Nathan Bontrager

Cello and viola da gamba

Tag: cello

Celebrate Carl

In honor of the upcoming Broadcloth tour with Carl Testa and a duo performance this coming Saturday featuring the man and myself, I’d like to offer you these two videos from Carl’s new solo set.  Come hear us at Bru Cafe in New Haven Saturday evening as the April Uncertainty Series Festival marches on!

First Piece:

Duo in Berlin

One of my favorite moments from the European tour was a somewhat random and roundabout connection to a fantastic violinist/vocalist in Berlin, Simon Jakob Drees. Simon and I met through a referral from a German Klezmer bassist I met at a summer backyard jam session in Hamden, CT of all places. Simon and I had a great connection musically and I greatly appreciated his generous and humble spirit. He does very interesting work fusing improvisation and music therapy. You can learn more about him here:

Here’s a shot from a duo performance we did in Berlin at the Quiet Cue series.


Don’t forget, if you’re in CT, Dr. Caterwaul’s has two shows this week.  Wednesday at BAR with the David Wax Museum and Thursday at the Outer Space with Andru Bemis and Elisabeth Pixley-Fink.

The Stone video posted

Many thanks to Kinan Faham, a cello student of mine and talented photographer/videographer, for filming Broadcloth’s performance last month at the Stone.  The entire set is posted on YouTube, follow this link for a video playlist:

While you’re at it, check out Kinan’s personal website:

Stay tuned for some upcoming performances and compositions in the works.

Bunraku and new audio

Ever since performing Luciano Berio’s Sequenza for solo cello I have been intrigued by pieces which call for the performer to approach the cello as if it were a different instrument.  In the case of the Berio Sequenza, the performer must master left hand pizzicato techniques which are accompanied by drumming patterns on the body of the instrument using the right hand fingers.  These percussive elements borrow from Kandyan drumming from Sri Lankan.  Berio wrote the Sequenza for Roham de Saram, himself Sri Lankan and a master of the Kandyan drum.

Rohan de Saram

I came across a repertoire list today with some interesting works for solo cello including one by Japanese composer Toshiro Mayuzumi entitled Bunraku.  Bunraku is a form of Japanese puppet theater which features music played on the Shamisen.  Mayuzumi seeks to emulate the technique of the Shamisen on the cello through aggresive and resonant pizzicato techniques (the Shamisen is played with a very large plectrum).  I purchased a recording by cellist Wenn-Sinn Yang from a disc that features many of the most dominant works for solo cello from the 20th century (Crumb, Hindemith, the “Sacher” pieces).  I find Bunraku to be a welcome mix of tonal/folk and modern classical harmonies especially in contrast to the extremely atonal (and extremely wonderful) pieces that round out the album.

Speaking of mixing styles, I have also posted another recording of Broadcloth, this time from a recent performance at Audubon Strings in New Haven.  The piece begins with a free improvisation and moves to a section determined by the pitches of the open strings of the violin family.  You can listen to Broadcloth on the Media page and Bunraku via YouTube below.

Turn Your Computer Into Dr. Beat

I have always had a perennial problem with metronomes. I hate to shell out for expensive ones so I end up purchasing devices of poor quality which malfunction within months, if I’m that lucky. In the end, I probably have spent as much on repeatedly buying cheap metronomes as I would on the infamous and powerful Dr. Beat:

I have found, however, that with the exception of the large library of rhythm patterns built into the Dr. Beat, you can get all that you need for free on your computer.  For a basic metronome I use an online one found at this address:  Your BPM (beats per minute) selection is limited but I have not found this to be an issue.  One of the best elements of the Dr. Beat is that it is LOUD and can therefore be used in ensemble rehearsals.  Granted, your rehearsal would need to be near your computer, but with an online metronome you can make things as loud as necessary and there are no batteries to worry about draining.

Another big perk of the Dr. Beat is the great range of sustained pitches it can produce which is of great assistance in intonation exercises, scales, and tuning.  I have not found a satisfactory online option for this but with a little bit of creativity you can turn your computer into a powerful pitch generation machine.  You must first download Audacity, which is a very basic and open source audio editing program, here:  Audacity is generally laughed at by folks who do any sort of remotely real audio recording or production which I find unmerited as its purpose is for small-scale, unprofessional activities.  It is completely sufficient for the sort of use we are speaking of here.

After you have installed Audacity, follow these instructions to produce the sustained pitch of  your choice:

  1. Open the Generate menu
  2. Choose -> Tone…
  3. Go to this website:
  4. Find the pitch on the chart that you wish to have sustained (the columns refer to various octave transpositions with column 4 being the middle C octave, you will need to make note of the number to the right of the pitch letter name you wish to sustain, the number refers to frequency in Hertz)
  5. In the Tone Generator window that opened in Audacity select Sine on the Waveform drop box and insert the frequency number for the chart into the Frequency/Hz box, you do not need to adjust the Amplitude
  6. Click Generate Tone
  7. Open the Edit menu
  8. Choose -> Select -> Select All (or just hit Ctrl-A)
  9. Open the Effects menu
  10. Choose -> Repeat…
  11. The default number of repeats should be 10 which is sufficient, click OK
  12. Press play and you should have 5 minutes and 30 seconds of sustained pitch bliss!  (you can make this longer or shorter with the Repeat effect)

If you know you want to change repeatedly between sustained pitches you can generate more than one and just Solo the pitch you want to focus on (if, for example, you are doing intonation work on a piece that fluctuates between two tonal centers, etc.).  I have an Audacity file saved with all the chromatic pitches sustained and simply choose the one I need at the moment which gets rid of all the set up time.  This method can be quite useful for tuning but don’t let it take the place of developing your ability to hear if the interval of a 5th between your strings is in tune.

New Audio Added

Check out the ‘Media’ page for a recording I made last year of Arvo Pärt’s Fratres for Cello and Piano.  This piece, made especially popular when Johnny Greenwood used it for the soundtrack in “There Will Be Blood”, is one of many instrumentations Pärt arranged of the original work Fratres.  The piece involves a simple melody harmonized in a very organized fashion.  Following a period of musical silence, Pärt wrote almost entirely in this style which he termed tintinnabuli.  While the music produced sounds quite ethereal, the process which precedes it is very ordered and formulaic. 

In this particular arrangement, the piano plays the melody in various inversions which automatically requires a change in harmony (based on the tintinnabulation system) which, in turn, causes changes in character and timbre.  The cello, using a great variety of techniques from arpeggiation to double stops to false harmonics, mostly provides a timbral backdrop to the primary material in the piano.

To gain an appreciation for the spiritual fascination with this mysterious and unconventional character in our larger culture, see this interview conducted by the Icelandic musician Björk for the BBC: