I was looking for the next step in my lifelong quest to learn the Bach Cello Suites, which began in High School when I still studied the cello. After about fifty years of detours through the bass and rock and jazz an extended illness gave me the time to return to the project, which I started on a small-scale Fender bass guitar restrung with cello strings. Next it occured to me that a Concert-size ukulele was about the scale of a viola and that a viola being an octave above a cello would let me just read the music as written (and thus stay in my comfort zone with the bass clef, written music not being my wheelhouse as it were), with the bonus of being transportable on an airplane, which I had to use to visit my son. When I moved to Egypt to be near him during his last year in High School that was the only instrument I took. I had had a couple of extra frets added to extend the range to be able to play the 6th Suite, written for a five-stringed instrument, but was clearly at a point where the instrument’s limitations were limiting my progress and I was really asking too much from a stock uke.
So I did some online research and began a series of discussions with Mark about the possibilities. He among the luthiers I consulted seemed most intrigued by my plans and made a number of excellent suggestions, mostly in the service of improved sustain (when you’re trying to emulate a bowed instrument you cannot have too much of that). So he added a cantilevered fretboard and selected wood. Another of my concerns was to avoid any radical difference between open and fingered notes so the zero-fret option was a welcome one. At every stage of the design I felt included and learned a lot about fretted instruments in general (most of my bass playing has been on fretless). And found a kindred spirit who didn’t find endless discussions about strings, equal temperment, and the sacredness of good wood to be boring. I am always impressed when a craftsman pays as much attention to tools and process as to product. Almost as an afterthought, it was decided to add a fifth string. Why not?
By the time the instrument was ready I had moved to France so the shipping aspect was a bit nerve-wracking but all ended well. And the instrument (named for Bach’s 2nd wife) has become the heart of my project. A joy to listen to, sustain and resonance beautiful on slow passages, clarity and ease on fast ones. And that fifth string! I had no idea just how difficult the Sixth Suite is when you are forced to spend a lot of your time in upper positions while trying to make up for the lack of an open high string—I have great admiration for the cellists who manage to make it look natural. If nothing else this will be a demonstration of how the piece might have been played on the instrument it was written for, and it is the first Suite I am attempting to record.
In short, I feel very fortunate to have run into the best luthier for my project and can unreservedly recommend Mark’s ukuleles for whatever your own plans may include.
Suite VI Prélude
Suite VI Allemande [A]
Shape of My Heart by Dominic Miller and Sting
As You Said by Jack Bruce