Bertram Turetzky: Contrabass Pioneer
Lack Of Classical Bass Repertoire
BT: So I was thinking about developing the solo bass repertoire, and people said, "Well, if you want to get a lot of pieces, you got pay a lot of money to get commissions." I said, "I don't have any money. I have children." So, I started looking at the bass, and I thought, "This is a big instrument. It can do more than a lot of people think it can." So, I looked at pizzicato technique and I found that by using my thumb instead of my fingers, I could get a guitar effect.
When I played with the Greek band, their big instrument was the bouzuki . I learned how to do a fast pizzicato with two fingers to approximate that sound. I was invited to Wesleyan University. They had a big Indian music program and I heard this fantastic sitar player and I thought, "I've got to learn to do some of that." I found I could use the D string as a drone, and then do hammer-ons on the G string to get that sound. And I began to go around, to show composers these different things I could do on the bass. Some of them began writing pieces for me.
AAJ: So, the development of all of these extended techniques, which you codified in The Contemporary Contrabass went hand-in-hand with attracting composers to write for you?
BT: That's exactly right. How else was I going to get a piece if I didn't have any money?
AAJ: You were playing in the symphony at that time?
BT: I was playing in several symphonies. Finally, I got good enough; I'm trying to remember what year, certainly in the 1950s, to play in the Hartford Symphony, which worked out very well for me.
AAJ: When did you become the principal bassist?
BT: I only became principal occasionally. I became assistant principal on the first chair after awhile. What happened was, I formed a chamber group called the Hartt Chamber Players, because that was the name of the music school I attended. We had this chamber group and we did a summer series, playing in libraries around town, playing throughout New England, and one day, one of the angels of the symphony, this very rich insurance man, his name was Francis Goodwin II, I think. He heard me play an arrangement of Richard Strauss' "Til Eulenspiegel" for five pieces, and it was a tour-de-force, you know, a real hot arrangement. He heard it, and he was obviously real impressed because he called the symphony and asked, "Why is Mr. Turetzky in the back of the bass section and not in the front?"
So, suddenly, I was called by the Union, and I had an audition for assistant principal bass. I found out, later, that Mr. Goodwin had arranged for that. So I have the audition which was fun, because the other bassist auditioning was the principal bassist's son. And I won the audition.
Anyway, all the symphony work started to take time away from other things. There's just a couple of things I'll talk about very briefly: a lot of classical music to me is all about ego. I don't like ego. I think if you study the history of the world, you'll find that ego gets us into a lot of trouble. So, I started liking music that's more democratic.
I always liked spending time in libraries. In the music library at music school, I started to find a lot of early music, pre-Bach. So I'm getting into that field, a lot of things are happening, I've got the chamber group, I play in New York occasionally, playing in festivals. Then in 1959, I think it was, Bill Sydeman wrote a piece called, "For Double Bass Alone." It was an unaccompanied bass piece. Well, for a string player, working without a piano, you really up there without any clothes on. Without a net. You've got to do it, though. That's why the unaccompanied Bach cello pieces are fabulous pieces.
So, [oboist] Josef Marx calls me and says, "There's going to be a concert in 1960 at the Greenwich House for the Festival Of American Music, and it's going to be on WNYC and I think it would be a good idea if you played the Sydeman piece there." I said, "I'm on. I'm there." There was no talk about money, I just know I have to play, and I figured, if you want to make it, if you can make it in New York, you can make it anywhere, like the song goes.
So, David Tudor, the pianist who was associated with John Cage was backstage, and he played a piece with the violin, a wonderful piece that I later played with the violin several times. David, was very nice to me, he knew I was very nervous. So I walk out on stage, and Edgard Varese is in the audience looking at me. And it scared the hell out of me. I mean, I was beginning to have a career, I was playing in New England and New York, and it was very intense. I had a recording of his music with "Octandre" on it, which I later played for himbut it shook me up a little bit.
Well, the performance went. I had fears at first, but I pulled it off. It had a lot of energy, and Varese came and shook my hand, and I met some other people, and it was beginning to happen. I met Ralph Shapey who was there, and he wrote a piece for me, and in 1960 I played in The Music Of Our Time, which was a very big series, it was at the 92nd St Y, and everybody was there.
Every time you play a contemporary piece composers are there, and if they think you're good they say, "I have a piece for the bass." Or, "I'd love to write a piece for you." And so it started. Did I plan it to happen that way? A little bit, a little bit. I always say it was an improvisation. I wrote letters to composers asking, "Do you have a piece for the bass?" And when I married Nancy, she typed them out, we got lists of composers. I mean we really went at it; I wanted to have a career.
But with the symphony, if the conductor got lost, they'd blame the bassists. The bassists are always too loud. The only symphony that doesn't get any shit like that is the Vienna Philharmonic, and I have a former student who plays there. I went to two parties there and they said, "No conductor ever tells us to play softer. So, I met Henry Cowell, I met Stefan Volpe.
AAJ: You started playing what we now call world music around that time, correct?
BT: Well, I was developing a career as a soloist and with chamber music, but I had to stay in the orchestra, because at a certain point, kids came along. One night in the symphony, a sort of darker skinned guy than me came over, and he was dressed in a tuxedo, and he asked me if I was Bert Turetzky, and if I could play in 5/8 and 7/8, and I said, "Yeah, why do you ask?"
He said he had a Greek band, and that was the kind of meters they played. He said he needed a bassist, and I said, "Well, my wife said she's pregnant this morning. Do you pay a lot of money?" They paid double scale. So I became a Greek musician. One day we're playing and one of the musicians started speaking Greek to me .
So, what I'm telling you is that I played Polish music, I played Greek music, I played Klezmer music, I played Italian music. When I read biographies of musicians, I don't see anyone with that kind of background; you see, that's why I say I'm blessed. People ask somebody like Vinny Golia, why does he like to play with Turetzky, and he says, "Well, he's got all kinds of stuff; he's not the typical free jazz player. He's got waves of stuff."
Jim Hall was there, Richard Davis was there. Richard Davis studied with David Walter, my bass teacher at the time. Jim Hall was a friend of Don Erb, I played a composition by Don Erb, so he came to see his friend, hear his piece.
Oh, on the way down, Nancy forgot, or I forgot, to pack my tuxedo pants, so I'm wearing a five dollar pair of black chino pants with my tuxedo. My wife gave me a kiss on the cheek before I went out, so I've got red lipstick all over my face, I mean I really look like a clown out there.
So I went onstage and took a bow, and start to play the unaccompanied bass piece, and, I'm going to start with an up-bow, which is very difficult to control, and I look into the audience and several of my friends are starting to cringe. Well, I made it work and the composer of the piece is thrilled. Fred Zimmerman, the great bass teacher from Julliard and the New York Philharmonic, is there, with 25 of his students, and he liked it very much, which was important. He and I became good friends.
Well, we stayed up all night to read the reviews in the morning, and the reviews were very good. I was considered to be quite a success. I never really thought, what would happen to my career if I had gotten bad reviews, you know. My teaching position at the school, my job with the symphony. I didn't realize what a chance I was taking [laughs].
AAJ: You were ready though, right?
BT: I was ready. I was ready, and it was a good, an interesting program. I had a piece with bass and vibraphone, and a piece with a bass and flute that I played with Nancy that went swimmingly, the electronic piece. Then we did a piece with saxophone, alto flute, percussion, bass, soprano and a narrator off-stage who spoke many languages, so it was really quite stunning.
So, then things started coming around, we had two boys by then, (who have done very well for themselves. We're very proud of all of our children), and, more records came, people wanted me to do this, do that. But, there were economic problems. Between the school and the symphony, I was making a decent living, but I was always running, running. When I wasn't running, I had commercial work to do.
So, one of the people who I had wrote to early on said he was writing a piece that the bass would figure in quite prominently . So the International Society for Contemporary Music was putting on a concert and they were going to feature this piece of music. The guy's name was Robert Erickson, and he became one of the first professors at UCSD. He wrote me and said, you should really be out in California, he could get me a half- time job at Mills College [Bay Area]. I said, "I've got two kids. I couldn't do that."