The Octobass

I’ve just returned from several weeks of traveling.  It was mostly non-musical stuff (bird watching), but I was able to get one music related stop in: the Musical Instrument Museum in Phoenix.  The MIM is a completely overwhelming experience.  The number of instruments is mind-boggling.  My only complaint is that I couldn’t play any of them.

My reason for going was to see the mighty Octobass one of the largest string instruments ever created.  The MIM had an Octobass specially constructed for them when the museum opened.  As far as I can tell, it is one of 5 in the world.  Two were made in the 1850s, while the other 3 are modern reproductions (one in Phoenix, one in Italy, and one in Norway).IMG_5200

The Octobass, as currently figured, is pitched one octave lower than the Double Bass with an extension down to low C.  In other words, its lowest note is C0 (32′ C).  This may not have always been the case.  Berlioz in his Treatise says quite emphatically that the instrument only reaches C1 (16′ C).

“This instrument is not – as many imagine – the low octave of the double bass; it is the low octave of the violoncello.  It consequently descends lower – by a third – than the four-stringed double bass.”

I’m not one to argue with Berlioz.  He alone, among all the writers of instrumentation and orchestration texts, was intimately familiar with instruments and their manufacturers.  However, the surviving instruments, the same ones that Berlioz saw and heard, do seem to belie this fact.  With the surviving strings, they are an octave lower than the Double Bass.

The instrumental developments and innovations of the 19th century amaze and fascinate me.  Berlioz sang the praises of this instrument and said three should be available for large orchestras.

Sadly, I was not able to heard the Octobass at the museum.  They only play it occasionally.  What I have heard are the various clips on YouTube of the instrument.  But herein lies a problem.  The Octobass has to be heard live.  The sonic capabilities cannot be transferred via video or most recordings.  It also needs to be in a large resonate room.

Technique for the instrument is unique.  There are seven levers pressed by the right hand.  Each lever pressed down a large bar covering all three strings at what is essentially a fret.  This means that each string has a chromatic compass of only a perfect fifth.  The instrument itself only has a compass of one-and-a-half octaves from C0 to G1 or A1 depending on the tuning of the highest string.  In other words, its highest note is only a third or fourth above the standard Double Bass’ lowest note.

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Obviously, the capability of speed and technical passages on the instrument are completely lacking.  It is best as a gigantic pedal point.

Few, if any, orchestral composers have ever used the instrument.  It does seems to have been used in one Hollywood film (The Hunger Games) using MIM’s instrument.  It is possible that adventurous bassists could take up the instrument.  There is now one luthier in the world, Antonio Dattis, who makes the instrument.

I leave with Berlioz’s words:

“We shall not contest the opinion that tends to consider the recent inventions of instrument-makers as fatal to musical art.  These inventions exert, in their sphere, the influence common to all advances in civilization; the abuse that may be made of them – that even when indisputably made – proves nothing against their value.”

De Profundis

I can recall vividly the first time I heard Bach’s Pasacaglia and Fugue in C minor.  I was in my college’s top choir, and we were preparing for our spring trip.  Our first concert was in a large local church with a magnificent organ.  I grew up around a great old organ, but it was a small instrument from the late 1800s, an ancient frontier instrument.  It was not an instrument of great power.  The organ I was hearing was powerful.  Bach’s great work is under 10 minutes in an average performance.  The organist has great flexibility in the sounds he or she produces.  By the end of this performance, all the stops had been pulled, and I hear the instrument in its full glory.  Thirty-two feet of pipe rumbled, and I knew that bass was powerful and meant something meaningful.

Over the years, various instruments have been constructed to emulate these depths.  None have been fully successful.

Octobass

The first instrument made to explore these depths was the Octobass, a gigantic Bass constructed in the middle of the 1800s.  Berlioz described it as having the same range as a normal Bass with an extension to low C, but the surviving instruments seem to belie this fact and are actually an octave below this down to the bottom C of the 32’ range.  A few of these instruments are extant, but their use is limited to the 2-3 players who have them.  Pros – does not use wind.  Cons – 10 feet tall and extremely rare.

Octo-Contrabass and Octo-Contra-Alto Clarinets

These are the most promising of the sub-contrabass wind instruments due to the curious fact that clarinets need half of the normal pipe length to produce the same effect.  So, to produce the 32’ C, a clarinet would only need 16’ of tubing.  Sadly, these instruments were never used and only exist as prototypes.  There are several videos of a refurbished Octo-Contra-Alto Clarinet on YouTube.  Pros – reduced pipe length means a shorter instrument.  Cons- Only one working Octo-Contra-Alto Clarinet and no working Octo-Contrabass.

Sub-Contrabassoon

Despite rumors, this instrument has never existed, though I have found tantalizing evidence that someone is designing a working instrument. We shall see what becomes of that – if anything.  Pros – none.  Cons – does not exist.

Sub-Contrabass Tuba

These have been tried, and all failed.  In order for these to work, there needs to be 64’ of tubing as the normal Contrabass Tuba is already 32’ to 36’.  Pros- exists.  Cons – unplayable by human lungs.

Human capacity

What is evident is that mere mortals have a hard time producing the wind for such deep instruments, save potentially for the extra low clarinets.

Can humans actually here these notes?

The short answer is usually no.  Classical data says that human hearing stops at about 20Hz.  The lowest C of the 32’ range is about 16Hz.  However, the studies that determined this were flawed.  They used speakers to reproduce the sounds and the speakers themselves could not produce sounds below 20Hz.  With acoustic means, humans can hear down to at least 12Hz in ideal circumstances.

What does this mean?

It means that humans with I damaged ears can hear the notes, but they cannot be produced by humans (due to lung limitations) or by electronics (due to speaker limitations).  The only real option for producing these notes is by the Pipe Organ, which does not rely on lungs or speakers.

Orchestrationally, the 32’ range is a weapon that should only be pulled out rarely.  If at a sufficient volume, it will rumble the bowels of the audience.  It’s never guaranteed if these notes are even available, even if a Pipe Organ is present.