Trios for Deep Voices   CB0030

The music

“A magnificent piece! There’s nothing like it. Roberts’ voice is truly original.” —Bertram Turetzky

“Roberts has arrived at a new American music by traversing the heart of Papua New Guinea, absorbing diverse traditions, and the result is something unique.” —Michael J. Schumacher

Trios for Deep Voices, a five-movement work scored for the unusual ensemble of three double basses, is a sort of musical evocation—sometimes directly, sometimes indirectly—of the sounds and life that composer Roberts experienced in the jungles of the Star Mountains region of Papua New Guinea, where he lived in the early 1980s.

Trios Is an emotionally charged music of extreme virtuosity and extreme beauty—from passages laden with devilishly difficult harmonics and bowing techniques played at wild, breakneck tempos to pensive stretches of lyric, vocal-like melody to the myriad musical riches suspended between these extremes. It is performed by three double bass virtuosos—Christopher Roberts, Mark Morton, and James Bergman—who make many of its most difficult passages sound easy.

Some of this music came to Roberts in his dreams while living in New Guinea. The third movement, Kon Burunemo (“trembling leaf”) was written in memory of the extraordinary bassist and teacher David Walter, with whom Roberts studied.

The composer writes about Trios for Deep Voices:

“In 1981, I ran off to the jungles of Papua New Guinea to study the natural prosody of music. I lived with the people of the Star Mountains and introduced them to my double bass, while they introduced me to their songs. I took part in drumbeat initiations and listened to the sound of hornbills in flight. I was overwhelmed. I had a dream in which I moved my bow across the strings of the bass in an entirely new way that recreated the drums, and the hornbills’ wings, and the voices of the people whose every song tells a story.

“The sounds in New Guinea and their constant shaping and recurrence hit me right away as a deep signature of a place, the way the water moved through its gorges, the tone of the insects, the way people there would sing, and the particular choruses of the birds. In fact I cannot imagine the vocal music without the environment surrounding, as my house was as open as a woven basket, and the sounds of the rivers and insects followed the cycle of day and night, drought or deluge. To remember songs, I stand near streams.

“The Trios describe being in New Guinea, as the strings of a bass would tell it.… Hearing the hornbills in a mist-shrouded forest moving across the unseen world just above you…the atmosphere of being outside at dusk with the insects screaming and the water rushing … initiation ceremony music, when men as “hornbills” beating only taro enter the ritual house to become “birds of paradise” and emerge beating actual drums.…

“In the composition of music, I work with the medium of a written score, and the natural idiomatic way of a given instrument, following the technical inclinations of resonant strings.… Over time, over years, the impressions, the motifs most resilient in improvisation and memory unfold their stories to me in a developing variation proportionately whorled like some sort of topography across the score paper.

“The first trio describes the initiation, and what it was like to be there in it.… The harmonic lyric contours describe the echo of the initiates singing as they approached the ritual house at a dead run straight up the mountain. … [in the booklet] my photos of the houses up in the Star Mountains evoke every sensation of being there, where you would be if you were singing in the way of the slow movements.… Some trios begin as lone preambles, and all are gathered into contemporary chamber music forms that I could relate to my friends.”

The composer-performer

Christopher Roberts is a composer and double bassist who is as comfortable within the Western classical, jazz, and folk traditions as he is within a number of non-Western Pacific Rim musical traditions and as an idiosyncratic solo improviser on the bass and other instruments. He grew up in Southern California (where his first bass was the “prop” bass, with bullet holes, from the Billy Wilder movie Some Like It Hot), but has spent much of his life since the early 1980s living overseas. Only fairly recently did he return to the United States, where he currently teaches music at Whatcom Community College in Bellingham, Washington. Roberts studied composition with Vincent Persichetti and double bass with David Walter at Juilliard, where he earned masters and doctoral degrees in both subjects. Following the focus and intensity of the conservatory environment, he shouldered his bass and went to live alone in Papua New Guinea, on a quest to understand natural prosody in music. This was followed by a Fulbright to Taiwan to study the Chinese classical qin (an ancient zither-like instrument), in a quest to understand idiomatic string composition in a culture and a way of training different from his own. Roberts has become a master of the qin (and Cold Blue has released a CD of his qin solos, Last Cicada Singing). He taught composition, theory, and double bass for a number of years at Soochow University in Taipei. Roberts was the subject of the award-winning documentary Songs of a Distant Jungle.

The other performers

Mark Morton is a double bass recitalist and concerto performer who has been a featured soloist on many radio broadcasts, including NPR’s Performance Today, WGBH in Boston, and WQXR in New York. He is principal bass of the Columbus (Ohio) Symphony Orchestra. Morton earned undergraduate and graduate degrees from Juilliard, where he was only the second bassist to receive that institution’s Doctor of Musical Arts degree. He is the first-prize winner of the International Society of Bassists Solo Competition, and was the assistant double bass instructor to Gary Karr at The Hartt School of Music. Morton is Artistic Director of the American School of Double Bass and currently Assistant Professor of Double Bass at Texas Tech Univ. He has authored the “Dr. Morton” series of books on bass playing and articles for Strings, Bass World, and American String Teacher magazines and the New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians. He recorded two critically acclaimed albums of standard bass repertoire, Thresholds and Russian Rendezvous and, with Gary Karr, a CD of Paul Ramsier’s bass music.

James Bergman is a double bassist who is active in classical and contemporary music in Southern California performing regularly with the Los Angeles Opera and the Santa Barbara Symphony. He has performed with the Composers Ensemble at Princeton and at the Other Minds Festival in San Francisco. Bergman has recorded and toured extensively with Tirez Tirez and the Mikel Rouse Broken Consort, including performances at the Kitchen’s Gruppen Festival and the Bang on the Can Festival. He has recorded in a variety of genres for the Dreamworks, Rough Trade, Sire, Cuneiform, Crammed/Made to Measure, Le Disc Du Crepescule, and PMRC/IRS labels.


Trios for Deep Voices is thoughtful music, beautifully worked out, and very absorbing to listen to. It’s wonderfully individual, both in its sound and its construction. Clear some space in your life, both literally and figuratively, and give it a listen.” —Greg Sandow

“Listeners acquainted with the music of Papua may detect odd echoes of its drumbeats and fragile melodies, or hear its flute and vocal hockets reflected in ostinato phrases that recur within Trios for Deep Voices. These five pieces have evocative titles such as Hornbills, alluding to those large birds, or Around the Heath, suggesting communal life and ritual. But Roberts didn’t go to Papua New Guinea simply to eavesdrop: his motivation, he says, was ‘to study the natural prosody of music.’ It was an experiment in hearing the dynamics of an unfamiliar environment, the rhythm and intonation of a place and a people. This music has none of the kitsch of cheap ethno-musicological fantasy or neo-primitive indulgence—it’s an elegantly reverberant, harmonically rich and gracefully delineated composition for resonant strings. Rather than relaying tourist impressions, he maps changes in his own musical sensibility brought about by Papuan experiences. And he doesn’t conceal what endures from his earlier training, with his evident love of the double bass at its heart.” —Julian Cowley, The Wire magazine

“Quite unusual and quite remarkable.” —Richard Friedman, Producer/Host, KALW’s Music from Other Minds

“Christopher Roberts’ Trios for Deep Voices is considerably more engrossing than one might expect a recording scored exclusively for a trio of double basses to be. Certainly that’s due, in part, to the intimate character of the work’s five movements, not to mention the prowess of double bass players Roberts, Mark Morton, and James Bergman, but it’s also attributable to the caliber of Roberts’ compositions.… By the composer’s own admission, the bowing patterns coursing through Hornbills were inspired by the sound of hornbills in flight and do in fact mimic them convincingly. The three players alternately play agitated passages at breakneck speed and branch apart into cawing upper figures anchored by deep bowed patterns. Around The Hearth is slow and lyrical by comparison, with the double basses overlapping in elegant polyphony and spanning a broad range of pitches. With the trio’s momentum slowed by human breath-like pauses, the piece at times calls to mind the more peaceful passages in Terry Riley’s Salome Dances for Peace. If Kon Burunemo (“trembling leaf”) exudes a mournful and reflective quality, it’s apropos as it was written in memory of David Walter, a bassist and teacher with whom Roberts studied. A faint hint of a Satie Gymnopédie seems to surface amidst the melodic lines traced by the solo bass in the opening minutes of the fourth trio, Flying, after which the elegiac Mesto brings the thirty-seven-minute recording to an entrancing close. Roberts’ programmatic info provides explanatory direction which one may follow or disregard, depending on one’s inclination, but the music certainly succeeds perfectly well on its own terms. Even without supplementary information, Trios for Deep Voices‘ five evocations would prove transporting.”—Ron Schepper, Textura

“Sometimes to find your own music—the music you feel compelled to make—you must escape to another world. ‘In 1981,’ writes composer Christopher Roberts, ‘I ran off to the jungles of Papua New Guinea to study the natural prosody of music. I lived with the people of the Star Mountains and introduced them to my double bass, while they introduced me to their songs.’

“Nearly three decades later, the result is a remarkable disc, Trios for Deep Voices, which contains five captivating pieces written for a trio of double basses. Roberts and his fellow bassists, Mark Morton and James Bergman, refute the stereotype of the double bass as too unwieldy for virtuosic chamber music. All three musicians impart an eerily vocal quality to their playing: Low, bowed notes not only hum, but purr, buzz, and sigh. The music is so speechlike, it’s like listening to a field recording hewn by an ancient wax-cylinder phonograph.

“Yet before the advent of recording technology, composers translated found sound into music. The ‘Jolly gathering of country folk’ from Beethoven’s Sixth Symphony still pads advertisements on TV. Too many film composers owe obvious debts to that symphony’s aptly titled fourth movement, ‘Thunderstorm.’ Two centuries prior to Beethoven, Adriano Banchieri (1567–1634) made perhaps the earliest—or at least the funniest—attempt at composing with found sounds. His madrigal Contraponto bestiale all mente deploys a cappella voices mimicking the various brays, clucks, hoots, and barks of barnyard animals in vivid counterpoint.

“When I mention this to Roberts, he agrees, adding that Trios for Deep Voices captures his memory of sound, music, and speech during his time in the Star Mountains.

“Roberts heard music everywhere. ‘People start singing as they talk,’ he recalled. The chasing counterpoint that permeates the Trios stems from this hybrid of speech and song. ‘Everyone in the village composed songs: If two people witnessed an important event, both would sing about it, freely borrowing and varying each other’s melody.’ Conversations could be polyphonic, he explains: ‘Sometimes the person behind me would sing the line I just said.’ … The music on Trios does breathe like speech; Roberts describes as it ‘vocal, not verbal.’

“Roberts also points out that in the Star Mountains, music was shared, much like conversation, yet remained profoundly personal. Improvisation was everywhere: in speech, in song, and in what lay between. Everyone improvised. Everyone made music. Compared to our own limited musical life, where file sharing and the fear of improvisation cast intimidating shadows, Roberts has returned from a world that can teach us what music might become. Recommended” — Christopher DeLaurenti, The Stranger (Seattle)

“American composer and bassist Christopher Roberts has spent much of his career outside the United States, studying either non-Western musical traditions (he is a master of the qin, a Chinese stringed instrument) or ‘the natural prosody of music.’ In the latter case, he spent time in the jungles of Papua New Guinea, living in villages and absorbing indigenous traditions as well as the profligate natural sounds that surrounded him. The five pieces collected here, for three string basses, are reflections of his experience in the jungle. Roberts’s most obvious musical influence is the throbbing pulse of early minimalism, but his music is so rich in its textures and gestures and harmonies that his voice is distinctive. As a bassist, he understands how to draw such a prodigious variety of sounds from the instrument that the lack of higher voices never seems like an impediment. Each piece has its unique character; some are almost traditionally contrapuntal, but a primal energy, with its own mysterious, visceral logic, animates most of Roberts’s work. Two of the most immediately engaging pieces, Hornbills and Flying, were inspired by the sounds of the large birds in flight. The first is fast and the second slow, but they both convincingly convey a sense of weightless soaring, which is quite an achievement using only instruments as weighty as basses. The composer, Mark Morton, and James Bergman deliver virtuosic performances that capture the diverse moods of the music, from delicate to frighteningly feral. The sound is clean, with a nicely resonant ambience that lets the listener feel the deep vibrations the basses produce.” —Stephen Eddins, All-Music Guide

“Roberts has a strong individual voice. If he repeats the idiosyncrasies of those pieces in the future he’ll be a composer to reckon with.” —Richard Grooms, The Improvisor

“The CD note provided by the composer tells you everything you need to know: ‘In 1981, I ran off to the jungles of Papua New Guinea to study the natural prosody of music. I lived with the people of the Star Mountains and introduced them to my double bass, while they introduced me to their songs. I took part in drumbeat initiations and listened to the sound of hornbills in flight. I was overwhelmed. I had a dream in which I moved my bow across the strings of the bass in an entirely new way that recreated the drums, and the hornbills’ wings, and the voices of the people whose every song tells a story.’… After that quote, and the obligatory produced/recorded/legalese stuff, the only other insights you get into these pieces (movements?) are the plentiful pictures of the aforementioned jungles. Some composers want the listener to know their set permutations. Christopher Roberts, on the other and more affective hand, gives us a dream and 14,000 words (in picture form) that explain every iota of this fabulous recording…. It is never addressed if these five tracks are movements of one larger piece or separate trios as the CD title indicates. While each track works well on its own and has its own shape and life, I have a hard time imagining one separated from the others. Melodic fragments reappear throughout the five movements which lends a gratifying cyclic form to the whole disc. These fragments are convincing whenever they appear and never sound forced. The music, the culture, the performances, everything blends together into a single construct…. The music itself is quasi-minimalist, keen on repetition instead of development. The emotive ideas behind each movement are clearly communicated and fluidly performed. The three double basses never for a moment sound heavy and cumbersome. There is a lot of air, life, and breath to the music and the playing. Roberts is also adept at managing textures and energy flow. You can easily hear his success at creating his ‘entirely new way’ of playing. The playing might not be new but he clearly achieves his intent and it is a joy to hear…. And yes, he really did lug his double bass through the jungles of Papua New Guinea. Can’t imagine doing that myself, but I found myself ruminating upon that notion a lot while listening. I think the end result was worth the effort!” —Jay Batzner, Sequenza21

“All too often, the double bass is an instrument that is, in the words of our previous president, “misunderestimated.’ While it is frequently used to secure the low end of an orchestra, playing sustained tones and ostinati, the bass also has extensive capacities as a solo instrument. It has a much wider range than is frequently employed in ensemble contexts. Effects too are underutilized in mainstream concert music; harmonics, in particular, can sound quite evocative on double bass.… An object lesson in this regard is Christopher Roberts’s new recording on Cold Blue, Trios for Deep Voices, which includes not one, but three bassists.… Trios is inspired in part by Roberts’ 1981 trip to New Guinea. The sound of the country’s wildlife and music-making with natives in the Star Mountains both subtly infiltrate the proceedings; birdcalls and percussive effects can be heard throughout the CD. Roberts is also influenced by minimalism to a certain degree, creating great swaths of overlapping repetitions and drone-based passages. For instance, on the album’s opener, Hornbills, the big, thick chords sounded by the three bassits are truly thrilling to hear.… Trios contains a haunting lyricism as well. This is particularly evident in the final movement, Mesto, which contains soaring solo melodies and supple pantonal harmonies deployed in frequent dynamic swells.” —Christian Carey, Sequenza21and Signal to Noise magazine

“This CD is especially refreshing because it has been released at a time when contemporary composers are tempted to jump on the trendy bandwagon of world music and are tempted to paint their music with the superficial colors of expedient globalism. Robertson on the other hand has adeptly avoided the trap of exoticism.

“With his double bass in tow, Robertson lived among the societies that occupied the Star Mountain region of Papua New Guinea. In doing so, he internalized the music that he heard around him by living among and living as the society of people that lived, worked, and created art in the region. He was learning and exchanging musical ideas with the local musicians, neither as a scholar looking to objectify a culture nor as a foreign composer looking for an opportunity to appropriate a cultural identifier. The resulting music is so invigoratingly original and unique that the forums of discourse analysis will remain silent. This is a visceral work, but not trite or trivial. Like the composer, the works on Trios for Deep Voices have internalized the essence of the music of the Star Mountain region in the jungles of Papua New Guinea and extended the vocabulary and syntax of art music. Robertson’s explanations in the liner notes are pithy and terse because verbose descriptions are unnecessary when the music honestly speaks for itself. The CD jacket is filled with photographs of the region, and they augment the meaning of the music far better than text descriptions.…

“Melody and harmony are building blocks for the compositions, but they are not the points of departure for development. Instead, much of the music in all five tracks relies on subtle and continuous manipulation of inflection, dynamic contrast, rhythmic propulsion, and metric versification. The textures make use of rhythmic ostinatos alternating with occasional grand pauses. The pauses serve to dramatize the performance and heighten the listener’s awareness when the ostinato patterns return. Nowhere are all these characteristics more apparent than in the opening track.…

“The bass playing is first-rate and lives up to the reputations of the individual performers, but the bassists also play seamlessly as an ensemble. The metrical propulsion upon which much of the music depends is delineated with precision and musicality. At the same time, legato gestures are effectively superimposed over the propulsion, In the lyrical third and fifth tracks…the performers demonstrate their expressive vibratos, their bow control in quiet passages, and their mastery of a variety of expressive articulations.… Trios for Deep Voices is a unique, original, refreshing, and pertinent set of truly global double bass trio music.” —Jeremy C. Baguyas, Bass World magazine (Int’l Soc. of Bassists)

“In an interesting variation on the chamber music sound, three double basses are bowed, plucked, struck, and played in other interesting ways to good effect, bringing out power and emotions one normally doesn’t associate with the instrument. Roberts’ compositions also run the emotional gamut, dwelling more in a sort-of cinematic role with experimental upheavals and introspective passages; they bear a variety of trace influences from jazz to eastern flavored world music to dissonant soundtrack fare, rather than the typical (and strictly) classical that might most often be associated with this type of instrumental setting—although that is here also in measured amounts. The five mid-length pieces were born of Roberts’ many years living and studying music in the jungles of Papua New Guinea…. One can almost hear the trees, birds, insects, streams and volcanoes between all these bass strings and the resonances and overtones they produce. The ten-page CD insert features many photographs Roberts took during his stay in Papua, and go far to illustrate the inspiration for the compositions.”—Peter Thelan, Exposé

“A beautiful CD.… There’s nary a moment of dullness in the whole album.… Outright magnificent.” —Massimo Ricci, Touching Extremes (Italy)

Trios for Deep Voices comes in part out of the insights and impressions of an extended visit by the composer to the Star Mountains in Papua New Guinea. His participation in and appreciation of the primal local music and the sounds of nature there gave him pause and were inspirations for these five contrabass trios.

“Roberts extends the range of the three instruments by utilizing harmonics extensively. In this way there are the expected deep bass notes but also an upper range to work with. The music has some repetition but like the traditional music of New Guinea the horizontal prosody of A-to-B discourse is predominate. There are intervallic primes along with a compositional inventiveness that makes this music belong more to the realm of radical tonality than minimalism. The sound of the bowed contrabasses has the effect of creating an ethereal dream world that nonetheless has a robustness born of the physicality of the instruments played together.

“The music comes together and rewards the attentive listener with a sound all its own. There is much to appreciate. I eventually found myself falling more and more deeply under its spell. I think perhaps there will be plenty of others who will feel the same way after deep listening. As much as someone like me loves the sound of the contrabass, in time I heard the trios as music that goes beyond instrumentation to a contemplative space, as the composer no doubt intended. Very much recommended.”—Grego Edwards, Gapplegate Classical-Modern Music Review