Double Bassist  Gary  Karr
A Conversation with Bruce Duffie


Gary (Michael) Karr. Bassist, teacher, writer, born Los Angeles 20 Nov 1941, naturalized Canadian 1997; honorary D MUS (Victoria) 2005.

Karr came from a family of seven generations of bass players, and despite their general lack of encouragement in pursuing the profession, he became the world's first double bassist to have a full-time solo performing career on the instrument. He began his studies with the Russian bassist Uda Demenstein, and subsequently studied with Herman Reinshagen (University of Southern California), Warren Benfield (Northwestern University), and Stuart Sankey (The Juilliard School). Other teachers and mentors included cellists Gabor Rejto, Zara Nelsova, and Leonard Rose, pianist Leonard Shure, conductor Alfredo Antonini, and mezzo-soprano Jennie Tourel. Karr adopted a very vocal approach to the bass. As a student at The Juilliard School he subbed in the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra and had a first-hand opportunity to observe world-class singers.

Karr began his solo career with the Chicago Little Symphony under Thor Johnson in 1961, and appeared with the New York Philharmonic Orchestra in Leonard Bernstein's Young People's Concerts at Carnegie Hall in 1962. Karr enjoyed a 40-year virtuoso career (1961-2001), appearing as a soloist with major orchestras all over the world including the Chicago Symphony, the London Philharmonic (England), the Orchestre Symphonique de Montréal, the Hong Kong Philharmonic and the Jerusalem Symphony (Israel). He has been featured in videos on the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC), CBS, and the CBC in a 12-week TV series called Gary Karr and His Friends (1973). Karr has had a long-time collaboration with pianist-organist-harpsichordist Harmon Lewis. The Karr-Lewis Duo has performed internationally in recitals and at music festivals such as the Menuhin Festival in Gstaad (Switzerland), the Edinburgh Festival, the Bergen Festival (Norway) and the Victoria International Festival in British Columbia.

Karr received a prized Bronze Medal from the Rosa Ponselle Foundation (c 1992), recognizing him as an outstanding lyrical musician. He was awarded the Artist-Teacher of the Year Award from the American String Teachers Association (ASTA) in 1997. In 1967, he founded the International Society of Double Bassists (ISB), and this organization awarded him its Distinguished Achievement Award (1995), and Distinguished Teacher Award (2001). In 2001 Karr played his farewell concert at the ISB Convention in Indianapolis.


Not long after his New York debut recital (1962), Karr was given a treasured 1611 Amati double bass by Olga Koussevitsky, which had belonged to her late husband Serge (bass virtuoso and conductor 1874-1951). Karr subsequently (1983) established the non-profit Karr Doublebass Foundation to loan instruments to deserving young musicians selected by competition. In 1995, Karr commissioned a new bass from the Victoria luthier James Ham, an instrument made entirely of wood from BC. In 2004, Karr gifted the Amati, which on investigation turned out to be of French origin (c. 1800) and since has been known as the Karr-Koussevitsky bass, to the ISB.

An alumnus of The Juilliard School, Gary soon accepted a teaching position at North Carolina School of the Arts headed by Vittorio Giannini. He has since held US faculty appointments at The Juilliard School, Yale University, Indiana University, the New England Conservatory of Music, and the University of Wisconsin. In the 1970s he served on the Canada Council's Artist Advisory Panel for three years, while teaching at Dalhousie University (1972-1977) and at public schools in Halifax.

From 1972 to 1994, Karr was on faculty at the Johannesen International School of the Arts, and in 1996 he started KarrKamp, an intensive month-long summer course for bassists held at the University of Victoria which has attracted bass players of all ages and levels from throughout the world. Karr has produced numerous educational method books and videos on the technical aspects of playing the bass, and has written articles for musical journals.

Composers who have written works for Karr include Vittorio Giannini, and Gunther Schuller (Concerto for Double Bass and Orchestra, 1968) and he has commissioned works by American composers Lalo Shifrin and John Downey, and Canadians Alexander Brott and Dennis Farrell (Suite Catholique, 1973), among others. Although mainly a classical performer, Karr has played all sorts of music on the bass, including many of his own arrangements and transcriptions. He has played with most great jazz bassists, and appeared with Oscar Peterson and his bassist, Niels-Henning Orsted Pedersen, on a BBC TV special.

In 2000, at an event for Music of Remembrance (MOR, a Seattle-based chamber music organization dedicated to preserving the musical legacy of Holocaust musicians), Karr performed the world premiere of Lori Laitman's Holocaust 1944 for baritone and double bass written especially for him. Karr joined the MOR Advisory Board in 2000.

Karr officially retired to Victoria, BC in 2001, where he has continued to teach at the Victoria Summer Music Festival, write for musical journals, perform chamber music, and fundraise for musical events. He has another unusual bass, from the Interlochen Center for the Arts in Michigan -- one made of aluminum that he has used as a decoration in his rose garden in Victoria.

--  From the Canadian Encyclopedia (text only - photo added for this website presentation) 
--  Note: Names which are links on this webpage refer to my Interviews elsewhere on my website.  BD 


Gary Karr was back in Chicago in December of 1993 for the annual Midwest Band and Orchestra Clinic, and we arranged to meet for a conversation.  As I was setting up the recording equipment, we commented about the microphone and its placement on the table where we sat . . . . .

Gary Karr:  You have a stronger voice than I do, and you’re further away.

Bruce Duffie:    [Laughs and speaks with confidence]  Projection!

GK:    Projection, yes.  I can project in halls.

BD:    Well, let’s just start right there.  Is it particularly difficult to make the bass project, to get the deep sound into all the corners of a hall?

GK:    Actually not.  It probably projects better than a cello.  Maybe the sound waves are longer, and of course it’s a bigger instrument.  I demonstrated this only really once, where I was able to do something that no one expected, and that was in Japan.  I played the Dvořák Cello Concerto, which has a big orchestration to it, and the bass in that piece projected actually better than a cello.  The comment that I heard more than any other comment was that the instrument projected so well.

karrBD:    Was that because the pitch was more in the mid-range of the bass, as opposed to the lower range of the cello?

GK:    Maybe that’s it.  It could be, because when the cello goes low it’s not heard as well as we are heard in that same register.  That could be one of the things, because a lot of the lyrical tunes in the
Dvořák are not particularly high on the instrument.

BD:    So you played it in the same range, rather than down an octave?

GK:    Yes, I could play it in the same range.  The only time I went down an octave was when I had the cadenzas.  I am a bass player, so I should at least show off in the cadenza.  But when you’re working with the orchestration, you would be putting some of the harmonies upside down if you put it down an octave.  Just a couple weeks ago in Poland I had another interesting situation where the bass had to compete with a cello.  I was on the same program with Misha Maisky.  He was playing the Haydn
C major Concerto, which is a very flashy piece, and light in terms of projection.  It’s not one of those gutsy Shlomo-like pieces.  I also played a classical piecethe Dragonetti Concertoand in this hall, which was a first rate hall in Warsaw, my bass was at least twice as loud as his cello.

BD:    When you’re playing do you have a rubber tip on the end, or do you put the end pin right into the floor and take advantage of whatever stage you are on?

GK:    The bass vibrates with such intensity that I’ve done some experimenting.  I don’t think that the rubber end pin at the tip does anything to the sound.  The bass would be projected on concrete, in fact!  I use a rubber tip sometimes, for instance in the Koussevitzky Concerto which has an extraordinarily busy orchestration.  It’s twice as busy as the
Dvořák.  Why he did that, I don’t know.  It’s one our great tragedies that we have to live with.  But I like when I play that piece to stand on a conductor’s-type podium, or the kind of podium a cellist uses.

BD:    A little box?

GK:    A little box, and I find that even with that rubber end pin, the box starts to vibrate so much that it gives my feet a great joy and pleasure.  I get a foot massage from the piece.

BD:    You actually take your shoes off and get a foot massage that way?

GK:    Yes, sure.

BD:    Do you feel that when you’re playing music, you’re giving an aural massage to the audience?

GK:    Definitely.  As a matter of fact, I’m convinced of that.  Many years ago I used to teach at the University of Wisconsin, and there was a Dr. Bernard Friedlander there who was doing quite a lot of research with so-called deaf children, hearing impaired children.  He had me come in to play for the class, which I thought was a very odd thing to do.  But he had a hunch that the intensity of the bass’ vibrations are easily perceived by people with hearing impairment, because the vibrations reach the body in ways that other vibrations don’t.  For instance, you’ve seen demonstrations where hearing impaired people will touch a speaker with their hands, and they can actually hear the sound because they feel the vibrations.  But in actual fact, what’s happening is that the vibrations are coming through the fingers.  The information is being transmitted to the brain much in the same way that your ears transmit that same information.  So the brain is hearing sounds just like from the ears.  I know it’s very hard to believe that this actually happens.

BD:    The brain is sensitive to the vibrations, just as the ears make the brain sensitive of those vibrations.

GK:    Exactly right.  So then I let him do some research on me, and when I’m playing the bass, I then discovered, to my utter amazement, I don’t listen to the bass.  I feel it.  I even feel the intonation.  A note sounds in tune when it feels in tune to me.

BD:    Is that because you feel in tune, or because you feel in tune with everything surrounding you?

GK:    Both.  I identify with the sound of the instrument in such a physical way that it’s not really an aural thing that I’m identifying with, but it’s the vibration or the physical nature of that sound.  A B-flat to me means something physical.  The only analogous thing I can come with is that a B-flat feels like Godiva chocolate.  It’s very dark and rich.  If Godiva chocolate could sing, it would sound like a B-flat on the double-bass.

BD:    You should call them and get an endorsement contract.  [Both laugh]  Does this mean that carrots sound like F-sharp, and steaks sound like C?

GK:    I’m sure.  Why not?  Probably everything has a sound.  [Both continue to laugh]

BD:    Is it your responsibility as a musician to transmit your feelings of sound through the bass to the audience?

GK:    It’s all because the sound is so physical, and we are all emotional players.  Because I’m an emotional player, that physical connection gives me a way of expressing my emotions.  I feel that when I am projecting the sound, part of my heart is going with it.

BD:    Here in Chicago the principal bass player of the Symphony puts the top part of the neck right against his ear, and feels it that way.  Is that an odd thing, or a good thing, or a different thing, or is that just the way he does it?


GK:    A lot of bass players do that, and as a matter of fact when my students do that I try to discourage them because I want them to develop a greater sensitivity to the sound of the bass as it rests on their body, or as they feel through the fingertips, especially on the bow.  The bow vibrates with enormous intensity in the hand.  The bow can really tell you whether you’re playing in tune or not, or whether you’re making a good sound or not.  You get much more information from your fingertips than you can by putting your ear against the neck.  It does all kinds of weird things when you do that.  It’s nothing that is all that great, but a lot of people do it.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:    The bass comes in different sizes.  I assume you always play the full-size bass?

GK:    Well, no, I actually don’t.  Very few people play a full-size bass.  You would have to be near seven feet tall to play a full-size bass.  It is rarely seen, actually.  Sometimes players have seven-eighths-size basses, and those are quite monstrous. 

BD:    What’s the standard size that you would then find in an orchestra?

GK:    The most standard size is three-quarters.  That’s more or less regarded as the full-size bass.  My instrument is very deceptive.  Everybody thinks that I play on a small instrument.  The instrument I’m playing was the instrument that Koussevitzky owned.

BD:    That’s the Amati?

kousevitzky bass

The Karr-Kousevitzky bass, or Amati bass, is a famous double bass previously belonging to Serge Koussevitzky and Gary Karr. It is now [2016] generally referred to as the Karr-Koussevitzky rather than the Amati. Until recently, the bass had been attributed to the Amati brothers, but now it is generally believed to have its origins in France. It is renowned for its tonal quality in solo music, but is considered to be difficult to play.

The origins of the bass have long been subject to speculation. Although nothing is known of the instrument before 1901, Koussevitzky reported having acquired it from a French dealer. The bass was originally thought to have been made in 1611 by Antonio and Girolamo Amati. However, recent studies suggest a French origin and a fabrication date closer to 1800. The studies consider style of construction and feature proportions to identify a region and date. Growth ring analysis further confirmed the more recent date.

GK:    That the Amati from 1611.  In actual fact, the string length of that bass is 100 percent normal.  It’s not small at all, and the length of the instrument is also very normal.

BD:    Normal for full-size?

GK:    No, for a three-quarter-size bass.  If you were to put that bass alongside most of the instruments in an orchestra, you would be amazed at how similar in size it is.  But the shape of the instrument is very gracefully made.

BD:    If a full-size bass is so unplayable, why is it made?

GK:    That’s a really good question, as a matter of fact.  Basses come in all sizes, and also in more shapes than you can imagine.  To me it’s something very frustrating, in fact almost humiliating, because the violin, that puny instrument, and the cello have been more or less standardized.  Most of those instruments are alike, and if a soloist comes along and plays with the orchestra and breaks a string, the traditional thing is that they grab someone else’s instrument and continue playing the concerto.  I can’t do that, for two reasons.  First of all, none of the basses in the bass section are going to be anything like my Amati.  And secondly, I even use a different tuning, which I’ll explain later.  But to get back to the shape of the instrument, a lot of bass players are commissioning makers to build instruments that are so unplayable, I can’t understand it.  The top part of the instrument we call the shoulders, and if you’re playing solos on a bass like that with high shoulders, it means that you have to practically get on your tip toes to reach around to the highest positions.  Or, you must play the bass sitting down, leaning a lot of it on your shoulder.  As ridiculous and as painful as it is, to me it’s utterly amazing that anybody would ever commission a bass to be built like that.

BD:    Going back to the ancient history of the instrument, the violins and the violas and the cellos are part of the violino family, and the bass, as I understand it, is part of the viol family, so it’s a little different formulation.

GK:    Yes, we’re closer to the viola.  In fact, my Amati is very close to a viola because it’s got a flat back that looks very much like the old viols.  In fact, originally it only had three strings.  It has four strings now. 

karrBD:    Do you ever play a five string bass?

GK:    I have.

BD:    Is there any advantage to that, except just adding range?

GK:    I think a five string bass is a ridiculous concoction.  It’s one of the craziest things that ever happened to our instrument.  First of all, it’s bad enough to add a fourth string, because the three string bass sounds absolutely fabulous.  It has an open, wonderful, rich sound.

BD:    Is the fourth string added top or bottom?

GK:    The fourth string was added bottom.

BD:    Because that’s your E string on the bottom.

GK:    Right, and that E string put more pressure on the top and canceled a lot of the vibrations that sounded so beautiful without that string.  To add yet another string smothers what the bass can do even more, so the output of the instrument is extremely limited. 
I predict that all basses will be four stringed instruments, and they’re going to eventually get rid of these five string monstrosities.  In that respect, several of my students already have come up with a new tuning, which is completely different, instead of all fourths, which we have now.  That is a terrible tuning, and that’s another thing that had developed over the years which is absolutely ridiculous, and makes the instrument sound deplorable.  It creates so many intonation problems, for one thing, and it does disastrous things to the actual output of the sound.  So in the future it will be maybe one fourth only, but two fifths, so that the quality of the instrument will be closer in timbre to that of the violin and viola as well.

BD:    Then you’ll have to shift farther down before going to the next string?

GK:    Yes, but it’s not such a problem.  I don’t know they’ve made such a big to do over this.

BD:    Of course the other three instruments in the family are tuned in fifths.

GK:    Right, and it’s much better.  An instrument tuned in fifths has a much more open sound.  If you tuned a violin in fourths, you would be amazed how dark it would suddenly become, and how nasal a quality you would get.

BD:    The one other variation is that a lot of bass players have the C extension on the E string.

GK:    Right.

BD:    Is this good or bad, or just there?

GK:    That’s a better solution than putting on a fifth string.  I certainly prefer it, unless they take an old instrument and carve up the scroll in order to install it.  There are ways around it, but there have been a lot of butchers, and there still are a lot of butchers who put on these extensions.  They think nothing of taking an eighteenth century instrument and carve out half the scroll in order to install that extension at the bottom string.

BD:    So use a new instrument if you want to add the extension to it?

GK:    Yes, or there’s ways of taking an old bass and putting that extension without carving around the scroll.  It just takes a little bit of more work and a little bit of more imagination and ingenuity.  There are some extensions made where you don’t have to do that.

BD:    As to the Amati that you play now, how close has that come down to what Amati originally made?

GK:    It’s actually very close
— unlike the violin, which underwent a transformation after Amati, because all the Amati violins have been transformed.  Vuillaume did a lot of the transformation of the Strads and Amatis, all the Cremonese instruments.  They elongated the neck and put in a longer bass bar to give it more projection power, but this bass hasn’t really been altered very much since the original.  It’s very close to what it was.

Jean-Baptiste Vuillaume (7 October 1798 – 19 March 1875) was a French luthier and winner of many awards. He made over 3,000 instruments and was a businessman and an inventor.  He was born in Mirecourt, where his father and grandfather were luthiers.

vuillaumeVuillaume moved to Paris in 1818 to work for François Chanot. In 1821, he joined the workshop of Simon Lété, François-Louis Pique's son-in-law, at Rue Pavée St. Sauveur. He became his partner, and in 1825 settled in the Rue Croix des Petits-Champs under the name of "Lété et Vuillaume". His first labels are dated 1823. In 1827, at the height of the Neo-Gothic period, he started to make imitations of old instruments, some copies were undetectable.

In 1827, he won a silver medal at the Paris Universal Exhibition, and in 1828, he started his own business at 46 Rue Croix des Petits-Champs. His workshop became the most important in Paris, and within twenty years it led Europe. A major factor in his success was his 1855 purchase of 144 instruments made by the Italian masters for 80,000 francs, from the heirs of Luigi Tarisio, an Italian tradesman. These included the Messiah Stradivarius and 24 other Stradivari.

In 1858, in order to avoid Paris customs duty on wood imports, he moved to Rue Pierre Demours near the Ternes, outside Paris. He was at the height of success, having won various gold medals in the competitions of the Paris Universal Exhibitions in 1839, 1844, and 1855, the Council Medal in London in 1851, and in that same year, the Legion of Honour.

A maker of more than 3,000 instruments—almost all of which are numbered—and a fine tradesman, Vuillaume was also a gifted inventor, as his research in collaboration with the acoustics expert Savart demonstrates. As an innovator, he developed many new instruments and mechanisms, most notably a large viola which he called a "contralto", and the three-string Octobass (1849–51), a huge triple bass standing 3.48 metres high.

He also created the hollow steel bow (particularly appreciated by Charles de Bériot, among others), and the 'self-rehairing' bow. For the latter, the hair purchased in prepared hanks could be inserted by the player in the time it takes to change a string, and was tightened or loosened by a simple mechanism inside the frog. The frog itself was fixed to the stick, and the balance of the bow thus remained constant when the hair stretched with use.

He also designed a round-edged frog mounted to the butt by means of a recessed track, which he encouraged his bowmakers to use. Other details of craft, however, make it possible to identify the actual maker of many Vuillaume bows. The bows are stamped, often rather faintly, either "vuillaume à paris" or "j.b. vuillaume". Other innovations include the insertion of Stanhopes in the eye of the frogs of his bows, a kind of mute (the pédale sourdine) and several machines, including one for manufacturing gut strings of perfectly equal thickness.

Vuillaume was an innovative violin maker and restorer, and a tradesman who traveled all of Europe in search of instruments. Due to this fact, most instruments by the great Italian violin makers passed through his workshop. Vuillaume then made accurate measurements of their dimensions and made copies of them. He drew his inspiration from two violin makers and their instruments: Antonio Stradivari and his "Le Messie" (Messiah), and Giuseppe Guarneri del Gesù and his "Il Cannone" which belonged to Niccolò Paganini. Others such as Maggini, Da Salò and Nicola Amati were also imitated, but to a lesser extent.

BD:    Do you feel a particular closeness to Koussevitzky when playing his instrument?

GK:    Absolutely.  That seems like a leading question, because the reason I got the instrument was due to Mrs. Koussevitzky.  The instrument itself is probably one of the most famous basses in existence.

karrBD:    Is it famous because Amati made it, or is it famous because Koussevitzky played it?

GK:    I think both.  At the time that Koussevitzky purchased this instrument in 1903, it already had a great reputation as being one of the finest basses in existence.  The day after my debut concert in New York, Mrs. Koussevitzky called me on the telephone, and I thought it was a friend of mine playing a practical joke.  She had a very thick Russian accent and was very soft spoken.  She said, “Hello, this is Mrs. Koussevitzky calling,”  and I said, “Yeah, baby, I’ll bet.”  [Both laugh]  So she invited me to her apartment, and the bass was there.  She said, “The reason I invited you here is after having heard you play last night, I thought you’re the one to carry on the legacy of my husband, and the only way you can do it is with his bass.  So I’d like you to have it as a gift.”  Later on I discovered more about the story because she was taken to my debut concert by Jennie Tourel, who was my mentor in New York.  Jenny told me later that the reason why Olga Koussevitzky wanted me to have that bass is because she saw the ghost of Koussevitzky hovering over me as I played.  So in answer to your question, since then I found out a lot about this, and there are a number of other coincidences, weird things that have happened during my life that connect me to Koussevitzky.

BD:    Do these things come together more when you play his concerto or his repertoire, rather than new repertoire?

GK:    Yes, definitely.  It sounds weird to say it, but when I’m playing his concerto there are times I really feel the old man’s hovering over me.

BD:    Are there times when you’re playing a new piece and you don’t think it’s going well, you think the old man is saying, “Don’t play that piece?”

GK:    That thought has entered my mind a number of times, because Koussevitzky, more than any conductor probably in history, commissioned more new works, and he had a real love of contemporary music.  He also had extraordinarily good taste in contemporary music.  If you look at the list of the things he commissioned himself, it’s some of the most important orchestral works of this century.

BD:    So is his spirit guiding you completely, or is he letting you be your own man?

GK:    I don’t know.  That’s a good question.  I don’t know how much of what I’ve done has been prodded on by his influence, or how much is actually in me.  I couldn’t answer that question.  First of all I began studying the bass the day he died.  I didn’t find that out till later, but Olga Koussevitzky had known that fact.  A lot of virtuoso classical musicians have had this type of feeling when they’re playing as a young child, they feel like an old person.  I had that, too.  When I was eleven years old playing the bass, I didn’t feel that I was playing the instrument as a young person.  I actually felt like there was an old person in me playing through me as a young child.

BD:    Old in terms of wisdom, not old in terms of being tired?

GK:    I don’t know if it was wisdom.  It was old in terms of comprehension, of the history.  It was like I was making the kind of statements that one would expect to hear from an older person, not a younger person.  When I listen to tapes of my youth, I’m amazed even today that the kinds of feelings I was projecting are not feelings you expect to hear from young people.  It’s the same with Midori, not that I’m in her class, but there are a lot of these artists who start very young.  One of the things that is intriguing about these people is that they play so much older than they are. 

BD:    That’s the music speaking into their soul and coming out through the instrument.

GK:    Yes.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:    We were talking about Koussevitzky, and he commissioned so many pieces.  Now you have commissioned quite a number of works for the double bass.  What advice do you have for someone who wants to write a piece for you, or for any double bass player?


GK:    I have my own personal needs and desires, and also over the years I’ve become very comfortable with the fact that I am a lyrical player.  I don’t have this extraordinary adoration for technique that everybody seems to.  I am not a product of the age of technology.  I have to admit this, and although I do technical things on the instrument that impress audiences, that is not what gives me the thrills.  What gives me a thrill is to play a lyrical line to an audience and have some kind of a feedback
which sometimes isn’t all that evidentthat I’m piercing their hearts, or really reaching them in a deep way.  That’s me.  I’m a lyrical player, so when I meet composers, I want them to hear the bass as a voice and not so much as an instrument.  I beg them to write for me lyrically.

BD:    Do they?

GK:    John Downey, as an example, did this so beautifully in his concerto.  There’s so many wonderful delightful lyrical passages.  Wilfred Josephs, who wrote a concerto which will be out in CD hopefully the early part of next year, wrote an enormously lyrical concerto.  I love that piece almost more than anything I play.  That and the Downey are my two favorites.

BD:    Does this alter who you go to with the commissions?  Do you purposely go to someone who can write lyrically?

karrGK:    Yes.  For instance, the reason I went to Hans Werner Henze to commission his concert
o was that he had done his Elegy for Young Lovers in New York.  I was in the orchestra at the Julliard School when they premiered this, and I fell in love with his music.  I thought, “He’s just written this, so let me reach him while he’s hot.  I said, “I want something like that for the bass.”  It didn’t turn out to be as lyrical as I would like, quite frankly, because he had already moved in a new mode at that time.  What I got was a kind of intricate piece of chamber music that’s very complicated.  But the Koussevitzky Foundation commissioned Gunther Schuller to write a concerto for me, and because I didn’t go to him, he had preconceived ideas.  What he wrote was a pointillistic piece without a held note, and there is no piece of music that is as opposite to my character and nature and everything I believe in than that piece.

BD:    Then did you reject the piece or do you still play it?

GK:    I played it because he wrote it for me and because the Koussevitzky Foundation had paid for it.  I respect Gunther Schuller, but every time I think about it I’m horrified that a man of his stature can miss the point so far off the mark in writing a piece.  He wrote it for the bass, not for a person.  He wrote it without any regard for me whatsoever, and that hurts.

BD:    So then it’s assumed that you won’t play this very often in your career?

GK:    No, I wouldn’t like to.  I’ve been Forced to on a couple occasions, and I use the word with a capital F.  I didn’t like it.

BD:    So if another bass player has great success with the piece, you would encourage them?

GK:    Oh, absolutely.  I think it’s a good piece.  It’s just not me.  It doesn’t have anything to do with me.  Musicians are expected to be extremely flexible, and I must admit that when I did the premiere of it and the subsequent performances of the piece, I played it as though it were the most important work I’d ever played in my life.  I put my heart and soul in it.  I’m not embarrassed by what I did, and I don’t feel that I was untrue to myself, because I put every ounce of my sound that I could conjure up in what little opportunity there was in this concerto.  I did try to put in a little bit of myself, but I performed it a number of times with Schuller, in fact, and when I did put a little of myself, he never noticed it.  In fact, I don’t think he liked it.

BD:    He wanted it to be him, and not you?

GK:    Yes.  He’s very overbearing in that way, or at least toward me he was.  I always resented that.

BD:    I think he feels that the music is the music.

GK:    Yes, music is music, absolutely.  He feels that.  I remember as a youngster hearing this concept of
absolute music.  Do you remember this word?

BD:    Sure.

GK:    It’s not bantered about very much these days.
  I think Schuller probably, at least going through this period, thought of his music as absolute music.  He’s come out of that, by the way.  He’s much more romantic now, at least in the most recent works I’ve heard of his.  In fact, now is the time I would like him to write a concerto for me, because the kind of lush romanticism that he’s now projecting is right up my alley.

BD:    Nudge him a little bit.  Maybe he will.  [Both laugh]

GK:    Yes, maybe!

*     *     *     *     *

BD:    I often ask opera singers if they become the character or portray the character.  You’re a bass player, so do you become part of that bass as you play the music, or does the bass become part of you as the music is coming out?

karrGK:    It’s so funny that you put it on those terms, because that is exactly how I think of the bass.  The bass, to me, is an opera singer.  The bass, to me, is the voice that I wish I were.  I am a frustrated singer.  Obviously, I must be because I’m a lyricist.  I love lyrical lines.  I want to sing.  In fact, when I was young I studied singing.  I studied singing with Jenny Tourel, and I got up and sang for an audience because I wanted to evoke in the audience the same kind of reaction I had hearing a singer when I was very young.  I was very emotionally moved by this, and I wanted to do that same thing and get that same kind of response.  So I sang to an audience and everybody cried
for all the wrong reasons.  I had such a horrible voice, nobody could stand it.  So the bass became my voice.  When I play the bass, I do not think of it as an instrument.  I think of it as a voice.  I play into it as though I were breathing into the bass and the sounds are coming out.  I think of it more as a voice than I would be thinking of a voice if I were actually singing myself.  If I were to sing I would be a bass.

BD:    [Laughs]  You would be a contra bass!

GK:    A contra bass, or pro bass.

BD:    [Making a very bad pun]  A pro/contra bass?  [Both laugh]  Seriously, what do you like to call the instrument — bass, contra bass, double bass, string bass?

GK:    I like double bass.  This is an awful thing because just in the same way there’s no size given to the instrument, and there’s no shape given the instrument, we don’t even have a name for it.  Everybody calls it something different.  It’s called everything from string bass, contra bass, pro bass, baroque doghouse, bull fiddle...  I consider myself an accessible classical music entertainer because I like to entertain audiences.  When Johnny Carson was on the air, I thought I would have been perfect material for that show because I have a way of reaching audiences that don’t normally go to classical concerts.  So I went and auditioned, and they were really interested.  They would have put me on the show were it not for the fact that they couldn’t think of a name to give the instrument!  They thought every name was too esoteric, and they didn’t like to touch
esoteric’ material on the show.  So because I said I thought the best name for the bass was the double bass, they didn’t like that.  I said, “Well, you know, I want to be on the show.  Call it whatever you want.  Call it a bull fiddle.  It doesn’t matter to me.”  But they said, “No, our audiences just have to have some kind of a name for it, and all these names are just too esoteric.”  [Speaking directly to my radio listeners]  So if your listening audience can come up with a perfect name for an instrument, I am a sympathetic ear.  I can hardly wait to give it something that it deserves.  I like the bass.  To me it’s the bass, but you can’t say that now.  A bass means anything.  A bass could be a singer, or a bass can be electric bass, or it even could be a tuba.

BD:    It can also be something that you round on the way to third.  [Laughs]

GK:    Heading to home bass.  [Continuing to allow the puns to deteriorate]  Very basic.

BD:    Is the bass a basic instrument?

GK:    I’m sick over bass.

BD:    [Coming back to reality]  But you’re not sick of it?

GK:    No, no way!

*     *     *     *     *

BD:    Let’s talk a little bit about chamber music.  We’ve been talking mostly about orchestral concerts, and you have to project this huge sound even if you’re standing in front of the orchestra.  What about in chamber music?  Do you reduce the size of the sound for the piano, or for the other few instruments that are beside you?

GK:    I recorded a
Dvořák string quintet, and my aim in the recording was to match the sounds of the other instruments.


BD:    But in a recording, the technicians can do their business with the knobs and sliders.

GK:    Yes, and they kept tuning me down all the time.  I went to the engineer and said, “I’m not doing that.  If you come out and listen to the room, the sound that I’m producing is matching the other instruments.  If it’s marked piano, I don’t want you to make me sound like three pianos.  I’m the same piano as the violin, and I want to be heard this way.  I want you to replicate what we do in a concert, and stop using these dials.  Come out and listen to it.”  So he came out and listened to it, and he heard that I was producing more sound than he was giving me in the engineering boards.  So the recording was released, and for the most part it got pretty good reviews, but a couple reviews had to say, “Too much bass.”  Can you believe it?  It really made me angry because traditionally, the bass in chamber music takes such a background role that if you do finally produce a sound that competes with the other instruments, they think it’s too much, and I resent it.  The bass has a brilliance that can easily match the cello and violin.

karrBD:    So in your performances, are you striving to make the double bass an equal to the violin and the clarinet and everything else?

GK:    Yes!  I’d like to.  Why not?  We’ve been around a long time.  It’s about time we had a little bit of attention.  I think the flood lights should be shown on us.

BD:    Let me ask a big philosophical question.  What’s the purpose of music?

GK:    Philosophically, Susanne Langer said it better than anybody else, and if I try to improve on it I will just fail miserably.  She said that music is the symbol of the mode of life.  It is the most direct language to what we feel.  There is no other way you can express the inner emotional life of the human being more accurately, more honestly, than with music.  You can’t say it in words.  Poets have been trying for years, but you sure can do it with music. 
[Susanne Katherina Langer (née Knauth) (December 20, 1895 – July 17, 1985) was an American philosopher, writer, and educator, and was well known for her theories on the influences of art on the mind. She was one of the first women in American history to achieve an academic career in philosophy, and the first woman to be popularly and professionally recognized as an American philosopher.

BD:    When you come into a new hall, do you take advantage of the individual acoustical properties?

GK:    Yes, I love it.  In fact my partner, Harmon Lewis [in photo at right], with whom I’ve worked for 22 years, is an organist, and he’s taught me a lot about acoustics, because the organ as an instrument is really a hall.  The sounding chamber of that instrument is the hall itself, so organists are the best of all acousticians.  They seem to understand the nature of acoustics better than anybody else.  He’s imparted that feeling to me a lot, and has taught me how to listen to a hall.  If we go into a very live hall, or a very resonating hall, I will make an effort to make my short notes shorter, because I know by the time the audience hears it, the hall’s going to make them longer.  It’s that kind of thing, that kind of playing to the acoustic that I really like.

BD:    So you want what the audience hears to be what you want, and you adjust to that?

GK:    Right.  I’ve learned how to put my ears pretty much where the audience is, and I’ve worked very hard to do this.  There are acoustical circumstances which are deceptive from the stage, but for the most part I can well judge what the audience is hearing.

BD:    Do you like being a wandering minstrel?

GK:    No, not anymore.  I used to.  I’ve been doing this for over 30 years.  I’m now in my fifties, and the pressures put on the traveling concert artist today are much more severe than they’ve ever been in the history of music... especially traveling with the double bass, which is very unpleasant.

BD:    Do you ever wish you’d taken up the flute?

GK:    Had I played the flute, my life would have been a lot easier.  At this point in my life, I dream of the day when I don’t have to travel, and I hope it’ll be soon.  I really would like to record a lot, and put all my effort in that.  I have now a recording system in my home that will equal the finest recording systems to be found in the best of recording studios throughout the world.  I’m really proud of it.

BD:    But isn’t there an artificiality about a recording that you don’t get when you have a live performance?

GK:    In terms of the artificiality, this new recording system replicates my sound better than anything I’ve ever recorded in the past.  It’s really honest, and you can sense the soul.  It’s really the people who built it, and if I can give them a plug, it’s a Cello system.  Mark Levinson was the creator of this, and he’s a wonderful engineer.  He created a system in my home. 

When Mark Levinson left Madrigal (and his name) back in the mid 1980's, his goal was to create audio equipment that surpassed anything that had been done before (including the equipment that still bares his name), thus Cello Ltd. was born. Working with a team of engineers, Cello Ltd. created a line of amplifiers, pre-amplifiers, digital to analog converters and speakers that are still considered to be some of the finest ever produced.  As the reputation of the Cello equipment grew, the company was devoting more and more time to implementing systems for clients, working with partners to design complete systems that performed to the level of the Cello components. This eventually lead to the formation of Cello Music & Film, a division of the company dedicated to the design and implementation of world class audio and video environments.  (From the company website.)

Glenn Gould wanted that system that I have.  Had he had that system, maybe he would have lived longer.  It’s everything that Glenn Gould wanted, and it’s all at my fingertips.  I can do it all myself.  I don’t have to have any engineer there.  I just turn the machine on and I can record, which is a wonderful thing.  This is the new step.  This is the step into the 21st century.

karrBD:    So it’s the musical equivalent of desktop publishing?

GK:    Absolutely, and it’s more honest.  You can really sense the soul of the player better than the recording techniques that have been used in the past.  However, I must admit there is no substitute for live performance.  There is none.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:    I’ve asked you about advice to composers.  What advice do you have for young men and women who want to play the double bass?

GK:    I can’t help projecting my own feelings.  Anybody who plays the double bass has to fall in love with its voice, and they should do everything they can to bring out the beauty of that voice, because therein beauty lies.

BD:    Is it correct or misguided to think that you should take a good cellist and make him into a bass player?

GK:    That has been done in the past.  T
he viola has the same problem that we do.  They also say a lousy violinist makes a decent viola player, and they say the same thing of bass playershe couldn’t make it on cello, so he studied the bass, and I kind of resent that. 

BD:    [Gently protesting]  But I didn’t ask that.  I asked about taking a good cellist and making him into a bass player.

GK:    I studied with Gabor Rejto at the University of Southern California when I was a student.  He was a cello teacher, and he had all his cellists study the double bass because he felt that the double bass helped his students play the cello better.  Looking at it that way there are advantages.  All string instruments have a lot to share in common, and rather than have a great or a good cellist come to the bass, if a really fine talent came along, it would please me enormously instead of choosing the cello, they would chose the double bass.

BD:    Are you optimistic about the whole future of music?

GK:    No, I’m not, and that’s why I’m here in Chicago, as a matter of fact.  I’m very discouraged.  More than twenty years ago I became a music teacher in the schools because I realized then that things were going to be really tough.  I was forecasting it at that time, but nobody would listen.  I came to Chicago in 1974 and tried to wake people up, and a horrible thing happened then that was just the precursor of what was going to happen.  I played a concert in the big ballroom in, I think it was the Congress Hotel, but I’m not sure.  It was a big place and was well attended.  I demonstrated how to give a program for children, and the enthusiastic response was absolutely more than anything I could have ever wanted.  There was a standing ovation and the whole bit.  I was so pleased, I made the following statement, “I travel a lot and I give concerts in a lot of cities.  If I’m anywhere near you, please contact me.  I will come in to your school and play for your children for nothing.”

karrBD:    What an offer!

GK:    Guess what happened?

BD:    No calls?

GK:    One.  And there were 2000 people in this event, and only one person asked about it. 

BD:    Maybe they thought you were kidding.

GK:    No.  I know exactly what happened.  All these music teachers went back to a situation where the principal isn’t supportive of music.  They have a lot of paperwork to do.  They have a lot of distractions.  They have all kinds of things that they have to do, and to devote time to arranging some event like that was beyond what they could handle.  They just couldn’t do it. 

BD:    But if you’re not charging any fee, then it’s not a line-item in the budget.

GK:    Right.  If I had charged, maybe they would have appreciated it more
not the music people, but perhaps the administration in the school might have appreciated more.  But I knew that music education was going to be in trouble.  I knew it then and I spoke to it.  I did everything I could with my little small voice, and tried to make my little dent in this field.  I screamed as loud as I could, and I screamed to deaf ears.  People didn’t believe it.  I predicted then that a lot of music programs were going to be dropped, and everything that I predicted happened.  And it’s going to get worse.  It’s not going to get better.

BD:    Is there any hope at all?

GK:    Well, if you don’t have music in education, if it’s not a part of our education, there is no hope because that’s where it all starts.  If a person who might have an interest in classical music is never given that opportunity to be exposed to it, they’ll never know it’s there to love it.

BD:    I hope your recordings help in some way to rectify that.

GK:    I hope so.  I sound very pessimistic, and I am pessimistic because I was so involved in music education.  I’m here now because I still feel that there is a chance to turn it around, and I’m going to do everything I can to push it in the right direction.

BD:    Good!  Best of continued luck.

GK:    Thank you very much.

BD:    Thank you for speaking with me today.

GK:    I really enjoyed it.  You’re wonderful, really!  It’s just such a delight to chat with someone who asks such wonderful questions.


© 1993 Bruce Duffie

This conversation was recorded in Chicago on December 13, 1993.  Portions were broadcast on WNIB the following year, and again in 1996.  This transcription was made in 2016, and posted on this website at that time.

To see a full list (with links) of interviews which have been transcribed and posted on this website, click here.

Award - winning broadcaster Bruce Duffie was with WNIB, Classical 97 in Chicago from 1975 until its final moment as a classical station in February of 2001.  His interviews have also appeared in various magazines and journals since 1980, and he now continues his broadcast series on WNUR-FM, as well as on Contemporary Classical Internet Radio.

You are invited to visit his website for more information about his work, including selected transcripts of other interviews, plus a full list of his guests.  He would also like to call your attention to the photos and information about his grandfather, who was a pioneer in the automotive field more than a century ago.  You may also send him E-Mail with comments, questions and suggestions.