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Bassists Without Borders

Avant-garde art is often criticized for its complexity and self-indulgence, and for its disdain for matters beyond aesthetics. “Deep Tones for Peace,” an international musical project involving 13 high-profile bass players from around the world, might just be the most compelling argument yet against such criticism. The project, whose CD/DVD combo has just been made available from Kadima Collective, brings together sophisticated conceptual art, global social justice, refreshing accessibility and groundbreaking technology.

The project began in early 2007 as a conversation between Jean Claude Jones, a renowned Israeli bassist with French and Tunisian roots, and his American colleague, Barre Phillips, a jazz legend famous for having recorded the world’s first solo bass album in 1968. The two maestros discussed their feelings about the Middle Eastern conflict and decided to put together an international bass festival — a “rally for peace,” as Jones wrote in an e-mail to the Forward.

In April 2009, seven bassists in Jerusalem and another six in New York played a series of concerts separately as well as together, using satellite technology. The series culminated with a full-ensemble performance in Jerusalem at The Lab (Hama’abadah). As the Jerusalem crew took the stage, the projector screen behind them zoomed in on the New York studio — and the show began.

Now, the concert’s 47-minute centerpiece, “SLM for Telematic Contrabass Ensemble,” has been released as a CD, packaged along with a documentary film that features interviews, glimpses of rehearsals, and a plethora of additional footage. Extensive sleeve notes explain the intricate concept behind the composition, performance and photos. Despite the complexity of the music, the listener, equipped with the supplemental materials and context, is brought deep into the world of contemporary experimental music.

The name “Deep Tones for Peace” comes from the introduction to the sleeve notes, composed by New York’s visionary bassist and poet, William Parker. He writes about the “deep tone that is found at the root of the trees, trees that point upward towards the sky.” Parker continues in his poem “Invocation” — “may deep tones resonate in all human beings/may all rhythm arise out of concern for the universe/may we realize all life is innocent all life is precious/may all war stop immediately/may deep tones for peace echo and resonate across the universe.” Hypnotic, like his poem, the double bass serves as the subterranean foundation of rhythm. Its music, woven from the lowest humanly audible notes, is the core of the Deep Tone aesthetic.

The project’s featured work, “SLM,” is a joint composition of another American virtuoso, Mark Dresser, and a young experimental composer and conductor, Sarah Weaver. It takes its title from the three-letter root for peace, common to numerous languages, including the Hebrew “Shalom,” Arabic “Salaam” and Amharic “Selam.” Dresser composed melodic segments, while Weaver developed her own gestures for spontaneous conducting — that is, conducting of improvised music.

Dresser explained to the Forward: “SLM started with a low unison A by 13 bassists, a gesture of musical oneness and centering, that slowly transformed in sound and gesture into dynamic interdependence. The alternating of musical harmony between locations was a metaphor but also a property of telematics [the technique of playing over the Internet] in which we sought to create the illusion of synchrony even though we were about 6,000 miles apart.”

Peace was the furthest thing from my mind as I listened to the composition, with its opaque, low tones accompanied by a grinding, squealing and clashing that periodically subsided into tense harmonies. Wouldn’t the soothing sound of a ukulele or the dancing rhythm of a calypso steel drum be a better metaphor for peacemaking? In the documentary film accompanying the project, Irena-Kalina Goudeva, a Bulgarian-Danish project participant, explains that “this is really about…finding our center and expressing our highest self, our pure nature.”

Indeed, as SLM seems to imply, our quintessential humanity has little in common with happy and soothing sounds, but is inexplicably dark, complex and often violent, chaotic and discordant. Perhaps, then, an encounter with the cacophonous ebb and flow of contradictory individual voices is the opening for a whole new conversation. Uncanny in their humanlike physical proportions, melancholy even in their lighter tonalities, tugging and screeching, these 13 basses reframe the very concept of peace.

Yet, for a crowd of bassists dealing with subjects of such complexity and heaviness, all through the project, musicians were having

a ball. DVD footage of rehearsals and performances captures a great deal of laughs, moments of warmth and comradery, which are particularly evident in the recording of the improvised duet of Jones and Phillips that took place at Tel Aviv’s famed music club Levontin 7.

In addition to collaborative pieces, each musician had a chance to perform solo works, many of which are featured on the DVD. As Bertram Turetzky, a 77-year-old Jewish pioneer of jazz and classical bass — and teacher of Dresser — noted at the opening of his set, “It’s great to see different talents and different possibilities of this noble but misunderstood instrument.” He proceeded to play while reciting a poem by African-American writer David Henderson about one of the world’s great peace activists, poet-politician Pablo Neruda. The eclectic roll call continued as Goudeva sang in Bulgarian while chanting and playing a work composed specifically for the occasion. Jones alternated convoluted jazz lines with chaotic knockings up and down his instrument, as if banging on doors of new tonal possibilities. Other renowned performers who appeared included Henry Grimes, best known for his recordings with jazz luminaries Charles Mingus, Thelonious Monk, and Pharoah Sanders; Chi-Chi Nwanoku, the British-Nigerian virtuoso who is one of the most sought-after performers in England, and Thierry Barbé, principal bass of the Paris National Opera’s Orchestra.

Regrettably, however, no Muslim musicians took part in the project. Dresser sadly noted in the interview, “I had thought that the promise of telematic performance was that we could transcend physical borders, only to learn that the borders of the mind are much greater than any geographical boundary.”

Yet, the project is far from being over. The website of “Deep Tones for Peace” contains technology that allows bass players from all over the world to broadcast live their musical meditations on peace. As Parker’s “Invocation” poem implies, this music will continue, and evolve, being far from a mere aesthetic gesture and instead a complex, avant-garde prayer, proceeding from these simple words, loaded with the kind of emotional depth that perhaps only a bass can bear: “may sound lead us to peace/may peace lead us to harmony/may sound elevate us to understanding/all people all sound/may the sound we make change the world.”

Jake Marmer writes about poetry and music for the Forward. More of his work can be found at

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