January 15, 2014 | Posted in:Music
An upright bass is a noble instrument. At nearly 6 feet tall, it is taller than many men – with an even deeper voice. I met one in December, and I fell in love. Somehow he fit in my small car, and together we drove across the farmlands of New Jersey, up the dirty factory-laden turnpike, and into my tree-filled little town. I helped him out onto the street. I bid him to lean against my car while I closed the driver’s side door.
And then he fell over.
There was a sickening crack. A jangle of strings. A thump. A sickening feeling in my stomach as I surveyed the lumpy music bag on the street. I knew without looking inside that the worst had happened.
I had snapped my upright bass’s neck right in front of my own house.
I hauled the shards of my musical dreams up the stairs to my apartment, trying to ignore the clanking and discordant jangles. Every step had its own dying noise.
Unfortunately, I needed to be as quiet as possible, because my significant other was sleeping. He wasn’t supposed to know I had an upright bass, you see.
Because it was a gift for him.
I had eye surgery before Thanksgiving. It was supposed to be run-of-the-mill Lasik, but at the last minute, the surgeon decided to do a much more invasive procedure on my right eye. This is my dominant eye, my photography eye. I don’t know why I said yes.
What followed is an adventure – still in progress – in which we wait for the entire surface of my cornea to grow back. It was painful. I couldn’t see very well. I couldn’t drive to my appointments. I spent a lot of time in a dark room with my eyes closed. Lou was unfailingly wonderful, driving me to places, getting me food, waking me up to put eyedrops in, making me an eyepatch (yarr!), and listening to my kvetching about how my eye still wasn’t healed yet. (After 7 weeks, this conversation is still ongoing.)
I decided to get him a gift in gratitude. He was a minor viola prodigy in his youth and can play nearly any instrument with surprising dexterity. When I started to learn the cello, he wrote sheet music for me by ear, because we decided we should duet Pink Floyd and Rasputina. I noticed that he preferred to pluck my cello more than bow it, and he often played the blues.
Obviously the man needed a bass.
Upright or double basses are very expensive because they are so huge. My bass is not even a full-size, and it is nearly 72 inches tall – before I even extend its foot-peg. That’s a lot of wood – both to fabricate and to ship. I didn’t want to buy a $3,000 instrument when Lou would probably just pluck it at night. However, a nice young man on craigslist sold me his spare for $250 because it had a small defect.
A tiny crack in the neck.
He said it could be repaired. I asked him if a luthier had looked at it, and he said his music teacher had done so. It was shallow, right at the part of the neck where it meets the body. I didn’t mind. The odds of that crack breaking the neck with our minimal amount of play were small.
Little did I know I would be looking at the pieces of a double bass in my living room just an hour later.
By the way, it turns out Lasik eyes can cry.
I hauled the body into our library, texted and cried to my friends, and started googling. I had been prepared to deal with a crack. I wasn’t helpless. I could work with wood, glue, stone, anything.
If it was just a crack, I might have been calmer. But there was more. The bridge, which is the piece of wood that holds up the strings. The soundpost, which is a cylinder of wood precisely placed inside the bass and held between the walls with tension alone. And then I’d have to restring it and tune it.
Truthfully, this was Lou’s forte. He was always adjusting my cello bridge, obsessively retuning our instruments, geeking out over which strings or varnish or bows to use. And the bass was just so big. Even with its neck snapped off, the body was over 3 feet long and two feet wide, heavy, and for gods’ sakes, it had a soundpost rolling around in it. I might not be able to fix it alone.
If I gave him a broken double bass, would I be giving him work, or would I be giving him a project?
That night, I asked him if he wanted the good news or the bad news. Lou being Lou, he said he wanted the bad news.
Me: “I dropped it on the street and it shattered into pieces.”
Lou: “Uh oh. What’s the good news?”
Me: “I got you an upright bass.”
He was game. We examined the remains. It was a clean break – the neck still fit into the bass’s body with only a slight gap.
Our options were gluing it or nailing it. Nailing it was permanent and would mar the instrument forever. We decided to glue it. Off to Home Depot we went, for hide glue and clamps. They didn’t have real hide glue – the granules you cook on your stove – so we bought Titebond Original. It, and hide glue, dissolve in water, so if we wanted to undo our glue job, we could. Crazy glue and epoxies are permanent.
We did a test run with the three clamps because we would only have half an hour to work before the glue set. It was a good thing we did the test run.
The clamps didn’t fit. Now, I don’t mean we needed more clamps or different clamps. Oh, that would be easy.
No, the problem is that the main clamp needed to hold the fingerboard and the neck onto the body. What’s the fingerboard, you say? It is a perfectly curved black bar beneath the strings. Perfectly curved. Why? Imperfection changes the sound because the strings will hit any flaws when they vibrate against the board.
A perfectly curved surface can’t hold a clamp. The clamp has nothing to grip. Nothing.
Lou wanted to give up, but, like the musical elements were his forte, getting it DONE was mine. I went to the hardware store and got zip ties. I pulled out every piece of double-sided tape, caulking, and putty I had. (And I have a lot, being an artist. Trust me.) Anything to give this clamp purchase.
I put two non-slip chair foot pads on the back and front of the bass, then I added double-sided, sticky mounting squares on top of them. This gave the clamp something to ‘grip’ and added friction. For support, I ringed the area with grey caulking putty so there’d be resistance if the clamp started to slip.
We tightened it. We waited. It held.
Lou was dubious when he saw my contraption, but I was overjoyed. We disassembled the clamps, painted on the glue, put the clamps back on, and cleared away the excess glue that started leaking from the cracks. We waited one hour. We unclamped it. We let it cure for 24 hours.
And when we picked it up, the neck HELD. We glued that biscuit-loving thing back on, and it WORKED.
I am Dr. Frankenstein.
We were far from finished. The strings were loose, the bridge was off, and the soundpost was rolling around in the instrument like it didn’t have a care in the world. What’s a soundpost? It is a wooden cylinder that spans between the front and the back of the bass. Nothing but those two wooden walls hold it in place. If it doesn’t fit exactly and snugly between them, it will fall down. Its purpose is to vibrate after you agitate the strings, thus vibrating the air inside the instrument and projecting the sound. Moving it slightly in any direction will change your instrument’s tone.
So this was a delicate task requiring extreme dexterity and extreme precision. In the dark. Awesome.
We tied a string around the post, then put it back in. What followed was an hour-long, two-person fishing expedition involving two twisted wire hangers, a dental mirror, a compact mirror on a string, a flash light, and a starving cat crying at the door.
We used the string to pull the post upright inside the instrument, then used the wire hangers to nudge it into place. There was a very faint circle on the wood where it had stood before, thanks to time and dust. However, once we got it to that spot, we had to stand it up, and it had to stand exactly straight up and touch the upper wall of the bass, or it wouldn’t be snug, and it’d fall over.
Oh yeah – do you the back of a bass is curved? That means the bottom of the soundpost is also angled. If it is placed at the wrong angle, it won’t fit!
We got it in. Lou didn’t think it was snug enough. He tried to turn it. He knocked it over. We started over. Finally, we got it. It took an hour.
Next – the bridge. That’s not hard. It’s much easier to do in a bass than in a cello because the bridge is bigger. You can see leaning or off-center problems more quickly. We stringed it. We started to tune it. I tightened the strings, wincing at every creak, waiting for the neck to snap back off from the tension and impale me in my newly lasered eyes.
It did not.
But then I heard the dreaded words.
“We have to unstring it. I put the bridge on backwards.”
There was no way I was unstringing this bass after all the work and anxiety of tuning it the first time. Women’s intuition also reminded me that the notes of a double bass are not the same as a cello or a viola. I looked at him. I asked carefully, “What makes you think that?”
“Well, G should be here, but G is over there, and–”
Deadly calm. “Let’s pull up a picture on the internet of where the notes are on a double bass. And double check.”
“Fine.” A minute passes. “Oh.”
“So, I did it wrong, but in the right way, and the bridge isn’t backwards at all. I just thought the G was the first string, and it’s the last string. So we don’t have to take off the bridge. We just have to retune it.”
That was all I needed to hear.
We tuned it. We hoisted it up. We plucked it. We bowed it.
It was alive.
It now sits in our living room in its own stand, looking like the beautiful steampunk artpiece it is. I love the brass key-shaped auto-tuners, and I love the sound. Lou plays the blues on it sometimes. He improvised a little tune that I composed further. We’ve decided it is the themesong for our new kitten.
We have a new bow coming for it. Lou still plays my cello because it is more convenient than unclipping the bass, but I don’t mind.
I write stories about Art. My second novel, Artists of Song and String, is about Josanne, a singer who is trying to find a new voice, and Celia, a celloist who is trying to hold on to her old voice. An obsessed fan of Celia’s has taken her hostage and is trying to change her music to see more of himself in it. She resists, and he withholds Miraval, her beloved instrument, from her as ransom. Miraval is her only friend. When he threatens to destroy her, it nearly destroys Celia, too.
I didn’t need to break a double bass to know that it would ruin her. I didn’t even need to be a musician. I think most people, novelist or not, would feel sorrow when something beautiful is destroyed. And this double bass was unquestionably beautiful. I was the last person to hear it play, and that means something. It passed into my stewardship, full of potential, and I squandered it in the worst way by letting it shatter on my street.
Though it’s been fixed, it doesn’t sound the same as before. It could be that the young man who sold it to me played an exceptional piece, or that he had more skill than we do, or that the acoustics of his music room are different than our living room. It could be that the bass, once resurrected, did not come back the same, like all the stories of old. I don’t know. Honestly, I can’t even remember what it sounded like. I heard it sing for 60 seconds back in December. It’s like remembering someone had a pretty face, but not being able to name any of their features anymore.
It’s alright. Maybe it played well that day because it knew it was dying. Maybe some other bass spirit took its place when we brought it back to life. It doesn’t matter. We play it, we enjoy it. I saw the sunlight sparkle off its brass tuners the other day, and it was beautiful.