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February/March 2014

by Rob Burns

Deep Thinking: Touching Bass with Debussy

by Rob Burns

Deep Thinking: Touching Bass with Debussy

I have written (or arranged!) something extremely different from our recent rock and funk escapades for this first issue of the new year. It is actually a piano piece composed by the French composer, Claude Debussy (1862-1918) that is taken from a group of pieces called ‘’Suite Bergamasque’’.

Composed when Debussy was 28, this study is called Au Clair de Lune (literally ‘’to beauty of the moon’’ but often shortened to ‘’moonlight’’). The French title is taken from a poem by the impressionist poet Paul Verlaine, (who lends his name to the band in which I play).

This will be a two-part arrangement (the second will be in the next issue), and it is a demanding piece of chord melody when performed on four string bass guitar. There are many piano versions on Youtube, so you can have a listen first. This was an honours performance option at the London College of Music/Guitar Institute, at which I worked in London before coming to NZ, and one of the best performances of it was by Svetlana Vassilleva, who has worked for Moby for many years since her graduation.

I have kept the French instructions for authenticity’s sake but the opening phrase means ‘slowly and with expression’, in other words this is a slow expressive piece (your own interpretation adds to it), although it has a subtle 3/4 or 9/8 feel. This whole piece requires the picking hand using the thumb and fingers one, two and three.

Deep Thinking 153 - Clair De LuneThere are many double stops (two notes played simultaneously) and some notes are fretted (mostly by fretting finger one) while the melody is played by fingers two, three and four. To make matters more interesting, the piece is in Db, so no nice open strings to rely on while you change position. It is also played using the higher parts of the neck so, if this is unfamiliar territory, this piece will certainly sort things out!

From bar 10 onwards, we start using triple stops (three note chords), most of which can be played as barred chords, or with fretting fingers one, one and two, or one and three. Some require a hammered–on note while you are fretting the chord (such as bars 11, 12, 13 and 14).

The only tricky chord fingering is the last crotchet value in bar 11, which is played with fretted finger four (F at fret 13, string 4), finger two (Db at fret 11, string 2, and F at fret 10, string 1).

You will notice that several notes and chords are sustained across bar lines. These notes have the curved lines linking them together. This is why I suggest listening to the piece on Youtube first in order to get the phrasing right.

We will look at the second section (still for one bass) in the next issue. To play the entire piece, we might need a bass guitar quartet as there are several simultaneous themes that occur later that are possible on the piano, but not on a four string bass.

(Dr. Rob Burns is an Associate Professor in Music at the University of Otago in Dunedin. As a former professional studio bassist in the UK, he performed and recorded with David Gilmour, Pete Townsend, Jerry Donahue, Isaac Hayes, Sam and Dave, James Burton, Ian Paice and Jon Lord, Eric Burdon and members of Abba. He played of the soundtracks of many UK television shows, such as Red Dwarf, Mr. Bean, Blackadder, Not the Nine O’Clock News and Alas Smith & Jones. Rob is currently a member of Dunedin bands Subject2change and The Verlaines.)