8. Harvest
  9. Lullaby
  10. Wedding pass

Matthew Coley will also be performing a number of pieces for solo marimba, I believe. The noontime concerts at the Cultural Center usually last just short of an hour. Perfect lunch diversion for those of you who work downtown.

As always, this page will get updated as details emerge!

March 1, 2014: we had our first rehearsal last night. Working on a brand new piece is always a challenge, and this one is no exception. But getting together with one’s colleagues is a great way to find out what will be hard and what only looks hard. Our rehearsal last night revealed that a lot of this only looks hard. And it promises to be fun to play!

March 10, 2014: the score is finished, ten movements in all. More rehearsals this weekend.

March 23, 2014: added Leslie B. Dunner as conductor.

March 31, 2014, (early morning): clarified links to Chicago Cultural Center, noted that we’re second on the program.

A Performance We’re NOT Doing

Wednesday, January 22nd, 2014

A few weeks ago, when I withdrew from the Chicago Bass Festival, I promised an explanation.

There’s not much of an explanation, I have to admit. It’s more a matter of hubris for me to say why we withdrew and perhaps teach myself a lesson in the process.

  • I set an ambitious goal
  • I got distracted

Maybe that’s all there is to it, aside from the details.

The goal of working up the Proto Quartet is an ambitious one. It’s not exactly a piece that anyone has grown up with. I, for one, have never played it before. I have never heard it performed live, and I don’t even have a complete recording. (Why does that make sense in any world? *sigh* another blog post, I suppose.) I have looked over the parts and they don’t have anything in them that screams out “I’m a nasty difficult bit.” But putting it together will be a challenge. So performing it, along with enough other material to make a worthwhile ‘set’ at the bass festival is ambitious.

Perhaps the ambitious nature of it scared me.

Meanwhile, distractions. I changed day jobs again, and got into a situation that is really a challenge. I got my desk clean, but let it slide into borderline chaos again. Family events–mostly good–happened. I prepared a performance at the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater BassFest. I dragged my feet in deciding who I wanted to work with this time around. I got involved in thinking about a piece for percussion and bass sextet to be premiered in March with Matthew Coley. Life happened. And I allowed myself to run out of time.

I could have pulled this off, I really could have. There isn’t really any excusing it. What’s the lesson?

  • Prepare early
  • Work steadily
  • Be undaunted

Jacque Harper
January 22, 2014

Review, October 13

Saturday, November 9th, 2013

One of the first reviews written about us, from our October 13 performance

Thomas and I went to the Chicago Bass Ensemble performance the Sunday before the wedding.  It was truly wonderful, four basses playing together and the music reaching deep inside.  The musicians looked dapper, each with a shirt of different colors.  Jacque performed a remarkable and what seemed to be a difficult solo with virtuosity that I would not mind hearing again.  It was both an artistically nurturing afternoon and an occasion to have a pick to a side of Jacque that, because of the distance, might not be very well known and or experienced.  I recommend that you arrange your next trip to coincide with a performance.  Go, Chicago Bass Ensemble, Go!!!

Okay, full disclosure … that review is written by my mother-in-law, who I adore. But I couldn’t resist sharing it.


We’ve begun working on Harrison’s Clocks, a recent work by Tony Osborne, for our January 11 appearance at the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater bass festival.

I’ve also committed to co-commissioning a piece for marimba/percussion with six basses, which will be premiered on March 31 in downtown Chicago and will feature Matthew Coley. I’ll write more about this later.