Crazy Cello Outlier Adventure 

Day 8 Week 2 Q1  Sunday, January 8, 2023

Just an example of the crazy things outliers do. Those of you who are creative outliers will think this makes sense, but your partners and bosses may not. Tomorrow flying from NY to Florida to visit relatives and to pick up an inherited but not being used cello. Even though I have no idea of the condition or value of the instrument, I took the chance to purchase a molded fiberglass cello flight case to bring with me in order to bring the instrument back on the return trip. Why is this crazy? Because after only a dozen lessons, I do not really play the cello, making me mostly unqualified to evaluate the instrument. Still, I do have a crazy idea somewhat supported by educated guesses and a bit of empirical evidence.  

Here is the arc of a really crazy idea. I imagine it to be in terms of regular people’s standards, not making sense, but it was not at all vetoed by those I asked.  Of course, I did not ask any normal people, partly because I do not know too many and partly because I did not want an answer to dissuade me from this adventure.  So bear with me as a creative outlier for reinforcement of your crazy ideas, and if you are not, to get a glimpse into the minds of others, you may know who, at times, makes you shake your head. 

The idea is can a cello be an extended-range bass? I mean, can a cello play all of the notes of a bass and all of the notes of a cello? If so, it could play any kind of music, from rock to jazz to classical. Yes, I know there are cellists who can already do this, but can they play bass lines that really sound like a bass player?

There are already in the world a variety of instruments that can play bass. One even has three names, the double bass, aka. The upright bass, aka the string bass. Hey, it depends on if you are an orchestra, a jazz ensemble or a country band. In any case, you know the beast I am speaking of. It is too large to fit in a standard car and somewhat awkward to play chords or fast melodies on. This makes it not so good for a solo gig.  Unaccompanied bass, even by the handful of world-class virtuosos, is hard to take for more than a few pieces unless, of course, you are a bass player. And even then, getting beyond a set is simply not going to happen unless the bass player either owns the club or is the bandleader and preferably both, because one may not be enough.

But, oh, that sound! A real acoustic bass is totally killer. The electric bass guitar was invented around 70 years ago by Leo Fender. It works great and sounds pretty good for many kinds of music, and you can even get fretless versions, but this instrument does not sound like a giant violin. It sounds like a deep guitar which is pretty good and is undoubtedly artistically valid, but not the same. 

Well, I thought if one added another string on the bottom of the cello, you could get down to that low E1 of a string bass. So, last year I rented a traditional cello, the only kind you can rent, and mainly practiced bowing for several months.  And then, I purchased from China, a student version five-string cello, which I dubbed a bass-cello and learned how to set a sound post, install fine tuners, and more. And did I mention, since conventional cellos are not large enough to produce those deep tones, that this cello needed a pickup to convert the acoustical vibrations into electrical vibrations so I could send the signal to an amplification system capable of producing the deep notes?  And yes, I know no music is written for this instrument, but this is where I come in.   

Okay, so now I have a rented cello and am not taking lessons at the moment because the kind of music I want to play requires a very different approach which I call Stride-Cello., Google defines stride as a style of jazz piano playing in which the right-hand plays the melody while the left-hand alternates between a single note and a chord played an octave or higher.

Now cellos are way smaller than double basses and pianos and bigger than bass guitars, but I think there is a musical sweet spot to be created where one can play pizzicato bass lines interleaved with bowed chords and melodies. Imagine, instead of a vocalist being accompanied by either a piano or a guitar, being accompanied by a cello that could play down as deeply as a string bass and get up as high as a violin.  The traditionally tuned four-string cello already has one of the most expansive ranges of any musical instrument.  Music for it, is already written in three clefs, Bass, Alto and Treble, to accommodate its greater than four-octave range. The addition of the lower string adds to the cello range the range of the conventional string bass, making it piano-like in its range. Pianos do not have vibrato or really long tones that bloom, two characteristics I have wanted for over fifty years.

So what does this have to do with flying to Florida with a cello flight case, and why is this crazy? Well, the first crazy part is I am not a cellist YET. And the next crazy part is why does a guy who does not play the cello have a four-string rental cello, a five-string Frankenstein bass cello, and is flying tomorrow to get yet another cello for which he had to purchase a flight case? And I do have some answers.

I love the bass but do not want to give up the medley and in these post-pandemic times, in part because being musically self-contained is even more extremely advantageous than it was before.  Basically, if you are a composer who is able to perform unaccompanied, the logistical overhead associated with hearing your pieces and being adequately compensated, drops dramatically. Rehearsals are more straightforward and less costly. You do not have to split the earnings. You do not have to manage anyone, and you are more affordable to this that want to hire musical entertainment.

In short, this instrument enables superior artistic and business models, two things all concertizing composers need. Now, of course, I do have to get these cellos in shape, learn to play them, write some cello music, and learn how to play cello while singing and integrate this into my guitar, piano and bass performances. I am reasonably confident this will also be a substantial artistic and fiscal differentiator. And sure, maybe no one will like it. I may not even like it as I already have numerous other instruments I can play, and the bass cello will have to compete with them.

 One more thing. Although I live in a small town in the New York Berkshires, it happens to be a Cultural Mecca only twenty minutes from Tanglewood, the Sumer home of the Boston Symphony Orchestra, one the very top orchestras in the world today. And because of this, we happen to have on Mainstreet a seriously world-class cello maker and repair person who takes care of the Boston Symphony cellist’s instruments.

And why does this matter? I have been renting the four-string cello; I took lessons on from him and have been establishing an artistically critical relationship. You see, although I did manage to create this Frankenstein bass cello from the student-level five-string cello and additional parts and tools purchased this year, I know I will never be able to make this sound like a “real cello.” Real cellos begin at around $3K used, and there are no used five-string bass cellos in the world that I have ever found. To have a custom one made would probably cost over ten thousand dollars, which would be downright insane for a guy who does not yet play the cello. So far, I have spent well under one thousand, including Chinese student cello, flight-case, parts, tools, and cello rentals, and learned an incredible amount, so even if I do not get “there,” it will have been worth it.

But I will get there! It might take as little as a few months to be able to perform or as many as two years. I am not intending to perform a Bach Cello Suite or anyone else’s pieces, having little interest in being a traditional cellist, as there are plenty of them. 

I know from decades of musical and acoustical experience that there are many cost-effective ways to improve musical instruments.  A $500 guitar can sound as good in performance as a $50,000 guitar, and a $700 saxophone with a terrific mouthpiece can sound like a several thousand dollar one. I also know that cheap pianos really sound and play like cheap pianos. Miracles can not be expected, but optimization can go a long way to provide a professional quality instrument. After all, most professional musicians are not rich, and they all routinely do this. By the way, who on earth knows what stride bass cello sounds like? It is still being invented.

I do intend to become a five-string bass cello player who can perform in many styles with many people, as well as perform as a solo artist. Spending a thousand dollars is probably enough to get there. Of course, a risk exists! But, a world-class luthier can do great things with wood and strings. And an imaginative composer can write things they are able to play.

Even though at first blush, this may seem like a crazy idea, to me, it does not seem crazy at all. Fortunately, my wife and friends agree. Not sure I want to tell anyone else? But I guess I just did.