By Frank Proto
Sonata 1963 for Double Bass and Piano
The Sonata 1963 was a hit from the beginning, probably because it was not only accessible for the listening audience but challenging, while still being fun, for the performers. As mentioned previously the piece came about mostly by chance because something was needed to fill out a concert program, but the music contained within the piece is another story. Having not had any formal training in composition, I could only rely on my own musical instincts. During the early 60s I spent quite a bit of time working in nightclubs in the New York City area. Most of the musicians that I worked with were my age or a bit older. We were all fanatics about getting to see the greats of the day, which of course meant the likes of Miles Davis, Dizzy Gillespie and John Coltrane. During this time I worked equally as a pianist and a bassist. One night - around 1960 - someone suggested that we go to hear Bill Evans, who was holding forth downtown at The Village Vanguard. After the gig, a few of us made our way downtown to catch his last set. Well, we wound up with a 2 fer 1. Bill was already well known, especially among musicians, but none of us were prepared for the young bassist that was working with him, one Scott LaFaro. We showed up three or four nights running that week. I was going particularly crazy because I played both instruments, and at the time I was still slightly more a pianist than a bassist.
Moving up a couple of years to the beginning of my work on Sonata 1963, I can now look back and see where the first two movements had their seeds planted. The little repeated eighth-note vamp that accompanies the melody in the first movement (which also makes an appearance in the Sarabande of the Suite for the Piano) comes from some of the same kind of accompaniments that Bill used for his own melodic excursions. The feeling of the pizzicato second movement probably wouldn't have happened if I hadn't heard Scott. Until Scott and Bill developed their contrapuntal style of playing, where both are improvising these long horizontal, invention-like lines, the bass rarely divorced itself from the job of keeping time.Notes from the CD: Frank Proto: Chamber Works 5 - Early Red Mark CD-9228
The Duo No. 1 for Violin and Double Bass started out life as
Duet for Violin and Bass. David Walter asked me for a piece for his
newly formed Walter Duo with violinist Janet Spicer. I was excited about
writing the piece for them and finished it in 1967, about a year after I
joined the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra. David and Janet played it a
few times after I had made some changes. The version that they used,
published in 1974, became fairly popular, receiving many performances,
and was even recorded twice.
Duo No. 1 for Violin and Double Bass
So why the name change? For two reasons: The first is that I restored quite a few changes that I had made just before the 1974 edition came out: little rhythmic adjustments, a few octave transpositions and one fairly large change - the long improvised bass solo in the last movement. The other reason is that there is now a Duo No. 2 for Violin and Double Bass.Notes from the CD: Frank Proto: Chamber Works 5 - Early Red Mark CD-9228
Quartet for Basses
Shortly after finishing the Sonata 1963, while still a student at the Manhattan School of Music, in 1964 I began working on a Quartet for Basses. The idea had appealed to me for quite a while. When I was a student of Fred Zimmermann in 1958 I came across a manuscript on his music stand one day and asked what it was. It turned out to be one of the parts to Gunther Schuller's Quartet for Basses, a work that he had written in 1947 but had yet to be publicly performed. I had, more recently, heard the recording made by Robert Gladstone, Orin O'brien, Alvin Brehm and Mr. Z shortly after the premiere and was astounded with the possibilities that this unlikely combination of instruments offered.
I dreamed of gathering together Mr. Z, David Walter and Doc Goldberg (my three teachers) to play - along with myself - and possibly even record the piece, but getting three players of this caliber together for the amount of time needed to do a respectable job proved to be impossible, and the Quartet languished, not touched for about ten years. A few copies were sold during that time and it is possible that there might have even been a performance or two of the piece. Almost everyone that spoke to me about it remarked that it was much too difficult to put together, could not possibly be done without a conductor and that it would probably see few, if any performances. After listening to much well-meaning but mostly fruitless advice, I concluded that the biggest problem, and in many cases objection, seemed to be the inclusion of the improvised cadenzas in the second movement. The reasoning went: "Classical players can't improvise." Of course it was never put that bluntly, but after stripping out the superfluous rhetoric, that is what it boiled down to.
It wasn't until sometime in 1972, when I acquired a Sony four channel multi-track tape recorder and put together a performance of the piece myself, that I had a chance to hear the Quartet for the first time. My performance was far from ideal since coordinating the separate parts without using a click track, especially in the more rhythmically complex passages, took many tries before even coming close! But nevertheless it gave me an opportunity to at least hear what I had written. The piece was put to sleep again with the hope that some day someone would put together a real performance.
About six or seven years later I happened to be in Chicago for a performance of my String Quartet No. 1. The venue was a National Music Educators convention. As I sat leafing through the printed program, waiting for the concert to begin, I noticed that in about half an hour, in another room, a performance of my Quartet for Basses was scheduled! I listened to the String Quartet, took my bow, tore up the stairs and walked into the hall just in time to see four bassists walk onto the stage. They played an excellent, very smooth performance, complete with improvised cadenzas and were treated to a great audience reception. And by the way, no conductor was necessary!Notes from the CD: Frank Proto: Chamber Works 5 - Early Red Mark CD-9228
Suite for the Piano
In 1964, inspired with the success of Sonata 1963, I decided that I would like to take some composition classes the following semester. I would be going for my Master's Degree and there were a certain amount of electives available to me. I signed up for two composition courses, one of them being private lessons with a teacher to be assigned, an orchestration class and a keyboard harmony class. Shortly after I submitted my request I received a note asking me to stop by the Registrar's office. He wanted to know why, since I was planning to major in performance, I was applying for these classes. I told him that I had felt myself developing a taste for composition and that I would like to take some courses in this area because I thought that they might prove valuable in the future. He said that it wasn't really practical for me to be jumping into something new at this stage and that the best he could offer me was one course, but I could choose it. Not having David to do battle for me this time, I found myself at a disadvantage and acquiesced. (The administrators of the Manhattan School ran a far from musically tolerant institution in those days. Pigeonholing musicians, singers and composers was the order of the day.) I chose private lessons and was thrilled when I was assigned an hour a week with Nicholas Flagello.
Having been at the school for five years, I knew Flagello well. We were not personally acquainted but I knew him from his conducting, piano playing and composing. He was a fabulous musician who could sit down at the piano with a huge orchestra score and bang out a convincing performance of it - at sight! I enjoyed his conducting, having played quite a few times under his baton, and also loved the big colorful scores that he wrote.
As excited as I was, things did not go according to what I had in mind. For one thing I missed my first lesson because I had a recording session. This was something that was unavoidable if you were a freelance musician in New York. You couldn't say no to a contractor, especially for a recording. He'd probably never call you again. Besides, the opportunity to make more money in one afternoon than I made in an entire week at the club made the choice a no-brainer. Then I missed the next two lessons because he had some conducting engagements.
Finally, four weeks into the semester we got together. I found out quickly that he was a very social fellow and loved to talk about almost anything. So our first couple of lessons consisted of getting to know each other. Then one day, just as I was wondering if we'd ever begin discussing music, he walked into the studio and launched into a lecture on how form was the possibly the most important ingredient in the make up of a musical work. He said he wanted me to work on a simple A-B-A structure and after showing me the common rhythmic motif that it was built upon, instructed me to bring a Sarabande to the next lesson. I blocked out a bit of time and tried and tried but couldn't come up with anything but a simple motive. I was determined to bring something but what? Luck struck when I received a message canceling next week's lesson, giving me more time to work out the problem. Two weeks later we met. I had had a burst of inspiration and had eight bars to show him. He tore it apart, pointing out the all of my errors and told me to try again. It was January before the Sarabande was finally approved and we moved on to a Minuet. Needless to say, this was going slower than I had anticipated.
Somehow the Minuet came to life much quicker than my Sarabande. Could I be making progress? After a couple of more missed lessons, and well into the second semester he said, "OK, lets finish this baby up. We'll do two more movements and you'll have a Suite." While I worked on the Prelude and Gigue - which took longer than the Minuet but not nearly as long as the Sarabande to work out - he said, "You know, this is starting to look pretty good. Do you know a pianist who might like to play it for you, or better still, perform it on a concert?" I replied that my girlfriend was preparing her graduation recital and maybe she would do it. So on May 11, 1966 - exactly two years after the premiere of Sonata 1963 - Lise Blondin, who was later to become Lise Proto, played the first performance of Suite for the Piano.Notes from the CD: Frank Proto: Chamber Works 5 - Early Red Mark CD-9228