Musicians Play Bach on the Octobass, the Gargantuan String Instrument Invented in 1850

Take a look at the live per­for­mance above of a Johann Sebas­t­ian Bach cha­conne. See that mon­strous stringed instru­ment in the back? The one that looks like a movie prop? It’s real, and it’s called the octo­bass, a triple bass made in 1850 by pro­lif­ic French instru­ment mak­er and inven­tor Jean-Bap­tiste Vuil­laume, whom Ger­man vio­lin mak­er Corilon calls “the most sig­nif­i­cant vio­lin mak­er of mod­ern times.”

The huge instru­ment can play a full octave below the stan­dard dou­ble bass and cre­ate sound down to 16 Hz, at the low­est thresh­old of human hear­ing and into the realm of what’s called infra­sound. The octo­bass is so large that play­ers have to stand on a plat­form, and use spe­cial keys on the side of the instru­ment to change the strings’ pitch since the neck is far too high to reach. (See this pho­to of a young boy dwarfed by an octo­bass for scale.)

One of two playable repli­cas of the orig­i­nal three octo­bass­es Vuil­laume made resides at the Musi­cal Instru­ment Muse­um (MIM) in Phoenix, AZ. In the video below, MIM cura­tor Col­in Pear­son gets us up close to the gar­gan­tu­an bass, cre­at­ed, he tells us, to “add a low end rum­ble to any large orches­tra.” That it does.

The descrip­tion of the video just below advis­es you to “turn up your subs” to hear the demon­stra­tion by Nico Abon­do­lo, dou­ble bass play­er of the LA Cham­ber orches­tra. (Abon­do­lo is also prin­ci­ple bass for sev­er­al Hol­ly­wood orches­tras, and he came to MIM to record sam­ples of the octo­bass for the Hunger Games sound­track.) As you’ll see in the video, the octo­bass is so mas­sive, it takes five peo­ple to move it.

Abon­do­lo plays the octo­bass with both his fin­gers and with the 3‑stringed instru­men­t’s spe­cial­ly made bow, and demon­strates its sys­tem of keys and levers. “Play­ing the instru­ment is a twofold, or maybe three­fold phys­i­cal exer­tion,” he remarks. It’s also a jour­ney into a past where “peo­ple were as crazy, or cra­zier about music than we are now.” Per­haps need­less to say, the instru­men­t’s bulk and the awk­ward phys­i­cal move­ments required to play it mean that it can­not be played at faster tem­pos. And if the first thing that comes to mind when you hear Abon­do­lo strum those low bass notes is the theme from Jaws, you’re not alone.

A num­ber of oth­er musi­cians vis­it­ing the octo­bass at MIM took the oppor­tu­ni­ty to goof around on the com­i­cal­ly over­sized bass and play their ver­sions of the omi­nous shark approach music (above). You won’t get the full effect of the instru­ment unless you’re lis­ten­ing with a qual­i­ty sub­woofer with a very low bass response, and even then, almost no sub—consumer or pro—can han­dle the low­est pitch the octo­bass is capa­ble of pro­duc­ing. But if you were to stand in the same room while some­one played the huge triple bass, you’d cer­tain­ly feel its low­est reg­is­ter rum­bling through you.

via Laugh­ing Squid

Relat­ed Con­tent:

The Sto­ry of the Bass: New Video Gives Us 500 Years of Music His­to­ry in 8 Min­utes

100 Great Bass Riffs Played in One Epic Take: Cov­ers 60 Years of Rock, Jazz and R&B

Jazz Leg­end Jaco Pas­to­rius Gives a 90 Minute Bass Les­son and Plays Live in Mon­tre­al (1982)

The Neu­ro­science of Bass: New Study Explains Why Bass Instru­ments Are Fun­da­men­tal to Music

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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