Sunday, June 3, 2012

Back to Bass-ics

As I near completion of my PhD Thesis write up I realised I needed a distraction from the mental ardour and daily grind. A form of relaxation that was not stagnation, so I thought I might do something manual - a different type of craftsmanship.

Being an amateur jazz musician and playing an eclectic mix of instruments from around the world, I decided that I would build an upright electric bass. Having played saxophone in quintets, I naturally hear bass lines in jazz - always listening for the melodic rhythm and the signal to the next shift. In signalling to myself for the next shift - it made sense that I would like to make a bass to lead that.

I thought this a reasonably easy task - and this is where the parallels with my PhD writing come in. We begin with a fairly innocent idea that does not look too difficult - and find a myriad of twists and turns. I chose to do this simply for the fun of the exercise and to play 'with' the idea (i.e. not being a bass player) and the task became quickly very interesting.

The construction of my upright electric bass (i.e. as opposed to an electric upright bass -  being a much harder task) began with a length of wood donated from a colleague, lovingly salvaged from a protected forest property in Victoria. This piece of milled timber was rough with bandsaw marks, too short for a length of floorboard, with unworkable knots and termite and borer holes grooved throughout. A saved treasure usually discarded. To me it held great potential.

I found there is something honest in working in old wood by hand. A square lump becomes shaped by eye, following lines of grain that resist becoming what is not there already. Like a PhD thesis, the truth emerges as one continues to scrape away, becoming ever more familiar with how the work wants to be - sanding, finding, refining, listening.

That is how it is sometimes. The truth of a work is in the removal of the obscurations to find the truth within. It is there and cannot be ignored without artifice, addition and contrivance. Eventually it is better to simply submit and listen to what is being revealed.

My physical process for producing this instrument, I found, ended up being the same as my mental process in the thesis research. Yours would be different. I'd argue though the level of comparison between any two would be similar.

I personally like to begin with an end picture of the finished product, not exact, but simply representing some key criteria. I wanted a fret-less bass that was as much about the art as the sound. It would need to actually work and be practical (i.e. transportable). As with my thesis, these specifications are exact, yet open. There are certain things it had to be useful for - to work to a certain level.

Then, like my PhD process, I began with a breakdown of many parts and an overall layout. I usually like to work with what is already available, building on from the discarded to find value in the overlooked. For the bass, I stripped down an old EKS Technology Cyclone five-string from a local pawn broker shop. Naively, I had thought 'how complex can this be'? I mean 5 strings, 5 machine heads, a bridge, two pickups. Easy. Apparently, from my inventory there are 163 parts in my electric bass (excluding the body and the strings). Until you do something, you never know how much there is to do. The whole is more than (but not less than) the parts - and none can be omitted.

Again, as a parallel with the thesis - there are always more parts to the whole than appears on a first glance. Fortunately, they fall into groupings and there are repetitions in assembly. Seeing these patterns makes composition an art in observation. Once we do once, we learn for the next time.

Also like my thesis, I began with a mock up. I literally took the dimensions of the set up and attached the bass pickups and bridge to the lump of potential wood and strung it up to see if the concept would even work. The wood might split under tension. There might be vibration resonance through the neck. The parts might fail. The wood might be too short, or thick, or warped. A million things might not work - and so better to find out sooner than later. Much was learned and especially that a worthwhile sound could be had without much modification. I like to have proof of concept before I begin. Then, there is the confidence to pull all that assembly work asunder and begin again from the pile of parts to re-assemble from first principles, this time with just a little more knowing.

Then came the long hours of repetition and refinement. The carving out of the insets for the pickups, jack and sound knobs, the scraping down of the square block into a human flowing form, the multiples of coarse and then fine sandings. It was with a sense of sufficiency that I began with the first coat of the twelve final layers of varnish. Like the thesis, we begin with the essential form and refine, trim, work and polish until the surface reflects back the self clearly and with brilliance.

I learned by this meditation in relaxation that the process by which we navigate and interact with our physical world is reciprocated and played out in how we navigate and interact with our mental world.

I have my bass finished now. I find it still a relaxation from the days editing of the thesis. This time, its in the playing. The bulky form  refined down to become an elegance of uniqueness. The intention is clear, yet the form is from its own following of what it originally always was.

And perhaps that is our role as artisans of thought and form ... we arrive with intention, work with integrity, with what we are given, and find in the obstacles to our virtue, a personal truth, arrived at only by the doing in something remarkably resonant ...

that sings in ways we could not have ever imagined.


No comments:

Post a Comment