Tag Archives: translation

Back to the Bassics

I recently acquired a Palatino VE-550 electric upright bass. Well, I’ve been playing it a bit every day since I got it (this past Tuesday) and although I have affirmed Brian Bromberg’s statement that electric and acoustic bass are almost two different instruments both requiring equal and separate attention to master, I find myself experiencing a lot of muscle, sense and touch memory. Bear in mind, I last seriously played acoustic bass about 29 years ago (circa 1983). Never actually owned one back then, just borrowed them from elementary, junior and senior high school orchestra programs – and played pretty consistently from age 11-18. In fact, the only reason I switched to electric bass in the first place was that Dennis Mack at Kenton High School? (who recruited me when I was in 8th grade to play with the high school jazz band) decided I wasn’t loud enough on the upright, and put his electric Epiphone (it was like the Jack Casady model) in my hands.

Still played some orchestral stuff after that (even successfully auditioned for the Lima Area Youth Symphony, and played on Ohio Northern University Band Camp and West Torrance High School?’s recordings (Woody Herman’s Woodchoppers Ball and Wagner’s Elsa’s Processional from Lohengrin), but my primary focus was electric bass from that time forward. It was the electric bass that got me the Louis Armstrong Jazz Award, I reckon, and bass I ended up playing in bands (along with other things, of course). When I graduated from high school, I said goodbye to the loaned bass, and rarely looked back.

Always WANTED an upright, of course, but situations never arose making it possible. Besides, there were significant other things to acquire: multi-track recording equipment, amplifiers, digital pianos, twelve string guitars, etc.

Later, when I applied to Berklee, because I didn’t really have anything that featured virtuoso bass playing, I shot for a scholarship as a voice principal, and was accepted as such. However, after the first day of placement interviews and auditions with the voice department, I realized there were (at that time, anyway) serious limitations to being a Voice principal at a school where almost every waking moment was spent looking for a jam session. So I picked up my electric bass, strolled into the bass department and asked for an audition. They threw sight reading (charts, lead sheets and notation), ear training, improvisation and other stuff at me, which I breezed through. They were anxious to have me in the bass department (and imagine how thrilled they would have been if I’d been able to double on acoustic bass!). Unfortunately, after a wee bit of research, they and I realized that changing my principal instrument from voice to bass would cancel my current scholarship, and since the award period was closed for that year, there’s no way I would have received another scholarship (on bass). So in order to stay at Berklee, I stayed a Voice principal. Not a perfect fit for me, or for Berklee, in retrospect.

Fast forward 23 years. About a year ago I broke down and bought an electric fretless bass, and I’ve been having fun with that and been pretty successfully translating fretted to fretless. But as I said before, electric bass and acoustic bass (and here I am, with a new to me equivalent of an upright bass) are the same, but really quite different, instruments. Yes, I’m experiencing muscle and sense memory of playing; but some of that memory is remembering how I had to unlearn certain things from the acoustic in order to successfully play electric. One of the biggest things, for me, is the switch between using the fourth and third fingers (pinkie and ring fingers). Because of the difference in neck length, you use different fingers, and switch positions in different places. String bending is another thing that’s different. And to be honest, in the playing I was doing back in school, there wasn’t a lot of high register work; that’s something that I learned on electric via Ray Brown’s Bass Method for upright, ironically. Plus, the electric upright width and depth are so different from a standard acoustic bass that you have to modify the traditional stance and instrument angle, etc., to accommodate that difference. So it’s like a native English speaker who became fluent in French and now has to go back to thinking in English (or really, thinking in both languages simultaneously). And I haven’t even started thinking about revisiting bowing. LOL.

It’s slow going. You need callouses in different places on your fingers, the hand and arm angle are different, the tricks and shortcuts you learn on one instrument may or may not be applicable (or even possible) on the other. Every day it gets easier to span the gap, but not being able to transparently shift from one to the other, without the aid of mirrors, so to speak, is tough.

However, it’s good to know that this experience confirms one thing for certain: I am a bass player. It’s not just what I do. It’s who I am. And that reassurance is something in this day and age, I can tell you.

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Tolkein’s world of fabled creatures
did not speak to me
of my own sense of purpose,
or responsibility

and so its strange translation
onto film I did not mind;
except the Ents and Bombadil,
who Jackson left behind.

But Earthsea, in which my own life
found endless parallel,
and traced a journey like my own
through a personal hell,

when wrought onscreen seemed stale and trite,
its lessons left unspoke,
and mists around its message
lost, somewhere on a fake Roke.

13 DEC 2004

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My Mother Tongue vs. My Grandmother’s Tongue

After having spent a number of days contemplating the connection between the Vedic and Celtic stream beds, via Indo-European language, and receiving a number of illuminating comments to my queries posted at several Celtic culture sites, I now find myself struggling upon the horns of a different, but related, dilemma.

The bottom line is this. I am a writer in English. That is the language in which my fluency and mastery can be expressed. Like Yeats, I question whether it is possible to achieve a true “literary mastery” of more than one language in a single lifetime, exceptions like Vladimir Nabokov notwithstanding. You see, learning another language at a rudimentary level is not enough — my desire is not to pass myself as a native speaker for the purposes of travel, or even to enjoy works in their native tongues — these obstacles can be relatively easily overcome with a modicum of study. The issue for me is to become fluent enough to write in another language. And in order for that to occur, I need to consider that in order to read a lot of what I’ve written in English, the reader must be pretty fluent in English. Otherwise, much of the nuance, the plays with language, the subtlely of innuendo and colloquialism, are likely to be overlooked, or even lost.

On my mother’s side, English is for the most part the lingua franca. As second-generation naturalized Irish, I can only assume that any Irish language proficiency was diluted by the time of our arrival on these shores, primarily due to the British efforts before and during the time of naturalization to replace Irish with English, even to the extent of banning the use of Irish. But on my father’s side, I need not go back that far to find non-English speakers, at least through my father’s matrilineage. My grandmother spoke Plattdeusch (Low German, or Pennsylvania Dutch if you will) during her childhood, and was forced to learn English in American schools as a child. My father learned this language in order to speak with his grandparents, who had naturalized from Bern, Switzerland and spoke no English. As a result, I have less trouble recognizing German words (albeit not High German) than many other languages. I also tend to get at least the Low German accent right. On the German-German (opposed to Swiss-German) side, my grandfather had no German. His family had been in the United States since 1741, fought in the American Revolution and so on, and was for all intents and purposes completely Americanized.

So the result is that English is my Mother Tongue. It is the basis for my understanding of the world. While certainly I have an affinity for a number of foreign expressions and modes of understanding based on my study of those languages (Latin, Spanish, Irish, Sanskrit, German) or my exposure to them (Plattdeusch, Hawaiian, Creole) I will remain only a “literary speaker” of English. Sad that this is true, it seems to me. Perhaps that is too self-limiting.

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The Vessel

Sometimes it seems that the brittle clay
vessel used to carry the clear water
from inspiration’s well is so fragile,
flawed and useless, such an ill-suited thing;
the priceless, sacred fluid it transports
accents each error, highlights weaknesses
that the shadows hide; in its clarified
light, such a carrier seems unworthy.

Such is the poet – from strands of nothing
weaving a tenuous basket of thought
to hold the spirit of the universe;
and once the spark of creation is freed,
they return, bitter and worn, to plain lives,
that seem so uninspiring and normal.

Sometimes it seems that the poet should
be able to fashion the world they see
(in flashing dreams and moments of vision)
from their own lulling, ordinary life,
and at times, when the morning light is good,
to wake and find the universe alive,
vibrant to the touch, pulsing with meaning
in every small flicker of dawn breeze.

For me, that does happen now and again.
But more regularly, it takes a lot
of looking to see what is really there,
of seeking beyond old and broken pots,
where the language of whole universe
hides. And there I find a poem, sometimes.
Most of the time, however, it finds me;
and I try to not spill too much of it.

21 DEC 2002

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