Contrabassist  Bertram  Turetzky


A Conversation with Bruce Duffie


 

Bert



Since the end of World War II, the contrabass has emerged from its traditional orchestral role to assume the position of an important solo instrument. This marked rise in interest in the contrabass can be traced to it's importance in Jazz and the development of new performance techniques. Bertram Turetzky has been a key figure in the renaissance of the contrabass and since 1955 more than 300 new worked have been written for, performed by and recorded by him, making him the most frequently recorded contrabass soloist in America. In fact, Bertram Turetzky is one of the few performers in all of music history to have single-handedly created a large and impressive repertory of music for his instrument.

Turetzky's concert career includes a multitude of performances at concerts and festivals in music centers of the world; New York, London, Paris, Warsaw, Los Angeles, Stockholm and Berlin. His body of work includes music of all genres; solo to symphonic with everything else in between written by composers from the U.S.A., France, Germany, Poland, Australia, Mexico and Spain. He also enjoys programs of music of the Baroque and Romantic periods as well as works by composers out of the Jazz tradition such as Charles Mingus, Thelonious Monk and Duke Ellington.

In addition, he is the author of THE CONTEMPORARY CONTRABASS (1974), a monograph outlining the new techniques of the instruments. On the basis of the now classic book, Turetzky was named co-editor of the prestigious series THE NEW INSTRUMENTATION, published by the University of California Press.

Bertram Turetzky is professor of music at the University of California, San Diego, where his spends a major part of each year in residence. Turetzky has recorded works for the following labels: Advance, Ars Nova, Desto, Finnadar, Folkways, Medea, Nonesuch, Takoma, CRI, Serenus and Nine Winds.



Having known of Bert Turetzky for many years, I had the opportunity to chat with him in February of 1992 when he was appearing at Northwestern University.  It was a celebratory concert for his close friend and colleague, composer M. William Karlins, who just happened to be one of my former teachers.  So we arranged to meet at Karlins' home and had a lively - and occasionally raucous - conversation.  There was much laughter from all of us as well as poignant moments and instructional details.  Here is what was said that evening . . . . .

Bruce Duffie:  You played bass in a regular orchestra for a while?

Bertram Turetzky:  Yes, I did, in the Hartford Symphony, mostly in the late '50s and the '60s.

BD:  What made you decide to get out of playing in an organized orchestra and strike out on your own as a soloist?

BT:  That's a good question.  I love the literature of the orchestra but I didn't always enjoy playing in the orchestra, because I was always fascinated with music.  I felt some of the people weren't fascinated with music; they were more interested in how much money they were making and when they were gonna make the money.  They didn't seem to have as much fun as I did, and I didn't feel comfortable with it.  I liked opera very much because there were a lot of old Italians who would play, and they would just cry, and tell me what was happening.  One morning I was playing in the orchestra, with a conductor who will be nameless, and a button on my jacket hit the G string and made a boom-sound.  So he said, [in stern and rather stilted tone of voice]  "Grancassa!  You're not supposed to play there."  And of course no one in the percussion section knew what a grancassa was.

BD:  [Chuckles]  That's a bass drum!

BT:  [Gleeful that I knew this term]  Yeah!  And everybody was looking at each other, in the orchestra.  I got hysterical when I realized I had done it and I didn't mean to.  Later, I came home and I told my wife that I just about had it.  I had a different vision of the bass.  I wasn't helping the bass, and I wasn't happy being in the back of the orchestra.  Conductors used to come out and say, "Good evening, ladies and gentlemen," and they'd turn and look at the basses and say, "The basses are too loud."  That's gonna be the name of my autobiography.  You pay a lot of money for a beautiful instrument -- I have several -- and you learn how to play with a big sound and be expressive, and you study scores... and then they say it's too loud.  If you study acoustics, then you know that you have to have the bottom sounding.  That was the secret of the Cleveland Orchestra under Szell.  They had that great sound because there was a little more 16-foot stop than 8.  That's why the strings sounded so luminous, so beautiful!  And especially when there was an echo in 18th-century music, he always had them play on the bottom part of the bow, so you had more fundamental.  A lot of orchestras play on the top part of the bow, and so it filters out the fundamental.  The echo is higher and doesn't have that.  But, Szell was a master.  Anyway, the lesser conductors didn't understand balancing, and it really was not much fun.  But solo music was wonderful.  If it was good, I did it; if it was bad, I'd just have to go practice and be better.  I read Horatio Alger as a little boy.  I really did, honest Injun.  My mother was European and my father was American born, a linguistic type - Hebrew, Latin, and Slavic languages.  He believed that I could be anything I wanted to be.  He didn't go as far as the President or anything silly, but he'd say, "You can be anything you want; you have to work hard, and you must never hurt anybody.  You don't walk over any bodies,"  [with great seriousness]  and I never have.

BD:  When did you decide that what you wanted to do was play the bass... I mean, even preceding when you were playing in the orchestra, when did you decide that you wanted to be the best bass player in the world?

BT:  Well, I never wanted to be the best bass player in the world.  People throw those things around, and I find them very embarrassing.  I don't think there's any such animal, really.  There are a lot of people who play brilliantly, and I can tell you who they are, but I don't have to... you know...

BD:  Well, you decided you wanted to be a superb bass player.

in 1976BT:  I wanted to be a very good bass player.  I'm from a small town in Connecticut, Norwich, Connecticut, which was the home of Benedict Arnold, the famous American hero. [Chuckles]  And Land, [Edwin H. Land] who invented the Polaroid process.  And the bandleader Henry Jerome also came from Norwich, Connecticut.  He was a Hal Kemp type of bandleader who played in the Hotel Edison Green Room.  His thing was he remembered your name.  You'd meet him once, and ten years later you'd come back and he'd say, "How's the Windy City, Bruce?"  Anyway, I was 16 and a friend and I were driving on the shore, and we ran outta gas.  We got stopped by some people, and my friend said, "If you could take me to get some gas, I'd appreciate it.  I'm sick and tired of hearing my friend," (that was me!), "talk about jazz."  That's all I was fascinated by in those days.  So they said, "That's interesting; that's all we're interested in, too."

BD:  [Chuckles]

BT:  So they came back and said, "And who are you?", so I told them, and they said, "Eugene Sedric is our friend, and he's coming next Saturday, to spend the weekend.  Why don't you come and bring one of your instruments over to play with him?"  Well, Gene Sedric was known as the Honey Bear.  He was a St. Louis guy who played clarinet and saxophone with Fats Waller.  As a kid I loved Fats Waller and Louis Armstrong and the jazz people because of the excitement and the wit and the humor.  Fats always teased the hell out of lyrics that are sort of puerile, and rather silly, in fact.  You know, "Your pedal extremities are colossal, to me it makes you look like a fossil, you got me walkin', talkin', squawkin', 'cause your feet's too big."  Now that's Fats Waller!  So I thought, "My God, how nice it would be to make people happy and have people like music like that."  I played for a kid who was sick.  He had some kind of disease; in those days they didn't have answers to diseases.  We played jazz, and he liked it and smiled.  I like the happy feeling of music touching people, and communicating with people.  So, Gene would have me play with him, and I'd play with all these old black swing stars.  They were so kind to me.  I'd be "the white kid," you know, and he'd say, "Now watch the high-hat; listen to the high-hat, Bert; watch the left hand of the piano player, he'll play you the harmonies.  He said things like, "You learn all the songs and learn how to transpose, and then play different for the trombone than the clarinet."  I was in the conservatory without walls.  There was a jazz place in New London right near Norwich called 'Tiny's Heat Wave.'  It was a black place, a barbecue place, with some interesting musicians.  Tiny Joe Watts was a bass player and when he retired, they didn't have a bass.  He heard me playing and he said, "You could come any time, son."  I thought it was very sweet of him, so I played with some interesting people - again, old black swing stars, and they were very kind.  They were so wonderful to me, so when I teach, I teach very seriously.  I love to teach and it was because these people were so kind.  Then I went to music school.  I had the experience that Allen Ginsberg wrote so beautifully about in Howl [poem written in 1955].  I came in contact with people who had drug and alcohol problems, and it was frightening to me.  Being a first-generation American of Orthodox Jewish background, and all of a sudden people are shooting up, and doing this awful stuff to themselves.  It scared the hell outta me and I knew I couldn't do that.  So I wanted to be a jazz player, and I couldn't stand the life.  I knew there had to be something different.  What saved me was I heard some Renaissance music.  And Renaissance music, as you know very well, is "team" music, no ego.  You play as a team.  Jazz is like that, too, and I liked it.  I played the guitar as a kid, and I had the good fortune to study with Joseph Iadone, who was a great lutenist and formerly a bass player.  He was the American Hindemith student, incidentally.  Superb musician, but didn't like to travel.  So he's sort of unknown in big cities.  But if you speak to people like Charles Bressler or Russell Oberlin, some of the early-music singers, they say, "Joe Iadone?  Oh, my God, what a great artist."  I met my wife when she was playing flute.  We played with lute, flute, and guitar, and John Ferrante, who you know from the P.D.Q. Bach days, was an old friend.  [See my Interview with Peter Schickele, aka P.D.Q. Bach.]  John would sing with us, so the jazz sort of was on the back burner.  We started playing Renaissance music, and I started transcribing it for the bass, and I started playing in an orchestra, and I played chamber music.  I loved everything - all of it - but I was afraid of the jazz life.  It just scared the hell outta me.

BD:  So you played it when you could, but really didn't make a profession out of it.

BT:  That's correct.  I liked the idea of going in the front door, and not being told, "Let's turn off the lights and we'll pay you."  I knew that when I played a symphonic job that I was gonna get a check, and that would be okay, because we were poor.  My father never made any money.  And there was a certain kind of social distinction.  You were symphonic, so you'd gone "legit" so to speak.  I liked that, but I still liked some of the jazz dates.  But when I started to teach and became assistant professor in Hartford and a member of the symphony, there were certain places I couldn't play, because if there was ever a raid, and somebody was holding any illegal substance, my name would be in the paper and I would be out of a job.  My wife and kids would be in big trouble.  They'd be rather unhappy with me and I take that responsibility seriously.

BD:  Were there any other very early influences?

BT:  When I was 26, one of my friends - one of the first kids I met in music school - took his life.  I don't really believe in that, philosophically, or any other way, and it troubled me.  He was a composer, and we both came to music school in Hartford from small towns.  Everybody was talking in the front room, and we sort of didn't know what to do.  He said he was a composer, and I thought, "He's a composer?  Man, this guy doesn't play an instrument [well, he actually did] but he writes music.  Gee, that's wonderful."  I had never met a composer before.  So he took his life when he was 26, and the reason he gave people who found out later was that no one wanted to play his music.  He'd just come back from Italy where he studied with Petrassi, and he was talented.  So I asked the parents for some music.  He had chamber music, and there were a couple of pieces with bass.  We played them and they were beautiful.  So the parents were very touched.  And I was touched.  I realized then, when I was 26 years old - which was a few years ago - that something terrible happened in music.  At one time, as we both know so well, if you were a musician, you wrote music, and you played your music.  Papa Haydn, who wasn't such a great player, they say, would sit at the keyboard, and take his symphonies out and play the violin.  Mozart was a fabulous player; Bach, maybe was the greatest organist that ever lived, and so on and so forth.  Then with Berlioz things start to change.  The composer was one thing and the performer was another.  It looks sort of like the Platonic dialogue on love.  The man and female were once one and the same, and then they split 'em off.  That troubled me.  I thought that these composers, that's all they want to do is write music and hear their music, and all we want to do is play.  Why can't we help each other?  Why can't we work together?  So I started getting pieces written for me, and I'd say, "Look, you write a piece, I'll play it."  And I did.  And they did.  And I mastered them.

BD:  Did you make any other demands on the composer than just "Write me a piece"?

BT:  I tried not to, but at first, I'd say, "Write me a piece," and they'd look at me and they'd say, "Grove's Dictionary says the bass isn't a solo instrument."  [Laughter]  [See my Interview with Stanley Sadie, Editor of The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians.]  [Shouts]  "I don't always hear a bass solo!  What are you talking about?  You crazy?"  I said, "Yes." [Impetuously]  "It's a solo instrument!"  They'd say, "What???  Show me."

BD:  So you did!

BT:  Yeah.  Right.  So what I hadda do is find things that the bass could do that the cello couldn't do!  I used to say that the bass is not a poor relative of the cello an octave lower and an octave slower, but an instrument with its own voice.  I also believe - and you may not agree, but I will argue the point - that the bass is the most versatile bowed string instrument in Western culture.  I can play as high as a violin, and no instrument can play as low as I can.  With artificial harmonics I can get up there.  And we have more traditions of playing than the other strings.  For example, you have every national tradition of European concert music, and they're all different around the world, you know.  And then we have jazz!  And then we have the experimental music and the extended techniques, which has been a big part of my work.  Well, you put all that together, and then you add the world music that I've been fascinated with and have played all my life - Greek bands, and klezmer bands - I know that music!  And Polish bands.  As a little boy from Connecticut, of course you played polkas, and kujawiaks, and obereks, and mazurkas.

BD:  Is there any music anywhere in the world that you either haven't played or couldn't play?

BT:  [Thinks for a moment]  I've not really played Indian music, but I've played music based on that; I've not played Chinese music; I'm interested; and I like gamelan music very much, and I hope somebody will write a piece with bass and gamelan.  I'm interested in African music, and in world music because I don't believe that Americans should be so Eurocentric.  It's a very strong feeling I have.  With a name like Turetzky, I can do all kinds of things.  But I'm very American and I'm very committed to that.  I tell a joke.  When people talk about my name, I say, "My name was really Turner, but I changed it to Turetzky!  You know, for business reasons."  [laughter all around]

*     *     *     *     *

BD:  Let's come back to technique just a little bit.  When you say, "Write me a piece," each composer decides, "Well, I'll find a new thing that the bass can do."  How many of these things do you adapt, and how many of these things do you say are great, and how many of these things do you think are just ridiculous?

BT:  I used to say, "Okay," especially to someone like George Perle, who said to me, [a bit hesitantly]  "Well, I don't know, [thinks for a moment, then, with a more interested tone of voice] could you play for me sometime?"  So I picked up a great bass from my teacher in New York, drove out to Mr. Perle's house in Flushing.  I had done a lot of research already, and I demonstrated this pizzicato tremolo thing that Bill Karlins used in the piece tonight. I showed him some of this guitar pizzicato that is very luscious and doesn't have an accent.  I showed him all kinds of things, the bending the harmonics, like we had tonight, and he said, "That's quite beautiful!"  He listened very carefully and took some notes.  I had written an article in the first issue of SOURCE magazine.  Yeah, he wanted to write a piece!  So I gave him enough ideas.  Usually I make a demonstration, on a tape or in person, and they would get ideas.  That seagull from the whale piece by George Crumb [Vox Balaenae (Voice of the Whale, 1971), for electric flute, electric cello, and amplified piano] comes from my seminar.  [See my Interview with George Crumb.]  He admits it, always, and he's happy to say it.  I used to use the seagull; I used to play Young Audiences concerts, and I used to have to show 'em things the bass can do that the cello couldn't do.

BD:  Does it behoove a composer who's writing a new piece to use any, or all, of these new techniques?

BT:  Only if it works in his music.  I always say, "Look, write your own piece.  Here's what I can do, here's what interests me, but write your piece."

BD:  Do the techniques make you more of a trained seal than a musician?

BT:  One composer, who will be nameless, wrote a piece with every technique that I demonstrated in the order I demonstrated it.  Well, this was a terrible piece!  But I demonstrated some techniques to Bob Erickson, who's a wonderful composer.  [See my Interview with Robert Erickson.]  He heard some things, took what he wanted, and made a fabulous sort of Indian kind of piece, with tremolos, and guitar pizzicatos.  [Ricercar À 3 (1967) for double bass soloist live and on two electronic tape tracks]  He picked what he wanted!  Someone else heard some percussion things and said, "That's really wonderful!"  Bill Karlins heard some of the harmonics.  I have a different way of playing them - with vibrato instead of a white sound!  And I can play them lyrically, because I finger them on a different part of the instrument, and so on.  So, everybody picks up what they like, and I say, "Always write your own piece.  I don't want you to think you wrote a 'Bert Turetzky' piece, because I'm Bert Turetzky.  That's not the idea."  Ralph Shapey wrote a wonderful piece in 1960 [De Profundis, for solo double bass and instruments [fl/pic, ob/eh, cl/bn, cl/a sax, hn, vn)], that I played recently and I enjoyed so much.  It sounded just as fresh and exciting as 1960, just like Reflux [a concerto for amplified double bass, solo wind ensemble, piano, and percussion] was this evening.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:  You're still teaching youngsters how to play bass?

BT:  Yes, but I teach them very traditionally.  We go through traditional materials and we look at traditional techniques in a different way.

BD:  So they're gonna play the Bottesini and Dragonetti...

BT:  Yes!  But with style, not this new objective style of playing, which I can't stand.  You know my playing, so you know I don't play that way.

BD:  Do you also teach them how to experiment with new techniques - your own and their own?

BT:  When they can play the bass, then we can talk about that.  Somebody once came to me and he said, "I'd like to study modern music with you."  I said, "Well, that's fine!  When would you like to start?"  He came and took his first lesson and he couldn't play the bass!  So I said, "Can we play a Vivaldi sonata?"  He tried, and it was terrible.  I said, "Well, we have a couple of things to work on; we'll do this, this, and this, and next week we'll do this.  He came for three months, and he said, "Mr. Turetzky!  I came for learning how to play modern music!"  I said, "Well, you can't play the bass yet, my dear friend, but you're improving the last three months.  Have you noticed?"  And he said, "Yes, sir, I really have.  And I'm enjoying it very much.  I just wanted to tell you that."  I said, "When I think you can play the bass, then I think you'll be able to play the music with responsibility!"  A lot of people play and they sort of hide.  I think the biggest people who hide their inept instrumentalism and musicianship are the people who play very avant-garde music and very early music.  We really don't have a basis for comparison, sometimes.

BD:  So you can get away with it.

BT:  Well, they get away with it.  I can't.  I never tried to.  I just don't like that, so I have a lotta trouble with the performances of a lotta people who play new music.  I'm hooked into a tradition of music as an expressive idiom.  Tonight we played Bill Karlins' Reflux.  There's some intervals in there that I look at, for example, when I'm playing a melodic line, as having a dynamism and energy just like the great people who used to play tonal music.  I had the privilege and pleasure of playing with Marcel Moyse, who was the greatest flute player I ever heard, for 12 years, in a chamber orchestra in Vermont.  And Louis Moyse, who's still one of the great artists. [Louis Moyse was the son of Marcel Moyse; he was also a flutist, as well as a teacher and co-founder with his father of the Marlboro Music School and Festival.]

*     *     *     *     *

BD:  Earlier this evening, you brought up a word that I want to pounce on: "entertainment."  Is there an entertainment value even when you're putting all this artistry into a piece?

BertBT:  There can be very high level entertainment, and entertainment can border, even, on the spiritual.  Say we're playing the Threnody [(1960)] of Penderecki - that's not entertainment, clearly.  [See my Interview with Krzystof Penderecki.]  You're gonna leave the place feeling either very thoughtful or very sensitive to some awful thing that happened and never forget it, or you're gonna go away bewildered and say, "Why did I come?  That's just depressing.  I wanted to come to a concert and have a good time."  [Takes a deep breath]  So I don't feel that I'm an entertainer, but I will tell you that when I go to a very small town like East Cupcake - you know, it's next to West Cupcake - I've played there, man...  I come out on the stage and I play a piece, and the audience just looks and sits on its hands, and they look at me, and they say, "My God, what have we come here for?"  I start to talk to them.  I will say things like, "Didn't you read Grove's Dictionary that says the bass isn't a solo instrument?  And if you didn't, what hell are we all doing here?"  And I play some Dragonetti for 'em, and I show them some of the history of the instrument, and I play some jazz pieces.  So I just depart from the program, because if someone is kind enough to come to hear me play, they're gonna have an experience.  I'm not gonna just do my thing and say later, "These people are stupid." [Ironically]  That's very nice, it's very New York to think, "These people are stupid.  I came down from the mountain with Moses.  I bring you the truth."  That's just hogwash.  They're human beings.  They came out to a concert, they deserve something.  They're getting away from the television, God bless 'em.  So let's try to give 'em something.  So, I tell stories.  I'll tell 'em about taking the bass on the airlines, and they'll laugh and after a while they'll say, "This guy is real.  He may be crazy but he really loves what he's doing, and he seems to have a good sense of humor.  He's not pompous, he's a real person.  We'll suspend disbelief and we'll give him a go.  Sometimes it takes me 15 or 20 minutes, but I'll try because I learned from being a jazz player that man, you gotta give 'em everything you got.  You know, like the athletes say, "I played 110 percent."  We're putting it all out there every night.  So that's what I do when I go to a concert.  I never give up.  So far, I've been very successful.  Some of my pieces are entertaining, I must tell you.  I play a setting of Jack Kerouac, one of the pieces from "Mexico City Blues" [a "jazz poem" in 242 "choruses" published by Kerouac in 1959],  the "Deadbelly" one.  I do Tom Johnson's Failing [(1975)], which is one of the truly funniest pieces written in this century.  I don't mind doing entertaining pieces.  I like it.  I like Last Contrabass in Las Vegas [(1974)], by Eugene Kurtz, for man, woman, and contrabass.  Nancy and I do it all the time.  [Note:  Nancy Turetzky (Bertram's wife) often performs the speaking part for this piece.]

BD:  Then let me ask the big question:  What's the purpose of music?

BT:  [Pauses for a moment]  The purpose of music is something different for anybody.  I'll give you my thrust; that's what you want, anyway.  I can't talk for anybody else.  Sometimes music is something that I need to just calm down.  I read a newspaper, or I hear something awful that we're doing again.  [Takes a deep breath]  I sit down, and sometimes I will listen to the Adagietto from the Mahler Fifth Symphony.  I listen to that and I say, "It's wonderful to be a human being; it's wonderful to be alive.  I'm living on the same planet that this man, Mahler, lived on.  I really mean this!  Or sometimes I listen to a Bach work, the Sixth Brandenburg, especially, and I say, "Oh, this is wonderful; there must be somebody responsible for all this craziness, but listen to that."  Boy!  I mean, that's a marriage of intellect and emotion unparalleled anywhere.

BD:  It almost transports you out of this world.

BT:  Yes, it does, and I like that.  Sometimes things used to get very bad.  I'd play in the orchestra, and we had rehearsals, and I'd teach all day, so my wife would play Orlando di Lasso, Thomas Morley, and Gastoldi duets for guitar and flute, late at night.  We'd sit there, and how airy, how beautiful it was.  It had charm, and it had great structure.  I was just happy to be alive, and be in music.  So music is for that.  And then music makes people feel things, and makes people think things.  I was at a dress rehearsal last week at school of Brian Ferneyhough's Prometheus [(1966-67)] - the early woodwind sextet - and it really grabbed me.  I was thinking of all the ideas; I could hear where things were coming from, they were so imaginative.  And unlike Brian's more recent music, which is the famous "New Complexity" everybody talks about, especially in the English and the Australians, it didn't move so fast that I couldn't hear it.  I sat there and it was really exciting.  So music is very stimulating for some people; we hear ideas.  [Takes a deep breath]  And some pieces you sit and you experience something that really changes you.  Ives' Unanswered Question is a very touching piece for me.  Three Places in New England are very touching.  When I listen to some of that music I'm very glad that I'm an American.  Of course, my America is different than a lot of other people from America.  My America is the America of the artist, of the renegade and the outlaws.  I don't mean Jesse James, I mean Harry Partch and Henry Brant, Robert Erickson, Wallingford Riegger and Henry Cowell - those kind of outlaws.  And John Cage and Lou Harrison.  [See my Interview with John Cage, and my Interview with Lou Harrison.]  And Walt Whitman, you know, the great writers.

BD:  And yet it allows place for the traditionalists.

BT:  Oh, yeah!  Oh, absolutely.  So music is my life.  When people ask, "What is music?"  I reply that music is my life, it's not my profession.  It's an awful profession.  You meet some terrible people who are in it as a business and a profession.  Then you meet these beautiful people who write music for you, and people come to concerts wherever you are, and they just tell you nice things, people like you who love music.  Here we are, late at night, and we're talking about something we both love!  I think that's important.  Music civilizes people.  Young people hear music, and I watch them.  I still play in the schools of San Diego, and around this country.  I love to play in the schools.  You see little people hear music, and they change their shapes, the body language changes.

BD:  Even the very experimental music?

BT:  A lot of it, yeah.  I play my music with love and conviction.  I don't play tentatively or objectively, or [in a very unenthusiastic tone of voice]  "Well, I gotta play my experimental piece this year."  You know, to get it over with.

BD:  Take it like castor oil.  [Laughs]

BT:  Yeah!  You need it, right?  Unh-unh.  Oh, no, man.  I'm playing these pieces for real.  This is it.  So, yeah, they like a lotta music because no one told them that this is bad, or this is funny.  So I  play a ponticello, and some of them giggle...  [In little child's voice]  "That's so scary, Mr. Turetzky."  [In reassuring adult's voice]  "Well, if you know you're not in any danger, sometimes that's fun, isn't it?"  [In child's voice, this time a bit more eager]  "Yeah!"  [In reassuring adult's voice]  "Well, good!"  I play with a string group a lot, and we play a lot of music, including Chick Corea, the jazz pianist and composer, as well as Boismortier, the French Baroque composer.  We play a variety of music.  I like all kinds of music.

BD:  Do you have any advice for audiences who want to expand their knowledge of music, especially music for the bass?

BT:  First of all they should forget about stereotypes.  They should suspend disbelief like we do when we go to the opera, and see what this instrument can do!  When you listen to the bass, there are all kinds of players.  There's the irrepressible Milt Hinton, who is one of the great slap-bass players left in jazz.  There was the great singing bass player Slam Stewart who left us recently, a joyous player who played with Benny Goodman.  [Thinks for a moment]  There's Gary Karr who could play the lamp.  Give him a bow and Gary'll make that lamp sing, man.  He's one of the great singers on any string instrument, alive.  I love his playing, and he's a dear friend.  There's Barry Guy, the amazing English bass player...

BD:  So now you rattle off all these names, but there's still not a huge list like there would be of violinists and pianists.

BT:  No, you're right, because bass players have been told that their job is to play in the orchestra, and many of them believe that.  They didn't read Horatio Alger!  They didn't have the vision of some of us who just feel that our job is to raise the awareness.  One of the things I realized that I wanted to change was not only the musical image of the bass, but to make it a first class citizen.  Before people were talking about this kinda power, that power, I was saying, "Bass is beautiful."  When they'd hire me, they'd call me in just to play The Trout [i.e., the Piano Quintet in A by Franz Schubert, D. 667 (1819)].  The Trout???  Tokenism!  [Chuckles]  So, I'd say, "You want me to play The Trout?  What else would you like me to play?"  [In the somewhat startled tone of voice of the organizer of a chamber music series]  "Well, what else can we do?"  I'd say, "Well, we have a violin, viola, and a cello; we could do a Hoffmeister quartet, we could do a Rossini quartet; we could do a Michael Haydn trio - the Divertimento in C is charming; we could do a duo; I could play a solo.  [Again in the voice of the organizer of the chamber music series, this time impressed enthusiastic]  "Really?"

BD:  That probably intrigued them.

BT:  Yeah!!!  So, they started saying, "Well, let's do something else!"  So, we started.

BD:  Would you do a Paganini solo, or would you do an Erickson solo?

BT:  I wouldn't do a Paganini solo.  I would maybe do Erickson, or I might play an interesting sonata with piano because there was a good pianist.  And they would say, "That's interesting."  Or, if they had a French piece, I might do a transcription of the Satie Three Gymnopédies.   In two of them there are harmonics, so they're very beautiful, very soft and gentle.  They'd say, "I didn't know a bass could play like that!"  And I'd say, "Well, that's why you hired me.  You're gonna find out."

BD:  So they hired you not only to play, but to teach.

BT:  Yeah!  I think playing is an extension of my teaching.  We have Talmudic scholars in the family.  So tonight I played a piece of modern music, and a lot of people liked it.  Maybe some of them didn't like it, but they heard the lines sing well, hopefully, with conviction, and played con amore, and with a sound that hooks into what they know a string player is supposed to sound like.  It's not that "objective" kind of playing where the performer says, "I play the notes, man, what else do you want?  Want some more?  Get somebody else."  I think I'm a romantic player!  I'm 59 years old.  I've heard those great players and I adore the way they play!  I don't take some of the liberties that they do because I feel there's a certain responsibility to the composer, unless the composer says, "Look, personalize it," like David Baker from Indiana University.  He said, "Personalize it, Bert.  It's your piece now!  You know, I'm giving you my child.  It's your piece."

BD:  But then it'll be different if he gives that same child to Gary Karr, or somebody else.

BT:  Yes, absolutely!!!  And he's ready for that.  But now some composers aren't ready for that.  They won't give it to me, or they won't give it to Gary.  They'll want someone to play it their special way!

BD:  So the composers you glom onto more are the collaborative composers rather than the dictatorial ones.

BT:  Very good.  The collaboration is a very important concept because already there's no hierarchy.  The composer, not the Super-Übermensch, and I'm not Musikant on the bottom of the ladder, oh, no, no, no, no, no.  I did a piece with Ernst Krenek.  [See my Interview with Ernst Krenek.]  He did a piece for my wife and I, and we spent a lot of time with him.  He came up with quite an interesting duo!  He was happy to collaborate, and, you know, he was not a spring chicken then, even!  Some composers are not so dictatorial.  A guy like Ken Gaburo who is a master musician, a wonderful composer, and basically unknown for reasons I don't understand.  Every note in one of the pieces that I play, he wanted it.  So it took a year!  Now when I play the piece, I see the man's face light up.  "That's my piece.  That's the way I wrote it, man."  I'll be in East Cupcake and I'll play the piece, and the people will sorta look around, and they'll say, [whispers] "What is this?"  In the theater of my mind, I get the picture of Ken Gaburo with that smile, just saying, [enthusiastically]  "Yeaaaah...  that's it!"  And then I think to myself, "Well, sometime more and more audiences are gonna like that piece, because I'm still playing it well, and I'm getting better at control of nuance, and stuff.  So I like to work with both kinds:  people who want every note in a certain place - that gives me the rigor, and those who are more laid-back.  I'm in a growth mode, or else we wouldn't be talking.  And I wouldn't be playing anymore, because when do I arrive?  You never arrive, you're always on the way!

*     *     *     *     *

BD:  Now you're still teaching bass.  Are some of the techniques that you use being incorporated into your teaching, and are we finding that the young bass players coming along are starting at a higher level because of what you have done through your life? 

CDBT:  I wish that were true.  Some of the teaching of traditional techniques is helping.  I've put out some good students, but when they have to play a 20th century piece, sometimes they don't know what to do with it!  So I get telephone calls.  A student of the late Vincent Persichetti, who was a dear friend called and said, "Bert, a young, talented bass player of the Manhattan School is here, and he is playing the Parable [Parable XVII for double bass, Op. 131 (1974)].  [See my Interview with Vincent Persichetti.]  I know it was written for you, so would you speak to the young man?"  When the work was first written, I played it at the Juilliard master class, and Mr. Persichetti said, "Ladies and gentlemen, that's the way the piece is to be played."  Oh, it was wonderful.  I was so happy, so proud.  Well, the kid called and we spent a lot of time on the telephone going over everything that I had gone over with Persichetti, and the kid was just delighted.  Now he now knows what the composer wanted.

BD:  So, if Persichetti says, "That's the way the piece should be played," and you instruct someone in how to play that piece, is that the end, or is that the beginning?

BT:  It's the end for some people who are very literal.  What I did was remember what he said, and then I think, "Persichetti!"  It's an Italian.  Italian music always sings, from Jacopo da Bologna [Italian ars nova composer, fl. 1340–1360] to Luigi Nono!  Right?  Aaaabsolutely.  I think it has to sing in a special way.  That's why a lotta people don't like it because these people say, "It's so hard to get all the pitches and the rhythms" that it doesn't have that.  But I know Italian composers after they have a few drinks.  I've never had drinks with Luigi Nono, and it's my misfortune.  But I have had with many others of that generation, and man, their music sings.  A friend of mine auditioned for Berio, and he said, "Don't sing any of that funny stuff.  Lemme hear a song!"  [See my Interview with Luciano Berio.]  She was shocked, but she gave him a song, and, of course, she got the job.  With Persichetti, I figured out the singing stuff has really got to be dramatic.  And there were some licks that sounded like jazz!  He told me he played the bass when he was in high school, and he was a great pianist!  So I figured he must've played a dance job, so it has to swing a little bit.  American!  [Scat sings, in jazzy manner]  "Boo-doo-dn--DWEE-dop, bop, ba, boo-DEE-dop."  We push our syncopations because we hear jazz!  We hear things in 12/8 with a certain kind of swing!  So I did that, and he smiled.  Bass players of my generation all came out of jazz.  Even my teacher, the eminent David Walter, who's a little older than I am, played jazz as a youngster.  To look at new music they have to know a lot of music.  They have to be musicians, not instrumentalists.  They have to do a little research!  Find out about the guy, what kind of music did he write, who did he study with?  That tells us a whole lot.  I have a musicological background, I will admit.  I studied with Curt Sachs [(1881-1959) eminent German musicologist who was particularly interested in the classification of musical instruments, as well as the music of ancient times] at NYU, as well as Gustave Reese, Jan LaRue, and Martin Bernstein.  I like to research things.  I like to find out things.

BD:  And you also compose?

BT:  Yes!  I compose.

BD:  For the bass, or for others?

BT:  I was commissioned to do a big octet for antiphonal brass in Mexico City some years ago.  I've got a lot of pieces, and most of 'em are for bass because there are certain things I wanna play...  like jazz pieces.  I have a trilogy of blues pieces, and they're all different.  One is dedicated to Ray Brown, one of 'em is a blues that incorporates changing meters.  It's sort of a post-Bartók thing because we are a pluralistic society.  I play with Greek bands, and I know Balkan music.  So I thought some of that should be in there, 'cause Balkans have the blues.  The Greeks have the blues, they just call it somethin' different.

BD:  You didn't put a bouzouki in there, did you?

BT:  No, but I've played with a whole bunch of those guys, man.  I love it!  It's great!!  There's a Greek trio called the Trio Bel Canto - two bouzoukis and a guitar.  One night we're doing a show, and they leaned over and started talking to me in Greek!  So I turned around and said, "I'm terribly sorry, I don't understand what you're talking about, but that you think I'm Greek is a wonderful compliment.  Thank you so  much."  And they almost fainted!  And we all giggled!  I love the bouzouki sound.  I can play bouzouki on the bass.  That has gotta be part of it, I think.  It's interesting.

BD:  Is there anything that anyone has come up with that you can't play?

BT:  Oh, yeah.  There's a lot of things I can't play.  I don't think I can play the Skalkottas concerto.  It flies all over the place.  I don't think I could do that.  I don't think I can play "The Flight of the Bumblebee."

BD:  Well, no, but I mean something written for the bass.

BT:  Oh?  [Musing]  For the bass.  Let me see...

BD:  Has someone written a piece for you, and made it just a little bit beyond what you're capable of?

BT:  I don't think I can play all the notes in Iannis Xenakis's Theraps, an unaccompanied bass piece.  [See my Interview with Iannis Xenakis.]  I've played it for him, and it was quite good, but I felt a little dirty.  You know, I was cheating.

BD:  Left a few notes on the floor, did you?

BT:  Quite a few notes on the floor, and I don't like that.  I don't think it's playable, but there's some bass players who say they can play it.

BD:  Is it possible that maybe ten years from now somebody will actually be able to?

BT:  Absolutely.  You know, Rubinstein [Russian pianist Nikolai Rubinstein (1835-1881), the younger brother of the Russian pianist and composer Anton Rubinstein (1829-1894)] told Tchaikovsky, "Your Piano Concerto is unplayable."  [Both chuckle]  When I was a kid, nobody could play the Schoenberg Phantasy.  Now a kid in high school can play it.  So much for what's not playable.  I don't say that.  Take the Shapey piece, De Profundis of 1960.  A lot of bass players look at first page, and say, "Forget it, man!"  And they ask me, [with incredulity]  "How did you learn it?"  The truth is that Ralph, who's a very dear friend, and a very kind man, said, "Look, we'll work on the part.  So he spent about ten or twelve hours with me, back in 1960.  Really what he did is oral tradition work.  He just sang it to me, and he was so patient.  Then he conducted, and he said, [gently]  "Now you move here.  Okay, good.  Now;..."  And I just memorized it.  He was mesmerizing; he still is!  And he's very patient!  And, man, I got it in my head!  We recently pulled it out after so many years.  I got a very good conductor who said he'd love to do a Shapey piece.  So we got the players and we did it.  It all came back.  He did such a good job of teaching me, and I remembered it so vividly because it was so wonderful and so new for me.  Some people say they can't play it, but I could.  I don't know what I can't play totally.  I don't like the way I play some traditional pieces.  I don't have time to spend on them.  In other words, if they want me to play a new Bottesini piece that someone discovered, I'm really not interested.  I'd rather spend time learning John Downey's solo piece again, or some piece that I can really use.  Or, I'd rather help a young composer play his piece so he doesn't have to wait till he's 30 years old for his place in the sun.  And I can get away with it because I've been around awhile.  People say, "Well, you know, it's Turetzky, so he's gonna play the piece so what are you gonna do?"  But the young composers get a chance to get heard by someone who's serious and will give them a good performance.  They don't have to be famous.  I believe in that.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:  You've played all over the world, so this is a great time for me to ask about the horror story in the airplanes.

BT:  It really is!  That's gonna be a chapter in my autobiography.  The airplanes have been getting smaller and smaller, as you know, because [in the voice of a gleeful yet ruthless capitalist] you gotta pack more people in.  You gotta make more money.  And the bass just doesn't fit comfortably, you know.

BD:  You refuse to put it in the cargo hold?

BT:  I have a traveling case made of fiberglass, which has everything but a wet bar in it.  I mean, really!  A humidifier, a place to put your tuxedo...  It's wonderful.  I went to play with BBC Scottish Orchestra years ago and it cost 50 dollars.  It was wonderful, you know?  All that stuff.

BD:  50 dollars extra for the bass?

bertBT:  Yeah!  That's all.  I could go across the country for that.  Now, all of a sudden, there's this 'dimensional lane.'  I said, "What do you mean, 'dimensional lane'?"  They said, "Width, times length, times depth."  So I said, "It's going to cost more than the plane!  Are you crazy?  You're gonna put me out of business!"  The Musicians Union hasn't done anything about it.  I'm gonna finally write a letter.  The International Society of Bassists really hasn't done anything.  They've tried a little bit.  So, I had an electronic bass made in 1975. In the Warsaw Autumn Festival I played a great concerto by an unknown Polish composer, and I had this electronic thing that looked like a Picasso African-type sculpture, and everybody laughed.

BD:  It's tall but skinny?

BT:  Yeah, exactly.  People laughed when I came out, and the orchestra must have thought I was a crazy American with a weird-looking instrument.  So I plugged it in and it had a resonance that was unbelievable.  And they looked, and they said, [holds the word out, as if truly in awe]  "Woooooowwww!  It sure looks funny, but it sounds great."  I said, "Fine.  Do you listen with your ears or your eyes?"  And they said, "With our ears, of course!!!"  I said, "That's what I'm asking!  So, fine!  So you love it, right?  Good."  It plays big and solid, but because it's electronic, I didn't get enough resonance back.  That's why I brought the instrument today, so, of course, there was a big thing.  Every time there's a big thing.  Ralph Towner, the great guitar player and keyboard player from the improvising group Oregon, told me a story.  Once he was in Europe and his guitar case got trashed.  So he bought a triangular case, like a balalaika case.  He came on the airplane one morning when he was on the road, and he was tired.  So the lady said, [shouting rather rudely and self-importantly]  "What is that, sir?  You can't take that on board the plane."  He looked at her and he thought, [with resignation]  "Well, here we go."  He said, [shouting back in an authoritative voice]  "It's an oboe."  She didn't laugh because she didn't know what the hell an oboe was.  So she looked in the book!!!  And it said, "Oboe is okay," so she said, "Okay!  An oboe is okay."  The rest of the guys were laughing and he walked, straight-faced, right in.  When he told me that story, I knew I had to go to Mexico, so I called ahead and I said, "I have a [thinks for a moment] contra-cello, a bass cello, and I'm gonna go to Mexico City to play a concert.  I've got a ticket for it, so is everything okay?"  "No problem, sir."

BD:  One ticket for you, and one for the instrument?

BT:  That's right.  And one for my wife.  So we got in and the bass didn't fit too good, so I turned it upside down and it fit beautifully.  We got it in there and it looked sorta funny and people were staring at us.  Well, the Chancellor of the University of California, San Diego at [pronounces the Spanish name of this city a bit too carefully, for amusement's sake]  La Jolla comes in.  He and his wife are friends of mine, and Mrs. Atkinson [Rita Atkinson; her husband, Dr. Richard Atkinson, served as Chancellor of the University of California, San Diego from 1980 to 1995] said, [in a loud voice]  "Bert, how'd you get your bass in?"  I said, [loudly]  "Shhhhhhh.  It's a cello!!!"  [Laughter all around]  She said, "Yesterday it was a bass."  I said, "It's a cello today because of the airlines."  "Ohhhhh, okay."  I figured that they've been driving me crazy for years, so I'm gonna have to have some fun.  She said, "So, the cello is having a good time?"  I said, "The cello's thirsty!"  [Riotous laughter]  So we had a lotta laughs.  Everybody was sweet as hell to me and the thing was fine.  Got to Mexico City, played the concerts, finished a great festival, came back to the airport, and I said, "Let's get the cello on early!"  "Yes, sir, you and the cello.  Fine."  Then someone said it looked like a contrabajo.  [Chuckles]  I said, "It's a cello.  It's a cello.  I'm a professor.  I know."  So I try that sometimes when I really don't know what to do.  I haven't been traveling as much as I had in the past because I just can't stand the trauma of coming in there and having a fight!  So I'm coming into Chicago this time and she said, "I'm sorry."  I said, [in calm, matter-of-fact tone of voice]  "I'm sorry.  I'm gonna call my lawyer, and you're gonna hear from him immediately."  I didn't raise my voice, and they said, [quietly, clearly caught off guard]  "Well, wait a minute!"  You know, when you scream and holler, they figure he's a crazy musician, and he's temperamental, and he's out of his mind!  We're not gonna deal with this stuff, so [makes a whispery whistling sound with a rising pitch, as if accompanying a "throat-cutting" hand gesture].  So I said, [calmly]  "Excuse me.  I'll just call my lawyer, and I'll call Northwestern University, and we'll take care of this."  I thought, "I'm not gonna get excited, I have to save my energy for my work."  And it worked!  They were very nice.  So it's a problem.  I hope someday that we can understand that everybody has to help each other make their way through life.  On the plane, they could strap the bass way in the back, and it would be fine.  It wouldn't bother anybody.  Sometimes they put it in the pressurized cargo section with webbing, and they held it beautifully, and every stop of the way, they came and said, "Fine, the bass is fine," and it was very nice of them!  I told them how much it's worth, and I told them it's my whole life, and I can't afford to have an accident.  But when you travel, you have to have a beautiful instrument.  This time I felt I'm playing at Northwestern, at the school I've been associated with over the years.  Bill Karlins is a dear friend, so I wanted to bring a beautiful instrument with me.

BD:  And it was well worth it.

BT:  Yeah, I feel it was, and I'm glad you do too.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:  Now you're coming up on your 60th year...

BT:  [Without hesitation]  I'm in my 59th year.  Karlins is older than I am!  [Riotous laughter all around]

BD:  Are you at all where you thought you'd be?

BT:  Yes.  Yes!  Yeah.  Am I where I wanted to be?  I gave up having a master plan.  My life has been a series of fortunate accidents.  I met my teacher, David Walter; I met Gene Sedric; I met Joe Iadone, Josef Marx [German-born oboist, musicologist, publisher, and leader of a baroque ensemble (1913-1978)] - all the people who have meant so much to me in my career...  even my wife.  All have been accidents.  Josef Marx never heard me play the bass, and recommended me to the Moyse people.  So I began to play in their chamber orchestra.  It's been a series of accidents, and I will someday look and see if it makes sense.  Things have been going nicely.  It's been changing, there's a good variety, and I'm pleased to be looking at 60 years artistically.  I'm not pleased with the place of the bass.  I'm damn unhappy about it

BD:  So you're still fighting that battle.

BT:  Oh, yeah.  I think right to the end.  I'm gonna write an article in which I want young people to call radio stations and say, "We didn't hear any bass music today.  Could you play Tom Martin's record of Bottesini?  Or how about a Gary Karr record.  He's certainly a great player."  If you call radio stations without being shrill, petulant, or pompous, or too aggressive, and just make a request, they might listen to you.  They're people also.  I worked at a radio station in San Diego.  I was Music Director for a couple of months.

BD:  [In good-natured manner]  Then you weren't around long enough to take the heat!

BT:  I took the heat.  [Laughs]  I was there long enough to take the heat!  But I didn't play bass music.  I just expanded, played a lot of American music.  Anyway, the point is that if you request these things at radio stations, people will begin to hear the bass!  And then the artistic and social status can be reached with the help of the magic of radio!  I believe in that.  Right now, because of traveling, I do concerts that I think have good visibility for me.  If there's a television concert, I'm interested in that, because more people will see this noble but misunderstood instrument, and say, "Hey, I like that.  Listen to all the colors it's got.  My God!"

BD:  And then they'll say, [eagerly]  "Let's do it again!"

BT:  [Holding the word "yeah" out, in a low, gravely, "jazzy" voice]  Yeah...  you got it.  So then it opens the door for somebody else, a colleague.  Maybe one of my students is going to play the next concert in that venue, and I've done somethin' good!  I know he or she is gonna play very well, and then it happens.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:  Are you pleased with the recordings that you've made over the years?

BT:  I'm not pleased with any recording I've ever made.  I don't know anybody who's serious who is!  Some of them are pretty good, but, you know, I play better now!  I played Bill's piece 20 years ago, and I play it differently now.  I like this rendition much better!  But I know that the next time I play it, it had better be better.  I want more!

BD:  Do you play differently in the recording studio than you do in concert?

BertBT:  Excellent question.  There's two ways to play in a recording studio.  One is to go for the gusto, like in a performance, and if you miss a note, or if there's a scratch or a scrape, if it's a great phrase, it's worth it.  If the audience isn't hung up with perfection, they're gonna hear and feel it.  That's one attitude.  It's not a common attitude, and it's not a popular attitude.  I made one recording like that, and people didn't like it at all.  So, I go in with a little paranoia mixed with going for the gusto.  I want it to be at least above, or close to above reproach, technically.  Then I try to get enough takes that I can have that there.  I'm working at it.

BD:  If you make the gusto in several different takes, hopefully the little bloops are in different places.

BT:  Yeah.  I have a great editor and he will get rid of the imperfections.  But in my last recording, on Folkways Records, [A Different View, 1981]  that I did some years ago, with Failing, and other pieces on it.  It's a lovely record, technically it's beautiful.  I mean, the recording is technically is beautiful.  The playing is quite good, but in one of the pieces I just got very paranoid, and we just stayed in the studio until everything was absolutely right.  That's what's expected of Bert Turetzky.

BD:  Does this, now, set up an impossible standard that you cannot duplicate on the concert platform?

BT:  Well, you see, the concert platform is a whole other story.  There's the whole theater of the event.  Somebody comes out on the stage, and you look at the person, and you say, "This person means business."  It's like looking at Michael Jordan with 30 seconds left in the game and they're down by two.  You know what the hell's gonna happen.  He's gonna get that ball in, or maybe put a 3 in and take it home.  You've seen all these great people play!  When some people walk on the stage, you say, "This is it.  [Separates his words a bit for effect]  This...is...it.  I can't wait for them to start the solo part.  Gee!"  And the performer can feel it!  I think there's a whole theatrical thing.  In a performance I might exaggerate a little bit, if it's a noisy audience, exaggerate the soft dynamics and exaggerate the drama a little bit to pull 'em in!  Then I can back off a little bit, but I gotta get them in.  You see?  Some people don't agree with me, and that's fine.  I believe you have an audience, and they're there.  They're paying and they have to get something.

BD:  Do you feel the audience when you make a record?

BT:  [Thinks for a moment]  I think of the composer if he's not there.  And I think of the time that we might've had a dinner, or a trip back from New York late at night, and the laughs and funny things that we said to one another.

BD:  So there'll be a connection.

BT:  There has to be an emotional connection with the people.  That's why a lot of the composers of music I play are friends.  And I say, "Well, gee, I haven't seen Eugene Kurtz in a long time, and Nancy and I are gonna play his piece in Tucson.  And we'll think of him teaching us the Métro in Paris.  And the joy of playing the piece at the first performance, and he was so excited, the premiere, and things like that.  That's very special!  I have had a connection with composers, and I can really dredge up the face and the feeling and these memories of great times.  And hard times, too, which is good, you know.  That makes you appreciate the good times.

BD:  I assume that you still have a lot of composers knocking on your door saying, "Please play this," or, "Will you try this?"

BT:  I get a lot of scores every week.

BD:  How do you decide which ones you're gonna play and which ones you're gonna say, [as if rather unimpressed] "Ehhhhhhh"?

BT:  [Without hesitation]  I study 'em.  I study 'em.  And I don't just look at the name.  I think there's a popular string quartet in America, whose name will be unmentioned, I think they do marketing research to figure out what's hip this week:  is it hip-hop, or is it rap?

BD:  [Chuckles]

BT:  You know, we gotta get a rap piece in our repertoire!  Well, that's not Bert Turetzky.

BD:  In their "RAPertoire"?

BT:  [Acknowledging that I have "gotten" him with his pun]  Yeah!  You said it!  [Laughs]  So that's not my thing.  I don't need a rap piece.  That's not part of my culture; I don't understand it; I don't find it too interesting, but my son is gonna talk to me about it some more.  I look at new pieces all the time.  I got a couple new pieces in my portfolio now that I'm taking back!  And I'm gonna look at 'em!  I don't care if they're a young composer.

BD:  Well, what is it that you look for?  What makes you decide, what helps you to decide, "Yes," or "No"?

BT:  I look for something that grabs me - either beauty, or drama, passion...  If it has one of those things, I go.  I met a Schoenberg student, Marcel Dick, in Cleveland.  He's very sick now and he was in bed.  Donald Erb, another dear friend, took me over to meet him.  [See my Interview with Donald Erb.]  He had a bass piece, and it was a lovely piece, but it's not chic, à la mode music.  It's an old 12-tone piece!  But it sings, and it has great possibilities.  So he said, [gently and a bit feebly, with a good-natured, hopeful tone of voice]  "Will you play my piece?"  I said, "Yes, Marcel, I will play your piece."  Well, I'm learning the piece, and I'm going to play well.  But I'm gonna play the piece, and some people may not like that!  That's okay.  He is a wonderful musician.  He taught a lot of people and was connected with that Second Viennese School.  And I knew Louis Krasner, and Krenek, of course.  I like that connection.  He was Don's teacher, and Jim Hall's teacher - great jazz guitar player.  And Hale Smith, he's a hell of a musician.  So I'm interested in that.  I might look for craftsmanship, or some poetic idea.  Or, I must say, to be very blunt, a political idea.  If it's a political idea I like very much, I'm ready to play that piece and put it on the line.  If it's a challenging piece, sometimes, it's just what I need.  I need a piece to drive me crazy:  Michael Finnissy [English composer, b. 1946; the work is probably Sepevi, Op. 108, for solo double bass (1982-83), composed for Turetzky and first performed in 1995 or 1996].  I'm working on it for two years, three years, four years; I'm getting closer.  I'm still faking some of it, and I don't like that, but I'm getting closer.  When it's close, pretty close, I'm gonna try it and see how it works.  Ferneyhough just wrote a new bass piece [probably Trittico per G.S., for solo double bass (1989), dedicated to the memory of Gertrude Stein].  I'm very nervous, but I'm starting it and in the summer I'll work it.  I need a challenge, but I also need gratification!  Someone might write a beautiful lyric piece and I'm ready to play it.  And it doesn't have to be, you know.  It can be motoric like Stravinsky; it can be like anything as long as somebody wrote it and it has something that gets me.  When I looked at Failing and I had to talk and play at the same time, I said, "I can't do this."  And suddenly I said, "Yes, you can!  Why are you saying that?"  So I separated the text from the music and I learned both, like a kid player trying to get the two hands of a piano piece together!  I put it together and it had an energy that just made me be able to do it.  I had done my work, but the piece just took me over, and now I've played it hundreds of times, in many countries, always in English, or "American" [chuckles].  And I love it.  Like I said, it just takes me away.  I'm an asthmatic, practicing asthmatic, for 50 years, but I don't have any wheezing when I play, even if I'm tired, because the piece energizes me.  I think a lot of great music does that; it just takes you past what you are; it transcends all that stuff, technique, and everything.  The Xenakis piece, Theraps, was amplified, and it turned me into a monster.  It scared the hell outta me.  Oh, yeah.  I've heard it played acoustically once, and it was [makes a sound as if very unimpressed]  mmmehhh!  But when he amplified me and turned me into a crazy man, I didn't like that too much.  But I like him, you see?  I don't know if can play that piece, but I've played some of his chamber music, and I like it very much, especially the challenge.  I know him and I like him.  He's a good man, a good person.

BD:  Thank you for being a bass player.

BT:  Oh, thank you for inviting me to talk to you.  I like what you people do, people who love music.  To talk about my noble but misunderstood instrument is always a ball.
 
 

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M.A., Music History, University of Hartford Contrabassist; Currently the senior professor of Music at UCSD, Turetzky has been a distinguished clinician and pedagogue for over three decades, giving master classes, seminars, and workshops nationally and internationally. His knowledge of repertoire, performance style, and his unique approach to technical, psychological, and physical problems has made him a highly sought-after teacher. His master classes have been referred to as "life-altering."

Turetzky has been a featured contrabass soloist in the music centers of the United States, Europe, Latin America and Australia. The response to his many concerts, recordings, lectures, writings and his unique sonic vocabulary has taken the contrabass from it's traditional role to assume the position of a major solo instrument. More than 300 compositions have been written for, performed by, and recorded by Turetzky, making him one of the few performers, in all of music history, to have created a large and impressive repertoire of music for his instrument.

He is is a prolific recording artist and has recorded for Nonesuch, Finnador, Son Nova, Desto, Music and Art, Incus, 9 winds, Advance, Vanguard, New World, and others as soloist, improvisor, chamber player, Jazz player, orchestra player, and Klezmer artist. He is also an acclaimed scholar/researcher in the fields of Jazz History, 18th CenturyChamber Music and the author of many reviews, articles and the now classic book "The Contemporary Contrabass."

After the success of his book, Turetzky was named co-editor of "The New Instrumentation Series" [UC Press]. He is also a published composer, editor, transcriber and arranger of music for his instrument. His compositions are published, reviewed and recorded. Turetzky has also received many awards for composition from ASCAP plus grants from the NEA and Meet the Composer as well as many commissions.



© 1992 Bruce Duffie

This interview was recorded at the home of composer M. William Karlins in suburban Chicago on February 27, 1992.  Portions were used (along with recordings) on WNIB in 1993 and 1998.  This transcription was made in 2007 and posted on this website in 2008.

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.