Nils Bultmann’s viola duets evoke the spirit of improv
Composer Nils Bultmann has created works for string quartet, solo viola, and solo cello. Writing music for two violas, though, carries unique challenges of its own. “It’s challenging to have contrasts with two of the same instrument,” says Bultmann, a composer, improviser, and violist whose works often are inspired by the urban surroundings of his Berkeley, California, home.

Nonetheless, Bultmann recently composed “Ten Viola Duets,” a suite of duos that recall a wild chase between a cat and mouse, a stretch of calm meditation, and every mood in between. The duos, recorded in 2009 with violist Hank Dutt of the Kronos String Quartet, can be heard on his latest album Troubadour Blue.

Violists eager to play as a duet don’t have a large quantity of duo repertoire, which ranges from works by Wilhelm Friedemann Bach and Frank Bridge. Writing his own duos, Bultmann says, was a way to expand the repertoire and allow players like himself to connect with other violists.

“I wrote them for the viola community,” says the 38-year-old Bultmann.

Troubadour Blue, released on Innova Recordings, the label of the American Composers Forum, includes several of Bultmann’s other works, including the solo-viola piece “Lucid,” “From the Depths” for viola and didjeridu, and “Suite for Solo Cello.”

Although he can’t pinpoint the origins of most of the motifs for his viola duets, Bultmann says, “The ideas were collected and stored in my viola-playing fingers through the repetition of fragments of classical repertoire and personal improvisatory riffing.”

He notes that he had long performed a version of “Joy,” which opens the suite, as a solo piece, while the melody for “Accordionly” originally emerged in his first composition book from third grade.

Bultmann, a former member of the New World Symphony who recently completed his doctorate in composition at University of California, Berkeley’s Center for New Music and Technology, describes his duos as “character pieces, each with a distinct personality.” Some, such as “Buzy Body” and “Crazy Chicken Dance,” use fast interaction between the instruments with unexpected twists and turns and chromatic surprises.

In “Tom and Jerry,” named for the famed cat-and-mouse cartoon duo, the violas chase each other in a series of playful rhythms and pizzicatos.

The duets with slower tempos let the player and listener ponder calmness and put the full depth of the viola on display. “Ruby,” the last of the set, grew out of “several days of blissful improvisation in the key of A major during an inspiring visit to the San Francisco Bay Area 12 years ago,” says Bultmann.

The composer, who describes the duos as suitable for both college-level students and professionals, notes that the work has already been used in a viola class taught by New England Conservatory viola professor Kim Kashkashian as well as during Bultmann’s own residency at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Bultmann has performed them around the San Francisco Bay Area with San Francisco violists Charlton Lee and Jodi Levitz. Players can perform all ten duos, spanning a total of about 25 minutes, or pick and choose just one or a few. “I just wanted them to be fun to play,” says the composer.

Bultmann’s were the first viola duos recorded by Dutt, whom Bultmann met through their teacher Sally Chisholm at the University of Wisconsin. “I thought they were just terrific,” Dutt says. “They sound good on viola. He makes use of the low tones that are our bread and butter.”

Although none are impossibly difficult to play, each has its challenges. “Tom and Jerry” is “a hard one, to get the feeling of the chase,” Dutt says, while “Ruby” is “just gorgeous, challenging to play perfectly in tune and with lyricism.”

“I hope they become a staple of the viola duo world,” he adds.

For “From the Depths,” Bultmann recorded three lengthy improvisations in the studio with didjeridu player Stephen Kent and subsequently edited the material into four movements. The work is in the style Bultmann often uses during free improvisation, changing color over the didjeridu and its “expressive hums and guttural churnings,” says the composer, who makes heavy use of improvisation in his live performances.

“I wanted to feature certain textures that I thought were interesting,” says Bultmann.

The first movement “Enter” opens with an exposition of the viola over the C-sharp didjeridu and merges between rhythmic grooves and the original lyrical line. The second section “A Reformed Movement” is a fast exchange of rhythmic ideas that change meters and groove, while the third movement “The Headlands” recalls the “sonic landscape of the fog horns and passing ships of the San Francisco Bay at the Marin Headlands,” Bultmann says. The final movement “Deflation” uses glissandi and ends with the viola detuning the C string, “eventually decaying into an unsettling battle between two primal creatures calling out to each other.” Bultmann describes “Lucid” for solo viola as a partially improvised piece. It opens with a low B-flat drone, helping the player in a live performance connect with the audience and obtain a feel for the room. With a drone, there’s “no metric structure, and no hurry to get to the next note, so you can relax,” says Bultmann. Following the drone is a traditional harmonic progression that he has varied in live performance to accommodate his own feelings and the mood of the audience. Even though Bultmann eventually shaped the piece to have more structure, he kept its original “spirit of improvisation,” he says.

The Cello Suite No. 1 in G, the first Bach cello work Bultmann ever learned, inspired his “Suite for Solo Cello,” performed on the CD by Parry Karp of the Pro Arte Quartet.

Bultmann used the original as the basis for his own suite; in the Courante movement, for instance, Bultmann took the original harmonic structure and wrote a melody line over it.

He left out the Minuet altogether while making the Sarabande, which he dubbed “Edna Baras” (Sarabande spelled in reverse), entirely pizzicato. Bultmann closed the suite with an Allegro that builds on passages from the original Prelude.

“I felt it needed an Allegro,” he says. “I took some liberties.”

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