Robert Black, bass virtuoso of the Avant-Garde, is dead at 67

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Robert Black, bass virtuoso of the Avant-Garde, is dead at 67
Robert Black plays bass with the Bang On A Can All-Stars, at the Skirball Center for the Performing Arts in New York, May 13, 2018. Black, a virtuoso bassist who collaborated with prominent composers including Philip Glass and John Cage, died at home in Hartford, Conn. on June 22, 2023. He was 67. (Vincent Tullo/The New York Times)

by William Robin

NEW YORK, NY.- Robert Black, a virtuoso bassist who collaborated with prominent composers including Philip Glass and John Cage and was a founding member of the influential Bang on a Can All-Stars ensemble, died on Thursday at his home in Hartford, Connecticut. He was 67.

His partner, Gary Knoble, said the cause was colon cancer.

Black was already a prominent interpreter of modern music for bass when he was invited, in 1987, to perform at the first Bang on a Can festival, a freewheeling marathon of contemporary music in downtown Manhattan.

“He had a beautiful sound,” composer Michael Gordon, one of the founders of Bang on a Can, said in an interview. “He did everything with the bass: He danced with it, he drummed on it, he scraped it, he coached all kinds of amazing sounds out of it.”

At that festival, Black performed Iannis Xenakis’ “Theraps” — an extraordinarily difficult piece that traverses five octaves through uncanny glissandos — and Tom Johnson’s “Failing,” which asks the performer to play increasingly complex passages on the bass while at the same time reading aloud a humorous text that self-consciously describes the possibility of failure.

“When I fail to succeed, I will succeed in communicating the essence of the piece,” Black stated while playing a tricky line — as per the composer’s instructions — to laughter from the audience, captured in a definitive live recording.

In 1992, Gordon and his fellow Bang on a Can directors David Lang and Julia Wolfe asked Black to join the newly formed All-Stars sextet, which brought further renown and attention to the festival’s visceral, rock-inflected music. His technique was central to the group’s sound: In Wolfe’s 1997 piece “Believing,” written for the All-Stars, he improvised frenzied passages that Wolfe once called “quintessential Robert Black-isms.”

As a soloist and a chamber musician, Black championed contemporary music and commissioned work from dozens of composers. His reserved personality belied the cacophonous sounds he could summon with his instrument, a double bass nicknamed Simone that was made in Paris in 1900.

Black’s theatrical approach to performance extended to dramatic speaking — he commissioned a large-scale work from Philip Glass that includes the recitation of poetry by Lou Reed and Patti Smith — and even dancing, as a member of Yoshiko Chuma’s School of Hard Knocks, an interdisciplinary troupe.

Robert Alan Black was born in Denver on March 16, 1956, to Ned Black, an engineer, and Frances (Canzone) Black. Growing up in the suburbs of Denver, he began playing bass in middle school. He attended the University of North Texas before transferring to the Hartt School in Connecticut, where he studied with Gary Karr. While in college, he started performing music composed by his friends, and he freelanced in the New York area after graduating in 1979.

“It felt like nobody really trusted me,” he recalled of this time in a 2015 interview. “I would go to the orchestra rehearsal, playing along, and my colleagues were going, ‘Yeah, but you also do that strange contemporary music, you play John Cage.’ And then I would go to a hard-core new music thing, and they’d go, ‘Yeah, you’re really not one of us because you also play in an orchestra.”

But, inspired by his longtime partner, composer James Sellars, as well as pianist Yvar Mikhashoff, Black increasingly dedicated himself to contemporary composition, at a time when few classical virtuosos were committed to new works. An early showcase was Sellars’ “For Love of the Double Bass,” a piece for bass and piano that combines music and theater, in which Black seduced his instrument, buying it a dress, dancing with it and ultimately taking it to bed.

As part of the Bang on a Can All-Stars, Black helped popularize experimental music through international tours and well-regarded albums. He and guitarist Mark Stewart, the only two original members to remain with the sextet, performed together for more than three decades.

“He was deeply kind, often playful, gently yet fiercely devoted to the composer and his colleagues onstage,” Stewart wrote in an email. “His humility was real because his wisdom came from listening.”

Black also pursued a solo career, building a sizable new repertoire for his instrument and recording the complete bass music of Giacinto Scelsi and Christian Wolff. A dedicated pedagogue, he taught at the Hartt School for 29 years. In 2017, he formed the Robert Black Foundation to support contemporary music. He frequently commissioned work from young and emerging composers, whose music he performed as part of a monthly Friday series during the pandemic, livestreamed from his home.

At Black’s final concert, which was in April amid a grove of trees in Philadelphia, he took part in “Murmur in the Trees,” a piece for 24 basses composed by Eve Beglarian.

In an unconventional arrangement, Black had been partners since 1974 with both Sellars, who died in 2017, and Knoble, and he had also been married to Elliott Fredouelle since 2016. (They all lived together.) He is also survived by a sister, Debbie Walker.

In 2013 Black, a gifted improviser, trekked into the culverts of Moab, Utah, with his bass to make a new album — a duet with the desert. The recording captures not just the vast array of strange sounds he drew from Simone, but also the murmurs of birds and insects. It was, he explained, an attempt to “make the environment start to sing.”

“I would just fool around on the instrument, getting used to the space and the sound,” he told Colorado Public Radio. “When it came time to record — this sounds like such a cliché, but it really is true — I would just try to empty my mind, start listening, and just let my hands move.”

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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