It tells the story of an unnamed artist, charting his journey from childhood to being an accomplished musician. The work explores his changing relationship to music and the double bass, as he battles to fulfil his soul’s desire. Richly symbolic and told as a mythic ‘folk tale’, it blends comedy and pathos, as it grapples with challenges many artists will know only too well.
The Cry of the Double Bass is the first original opera which engages with themes rarely seen in an operatic context. Music and musical experience become primary topics; a performer and his historically neglected instrument the double bass are the protagonists around whom the plot evolves; creativity, the artist’s inner and spiritual search, and the way society perceives musicians are also themes of paramount importance.
The work holds a universal message, which is across-the board and goes beyond the world of artists, and particularly important for young audiences: take decisions following your own heart. Its communication is effective on many levels with all types of audiences.
The Cry of the Double Bass is the creative result of Sebastiano Dessanay’s experience over many years as a double bassist as well as a composer.
In 2014 Sebastiano was awarded a Ph.D. at Birmingham Conservatoire (UK). He explored through musical composition the complex relationships between the double bassist and their instrument. The main essence of Sebastiano’s Ph.D. project was the creative process that led to the composition of a substantial music piece where the double bass has a prominent role.
The initial plan was to set to music the monodrama The Double Bass (Der Kontrabass) by Patrick Süskind. After the publishers did not allow him to use the original text in any different way that was not a monologue, Sebastiano commissioned a new libretto, where the focus would still be the double bass. However, not being tied up to Süskind’s text anymore allowed to include in the work other aspects of Sebastiano’s personal musical experience that he wanted to explore.
The final libretto is by English writer Mike Carter, with whom Sebastiano worked in close collaboration for more than a year before reaching a final draft of the text. Together they went through all the aspects of the research, using Süskind’s text as a starting point but then developing some concepts and finding new inspiration from Sebastiano’s personal experience as both composer and performer.
The Cry of the Double Bass was completed in the summer of 2013 and some excerpts of it were recorded at the Birmingham Conservatoire by contemporary ensemble Thumb conducted by Dan Watson.
by Sebastiano Dessanay
One of the most recurrent questions I have asked myself as a musician is possibly ‘how can I be a better musician?’, which can be elaborated into ‘how can I overcome technical and musical problems?’ Also, as a composer I have always faced the challenge of starting a new composition, often having to overcome the familiar writer’s creative block.
A new question had been forming in my head: ‘can I create a new work exploiting my technical and musical problems and how?’ or in other words ‘can my being a music practitioner be exploited into a creative project?’
‘No self-respecting composer would write for double bass, he’d have more taste. And if he ever did, then it would be as a joke’. This quote from Süskind’s The Double Bass not only contains the protagonist’s personal point of view on the instrument and its repertoire, but it also reflects a very common tendency that there has been in the past to perceive the double bass as an ‘awkward’ instrument, which has dissuaded many composers from writing for the instrument throughout history. Very often the luminaries of the double bass were ‘double bassists who out of frustration turned their hands into composition’. I felt as if Patrick Süskind was challenging my aforementioned philosophical questions.
My personal background both as a double bassist and composer has allowed me to be in a privileged position to understand many of the issues raised by Süskind. Paradoxically written by a non-musician, the book presents a passionate monologue by a double bassist, the central character in the play, whose life (both within and without the world of music) has been strongly influenced by the presence of the double bass, ‘the damned object’. As in Süskind’s famous novel Perfume, the story reflects the psychology, obsessions and behaviours of the main character as outsider. A sense of frustration pervades the whole book, which arises from issues ranging from facing technical limitations of instrumental practise to the relationship between the classical double bassist of today and the masters of the past (both performers and composers), passing through all the experiences involved in being an orchestral employee.
This context yielded the answer to my main question ‘can I create a new work exploiting my technical and musical problems and how?’, and provided a strong motivation to try to expand and develop those fictional but real conflicts into a wider music piece inspired by Süskind’screative project will attempt to resolve the aforementioned sense of frustration, using the double bass (and the central role of the double bassist) as a means to explore contemporary musical material. The creation of this opera can be interpreted as a cathartic act through which the performer’s frustrations may be released. My role as a composer has served as a catalyst, encouraging this process of redemption.