Double bassists Niek de Groot and Nazar Stets about new repertoire, teaching, age and gender

Диригентка Наталія Стець, контрабасисти Нік де Ґрот, Назар Стець © Василь Шевченко

The double bass is an instrument with no less a long history than a violin or a cello. However, unlike them, it did not receive the attention it deserved as a solo instrument, so today is the star time of “Paganinis” and “Lizsts” of a double bass, those who unleash the instrument potential, initiate writing of a new technical and artistic repertoire. On December 12, Dutch double bassist Nick de Grote visited Ukraine to perform with the Kyiv Symphonic Orchestra under the direction of Luigi Gaggero and met his Ukrainian colleague, Nazar Stets. Their conversation below features a discussion about common issues in the double bass community: repertoire, performance and teaching, instrument travel life hacks, gender and age in the double bass, and the unexpected connection between the bow and the golf club.

Firstly, I’d like you to answer me some short questions. You started to study music as a…?

Nazar Stets: …violinist.

Niek de Groot: …trumpet player.

How many years have you been in the double bass “business”?

Nazar: At this moment, 14 years.

Niek: I have never been in the double bass business (smiling). But I have been playing the instrument for 30 years, at least. 

Playing, teaching, or writing for double bass?

Nazar: Playing, writing, then teaching.

Niek: Playing, teaching, no writing.

Solo performances, participating chamber ensembles, or orchestra?

Nazar: I think, everything.

Niek: For me playing continuo is the highest of the highest. Then, I think solo playing comes, and chamber music. And orchestra… it depends on the circumstances. Sometimes it can be terrible.

Solo a cappella or with ensemble or orchestra?

Nazar: One more difficult question to answer. Maybe in this period, I am more interested in solo a capella playing. There are a lot of things I have to learn.

Niek: For me definitely it is playing with a group. It is fantastic to play a piece alone but I love to communicate under any circumstances. That is why I said “continuo playing”. I love to show people what I want them to hear, or to get them into the piece. I always get inspired when other people are around. 

You have to choose or make a top: Baroque, classical, romantic, modern, or contemporary music?

Nazar: I would say vice versa: contemporary, then modern, romantic, classical, and Baroque.

Niek: That is impossible to answer. I love everything, I can’t say that there is a kind of style period which I prefer. 

Can you name the “God” of double bass performers, your idol, or a few favorites? 

Nazar: I don’t know, I still don’t have an idol. I don’t like this idea of having idols at all. I can say at this moment, I am a big fan of Nicolas Crosse of “Ensemble intercontemporain” just because I am doing a lot of the same pieces now. And among the older bassists, let’s say when I am doing some “normal” music, I name Jeff Bradetich.

Niek: I want to stay far away from that. If I have had any idols then they were all non-bass players. There are many good bass players, but I am more interested in good musicians that have been my red threads the whole time. The people I learned with, I did owe them for exactly this reason. I remember some people who already passed away like Hungarian pianist György Sebök. Mstislav Rostropovich was fantastic to be with, to listen, to work, to talk with. And in the contemporary field, you also have very important people but it is all about the moment. Somebody who we name today as fantastic can go completely wrong tomorrow. As also Nazar said, you cannot get inspiration from one person, or think that he or she is the absolute top of the mountain. You just get inspiration.

Nazar: Also, I can name only one person which made a big influence on me. It is Heinz Holliger because I had the pleasure to work with him in Paris three years ago, in 2017. He is so incredible and has been giving a lot of inspiration to me till now.

A composer who writes music for double bass or a double bassist who also writes music for double bass?

Nazar: First one.

Niek: Also first one. I can agree with Nazar.

Your favorite double bass composer? Who wrote the most comfortable, or nice-sounding music, in your opinion? 

Nazar: If you are speaking about non-bassist composers, I will say Einojuhani Rautavaara, then Virgilio Mortari, and maybe Eduard Tubin. And from bassists who wrote for a bass, it is Stefano Scoddanibio, of course, and Giovanni Bottesini.

Niek: You said the word “comfortable”. I would rather go to the word “most uncomfortable”, who has no limits to the bass, who just writes what he thinks he should write. It is for me the Hungarian composer György Kurtág because I love composers who already have a big name in the field of composing and then decide to write something for bass. Also, I would name Sofia Gubaidulina, Einojuhani Rautavaara, Anders Nilsson, Stefano Gervasoni, but these people don’t write easily for the instrument. And from bass players I like, of course, Stefano Scoddanibio, Giovanni Bottesini, and Domenico Dragonetti (he was a friend of Beethoven).

Describe a double bass in one or few words.

Niek: Unbelievably difficult, limitless.

Nazar: Joyful.

Those were the short questions. Now I want to moderate your conversation about common issues in double bassists’ work. Some of them you were discussing after the concert in Kyiv. Which ones?

Niek: We were talking a lot about a repertoire, and what Nazar was going to perform. I was so happy to hear that there were pieces I love so much like Erwin Schulhoff Trio and György Kurtág Bagatelles. And he was preparing Eduard Tubin as well as Einojuhani Rautavaara concertos which I played myself. So that is always fantastic to hear from somebody else how difficult it is to practice it.

Nazar: And also we spoke about the best piece for an encore. Niek chose Luciano Berio’s “Psy” and I was speaking about Emil Tabakov’s “Motivy”. Niek disagreed with me.

Niek: That what puts us a little bit into the funny corner, maybe not such strong music, cheap side with “Motivy”.

Do people often ask to do an encore?

Niek: Well, it is the habit when you are asked back on stage once or twice, and you play a little solo piece which often is the most difficult part of the program. At the concert, I chose Berio because, actually, I didn’t think about that yet and then I played it for Luigi (Luigi Gaggero, a conductor of Kyiv Symphonic Orchestra — L. S.). Luigi didn’t recognize the composer so I think I should play it for him in public (smiling).

Nazar: Italian composer for Italian conductor.

Niek: For an Italian conductor, it couldn’t be better than that.

Nazar: Okay, so for the next time you should prepare some Ukrainian music like Alex Voitenko, Bohdana Frolyak, etc. I’ll give you some scores.

Niek: Okay, okay.

Have you exchanged some scores for double bass, by the way?

Nazar: Actually, yeah. I asked Niek for some scores from his CD with a violinist Elina Vähälä where there is some unpublished music. Am I right?

Niek: At least, two pieces. Alfred Huber and also Jaakko Kuusisto are not published officially.

Nazar: I was asking because now we have plans with Andrii Pavlov (Ukrainian violinist) to continue our work. A few years ago we played some standard repertoire like Krzysztof Penderecki and Virgilio Mortari duos and also one piece by Ukrainian composer from Odesa Yulia Homelska. Now Andrii wants to play more but we don’t have scores. So I was so happy to see your CD with these new pieces. I have heard about Wolfgang Rihm, Isang Yun. But actually, I liked these two pieces more than the others.

Niek: Those pieces have this little bit popular groove which speaks to the audience. Also, those two minutes of Kurtág for me are something extremely special on that CD. But anyhow I think it turned out to be a fantastic combination of string instruments. They offer the whole spectrum of string playing. I am so happy to have found even more pieces so maybe in some years, there is a reason for another CD in that combination. I don’t know if I can persuade Elina once more.

Nazar: Why not?

Niek: That is a crazy repertoire because it is extremely complicated to prepare. It brings out our instrument and that is actually my biggest goal in a very serious repertoire.

How did you get these scores? I understand that the unpublished scores you have from composers directly? How does it usually?

Niek: These two I got from the composers. Sometimes you just get to know pieces. In my case, festivals ask me to play certain pieces like Penderetsky, Kuusisto. From another side, I personally knew Jaakko Kuusisto, and he is a very good friend of Elina. Erkki-Sven Tüür I’ve just found on the internet, Alfred Huber wrote this piece for me, Wolfgang Rihm I knew about. I would be very interested to hear if there is anything in that combination from the Ukrainian side. That is also why Nazar and I established our contacts some years ago. Some of my students are Ukrainian and I always ask for the repertoire but they say “No, I don’t know anything”. Then when you ask Nazar, you get a whole different story. That is absolutely good, and I think students should know.

Nazar: For me now, I just buy the scores if I can. But at some point, it is too expensive. For example, last year I was trying to organize the Andre Previn Double concerto in Kyiv but the publisher asked me like €600 per one performance, and for the orchestra, it was too much. And I don’t want to pay for this because, in my opinion, it is unprofessional since I am doing solo. On the other hand, I don’t have to pay for the performance, the orchestra should pay for the score, for my job. That is the main problem: when the score costs too much. Almost impossible to get the right connection because for some composers, for some publishers, Ukraine is like the third country. It is almost impossible to organize the performances. Sometimes the publishers think there are no good musicians in this country: “We don’t want you to play this music, and we don’t want you to publish the video of the concert”. So it’s like forbidden.

I think the Netherlands has a higher status than Ukraine…

Niek: …but it is the same amount. For the Nilsson concerto, we also have to pay €700 or €680 for one performance, and it is a normal thing because the composer has to be paid. 

Nazar: Yes, sure.

Niek: Maybe Previn is a wrong example because he is a very rich conductor. But older composers just live of that. In my project of new double bass concertos, it is always struggling to get funding to the organization, to an orchestra, to concert organizers to pay costs, especially for new pieces. As I know, as soon as the composer has contracts with editors, and the piece has been printed, everybody can get it. That is still very expensive for any composer who has not passed away 70 years or longer. I think Benjamin Britten comes free now, that helps. Also, composers want to be performed too.

As well as Nazar you order composers to write something too?

Niek: Yes, absolutely. That is the whole meaning of these projects. Well, now we will be recording Gervasoni, Nilsson, Huber new concertos, and the year after several other composers will write. We have to organize it financially. We just have been finishing a grant for Gevasoni and I have just heard from editor Peters that now they have to organize the money for a concerto by Себастьяна Фарга Sebastian Fagerlund

But do composers like to write for double bass or they prefer more popular instruments for writing solo pieces?

Niek: I think, my impression is getting more and more. Of course, I had some absolute “no” from composers who don’t see that. It is not only writing for an instrument that is played to a certain standard. It is also often a balance problem which not all composers can handle. But for instance, Kurtág would not think about such things if it is nice or possible. He just would demand that a bassist plays it like he wants it to be played and he doesn’t care if somebody can do it or what standards are. He is making standard himself. But I would say that I have been absolutely happy with people which I liked to write.

Nazar, how many composers answered “yes” to your suggestion to write for double bass?

Nazar: At this moment, there were seven concertos by Oleksandr Levkovych, Edward Kravchuk, Alisa Zaika, Giulia Monducci, Zoltan Almashi, Merison Borges, Serhii Piliutykov. And in the next year, I am still waiting for four more. So, in total, it is like eleven now. And also, there were some small pieces but with an orchestra.

Niek: That is fantastic, bravo.

Nazar: That is not me (laughing), that are composers.

Niek: It is both fantastic due to your initiative.

I assume you have different instruments. Nazar has a modern instrument, and you, Niek, play some baroque instrument as I know?

Niek: Yes, just we don’t call that a Baroque instrument. It is built in the late Baroque time but it is an Italian instrument made by Domenico Montagnana. I didn’t take it to Ukraine for various reasons but somebody made a copy of it last year, so that is an instrument I was playing at that concert. The instrument is one part, of course. However, it has to do what you want it to do, it is also very much a personal relationship and you adapt with your own movement, your own bow. It has to fit you but you also will develop a bass by playing on it. Not the instrument becomes much better but you become so much better on the instrument. So it is sort of a funny marriage.

Are some difficulties playing contemporary music on a late baroque instrument?

Niek: Not at all. Because the whole built system is still the same. The new instruments are made according to the standard which has been developed for over two hundred years. And now we use for this repertoire the similar string and similar setup. They should not be limited. There are definitely instruments on which flageolets or certain effects work easier for some of us. But it has not so much to do with the age of the instrument.

Nazar: I am quite happy with my instrument now and I saw how easier was Niek’s speaking during the performance and how comfortable was his playing. None best instruments during the performance due to some circumstances don’t play perfectly (for example, flageolets like Niek said). But with the Niek instrument, everything was good.

Niek: I learn to pretend a lot (laughing).

Nazar: And to the question, if I am going to play some baroque music it is much more fun to play it on gut strings. Because when you are trying to play in the pitch with A415 on the metal string, it doesn’t speak well. 

Niek: Yes. And the instrument which I used at the concert was finished on the 29th of November 2019. So it was just over a year.

Nazar: So mine is older (laughing).

Niek: (laughing) Right. So if I would like to play some continuo, some baroque music, or even earlier than that, I could adjust the instrument with another bridge, set up, with other strings. So I could use it as an old musical instrument. Even in the big famous authentic orchestras of these days people play as well on old instruments from that time, as on newly built instruments with a setup like the old instruments have. Composers from that time heard such kinds of instruments and such kinds of bow we hear now. And the bow is very decisive in that sound. So it just depends on the setup, especially if you play too heavy concertos like Tubin, Rautavaara, like Nikos Skalkottas, and other things. 

You say that you haven’t brought your instrument to Ukraine. In general, traveling with double bass is difficult, I read some stories from Nazar.

Niek: Yeah. Usually, I bring my instrument on board, so I always fly with one company that allows that. I buy two extra seats for a very low price. But you have to get to the airport, to find a taxi. Sometimes it is extremely easy, but I remember having been standing for hours in Barcelona airport because there were no taxi drivers who wanted to take bass in his car because I would damage it. The most difficult thing is security at this moment. Sometimes people are very friendly like when I came in Kyiv. And sometimes they terribly panic and don’t know how to do this and want you to go back to check-in or whatever. There have been some funny stories. Once I was traveling with only my bow, that was the time I was still teaching in Spain. They checked me and said: “Oh, what is this? This is a golf club, isn’t it?”. I said: “It is not a golf club, it is a bass bow”. They answered: “No, it is a golf club”. I suggested: “I can open it to you and show you”. And I did it and showed them the hair, the frosch, and everything: “So you see? It is a bass bow”. “Yeah, you are right but it is the family of the golf clubs” (laughing).

Nazar: (laughing) Sometimes it is better to agree.

Niek: At that moment, I was too young to agree.

Nazar: What was the company you were speaking about? Is it KLM?

Niek: Yeah, that is KLM. But they do it only with me. I traveled a long time in the beginning. They allowed things and this was easier than a little later from SAS, a Scandinavian company. And after September 11 things became difficult. Sometimes I cheated just buying one seat and pretending that I was bringing a cello but sometimes you have very smart stewards and captains, and they say “This is not a cello, this is a bass”. Then I was lucky to know somebody working at KLM on a rather high level and they decided: “Okay, we are doing this and this, you put it there and there then we can allow you to buy those extra seats for which you don’t pay taxes”. The only thing is that you don’t give it at the check-in, so you have to take it yourself to the gate and put it on the plane. But for me, that is now a part of the job. 

Nazar: I can say that I have only one ugly story about Ukrainian international airlines. Last year I was traveling to New York direct flight, and they were asking me to pay $150 for my bow because it is an extra-luggage but we found a solution. I was traveling also with the horn player and, of course, they asked him to do the same. So we took the tape and did this hocus pocus with a bass bow in a horn, and paid only for one extra-luggage object. But that situation was totally disgusting because when we were going back from New York there was no problem. The same airlines.

Niek: Exactly. It is often just depending on the person you meet, and they all talk about rules.

And it also depends on how many double bassists they have met, and how many double bassists emerge. You both teach or used to teach. Does the double bass have more difficulties than other strings instruments?

Niek: Yes, it has two big problems. The first problem is always for the students because, in my case, they come from really everywhere in the world without proper instruments. So much rubbish has been built, and it is broken or just in very bad condition. And I think the standards with violins and cellos are really different. Wind instruments are usually much more affordable. And the second, but maybe the first in importance, is a problem in repertoire besides all. The whole cello and violin world is so much more standardized by the simple fact that big composers wrote fantastic big pieces and concertos for those instruments. Double bassists don’t have that luxury. So, I remember (actually, they are still existing) bass classes where there is the only practice of two concertos and a handful of orchestra parts. Then they bring it to an orchestra, maybe they even have not an audition because they have been practicing it before five years, just that repertoire. But then musicians are completely lost and don’t know how to survive with all kinds of technical problems afterward. So our challenge is to be guided in a way by the modern repertoire which is now enlarging, not always so easy to digest, easy to learn. And it either creates technical challenges for which no exercises are written. You need to start somewhere.

That is a challenge to combine all of the things. Especially German students are very much trained. They are doing auditions with the orchestra all the time, and those orchestras always ask to the same concerto. On the other hand, but old music, the authentic style, they have to know about the new repertoire, all the new playing techniques. So that is an incredible challenge for somebody who never has been playing Beethoven sonata or Brahms sonata or Dvorak Cello concerto. We just don’t have that and sometimes it can be frustrating, I must be honest. Very often it is also a beautiful challenge to see how certain students pick that up. The most important thing that I have learned, that every student is really very responsible for his own study. And it is great when you have a teacher who can help you. And that is what I have to try — to wake them up, to founding an ignition for that mоtor.

Nazar: As for me, I am not teaching, at this moment. I have only one private student but he is actually an actor, and playing double bass is just his hobby. But for two years I used to be a teacher at the Conservatory. The biggest thing I have learned after teaching for two or three years is this good possibility to go back in my mind to five or ten years when I was only starting to do some things. Now it is like an automatic but you have to explain it to my student. So when you teach somebody to do, let it be, staccato, for me, it is okay now, I don’t even think about it, just play it. And if the student is doing something wrong it is still a chance to project it to yourself and to manage your problems with that. So that is a really good possibility of teaching somebody. But also I would like to say the problem which is in Kyiv Conservatory has a really huge influence on the teaching that is students have to have two instruments (one in orchestral tuning and one with solo scordatura). And for some students, it is almost impossible to get two instruments and play in different tunings. Because the Conservatory doesn’t have such a lot of instruments to give everybody. Niek, do you have the same?

Niek: I have a very simple solution for that, I will show you in the summer when we meet again. Very often I cannot travel with two basses, and if I have to play even up to three different unique solo tunings which makes every string one tone higher I have to change strings in a couple of minutes. So that is the solution students also use but of course, it is much more comfortable to have different instruments. We always have in the school two or three instruments which are in solo tuning and the other are five-strings in the orchestra tuning. Germany is a little bit special country, as far as I know, because it is the only country where double bassists have auditions with the orchestra which is still in solo tuning. And in other countries, it is only the orchestra tuning now.

Nazar: In Ukraine, it doesn’t matter.

Niek: Does not matter? That is really a special issue. I think both are not ideal. I don’t think it is ideal to have a solo concerto in orchestra tuning and I think that it is ideal to have Beethoven Third Symphony suddenly in F major. It is in Es major. I would suggest that they have auditions into rounds, or even in two days. So that the people have time to jump from one instrument to the other. That would be a more realistic thing. It would be very strange to ask an English horn player to play the whole repertoire on oboe or the other instrument around. That is actually what is happening in the bass world.

Nazar: So you agree with me that this is a huge problem?

Niek: I try not to make it a huge problem for myself because I just want to play. I remember so many festivals where I had to play in the evening Giovanni Bottesini Gran Duo and two hours before Franz Schubert Forellen Quintet. Gubaidulina wrote pieces in solo tuning, but her Sonata is in orchestra tuning.

Nazar: Yeah. And “Pantomime” is also in the orchestra tuning.

Niek: Of course. So, that is the thing I don’t like to do. But sometimes we just have to. 

The double bass is a heavy instrument, so my question is about women in double bass practice. I know that in our Conservatory there is one girl playing bass. How many women have you met in double bass?

Nazar: Actually, in Conservatory there are two female double bassists now.

Niek: My class is always at least half female. I really don’t see any difference. I know very tiny and small females, but also small male bass players who have a fantastic career. Nothing impossible. Maybe if you do not have such long arms, the advice would be not to have an instrument with 1.12th mensura. But for me, I have never thought about it. In my class, I had a very tall person and I also had a real bodybuilder who had biceps and enormous problems due to the short length of his muscles. So when he started using some weight or power he would immediately be completely in a sort of a lock situation where our muscles should be long and lean, like a Marathon runner. So male muscles and female muscles — doesn’t matter when it comes to bass playing.

But also due to double bass size, it seems that it is not an instrument that you can start to play since you are six, for example…

Nazar: Why not? We can. The problem in Ukraine is that we don’t have small-size instruments. But I think in Germany and the Netherlands you have this small… like 1/32-size double basses?

Niek: Yes. You have all kinds of different sizes. In Germany where I teach we have young students also. For instance, I have now a 12-year-old guy. He comes with a half bass and then goes to a 3/4 bass. And a 3/4 bass, actually, is already a bass that many students play. But many schools in the United States, in England, in France, in Germany, have those mini-bass classes, and sometimes that works. I had some people in my class who started very young (six or seven) and I cannot say that it is always a guarantee for being better. Because again, you had the repertoire thing which sort of blocks students. I started very late, I was 18 when I held a bow for the first time. But usually, double bassists start at ten or twelve. 

Niek de Groоt and Nazar Stets with Ukrainian double bass students:Yakiv Seniv, Yelyzaveta Bahlai, Borys Khalat, Nazar Matkovskyi, Vitalii Shylypynskyi. © Volodymyr Osypenko

And finally about composing. Nazar, why do you compose and Niek, why don’t you?

Niek: Because Nazar is already composing (laughing).

Nazar: (laughing) Actually, I am still a non-published composer. I am just doing my cadenzas, some technical things but I don’t feel like I am a composer now. Because I don’t have any education. I am just interested in doing some bass works because of the repertoire problem. I still think we need a more instructive repertoire like caprices, etudes due to the lack of good high-quality caprices. Niek, do you have something to say about that?

Niek: What I use a lot is a method by Alain Weber, a French teacher. He wrote some etudes which really helps in either a rhythmical and a technical sense. Also, that helps using instruments in a non-romantic way. But anything in that direction would be an incredible enhancement for bass playing. However, I don’t see myself as a musician who should write. It has been such a fight to get where I am. When I started at 18 I had a very busy family life. So it has never been struck my mind to start composing. But I am very happy and also a little jealous of anybody who does.

And the last question. What do you expect for the 2021 year from Santa?  It can be real or any crazy wish.

Nazar: I have to think because it was a very special year. I will ask Santa about new meetings next year. I still want to do some masterclasses and learn something useful. So maybe I ask Santa that because we have this corona problem which destroyed almost everything.

Niek: Well, I am not so much the religious type, so Santa Clause is not on my list of people who I would ask (smiling). But I am very much looking forward to celebrating with my children, with my mother and sisters, friends. I am so lucky we could do the concert in Kyiv and that I could undertake the travel. But I also hear stressful stories of colleagues, freelance musicians whose lives are so difficult right now. And I think we can ask anything (God or Santa Clause) to help us, to end this very difficult situation. That we can storm on the podium again and play our music.

Niek de Groot, Nazar Stets. © Volodymyr Osypenko

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