Interview - Benedict Puglisi

November 2005: Benedict Puglisi (Vol.1 No.6)
Interview recorded by S.Kenan on 20/09/05

Upon entering Ben's shop on Church Street Hawthorn I was dwarfed by huge wooden creatures that stood in silence around me. These of course were the double basses and their majestic presence made me feel I was on hallowed ground. Double-bass plays a big part in Ben's life and even when listening to music his ear always searches out the bass lines. Violins also feature in Ben's world and I am here to talk about his work with bowed instruments.

Q. What is your first memory of the violin?

I have never been asked that. I had to think really long and hard and I still can't give you an accurate answer. I can't think of a time when there wasn't violins around the place. My grandfather was an amateur violinist on the Irish side because I am an Italian-Irish descendant. He was from the Cork area, one of the Irish Catholics there.

My mother's maiden name was Heffey. I remember him playing with lots of vibrato, Danny Boy and things like that. On my father's side, the Italians, someone always had a violin, there was always music at family functions. There have always been musical instruments around and definitely the violin was one of those.
I have never been asked that one.

Q. Have you ever played the violin?

No. I did take a few lessons here and there. After years of playing the bass I found I couldn't get my fingers into the fine degrees that the violin requires.

Q. You did the full thing on bass? Bowing and music reading?

At one stage I could read music faster than I could read English.
I came from an improvising, self taught background.

I then formalised it and when I got to Box Hill College I was first introduced to the double bass. It was so much more of a challenge to play and so much harder and the sound was just so rich. I was instantly taken by it. I would have been sixteen or seventeen I suppose. From that time on the electric bass was only used as bit of a toy, as bit of a hobby.

The double bass became the musical part and a real challenge. It is such a physical instrument. To actually be able to control it and make it sound musical is not the easiest thing. It's got real bottom end; it's not something manufactured from an amplifier or from electronic pick-ups which I have no real interest in. It has a real sub sound to it and power all on it's own and that's something you can't get with an electric instrument, it's all electronics and superficial.

Q. You spent over six years as an apprentice to a Dutch violin maker. What was strict and demanding about
this training?

One of the first jobs I was given was doing the thumb leathers on bows and each one of them had to be handed to him to be checked. He wasn't very polite if they weren't correct and you couldn't move on to the next job until you did that one perfectly. For the first two to three months all I did was thumb leathers, one after another after another. They had to be done fast and accurate. You couldn't slow down or stop for a chat.

After that it was windings, and it was just non stop winding after winding and each one had to be perfect and the way you soldered down the little ends or glued the little ends or pinned them, which ever way it was. They had to be perfect and they were checked and if they weren't you were told to re-do it and maybe you are not suited for the job. That went on with every aspect of it. It didn't let up for six years.

I remember spending maybe three or four hours cutting my first violin bridge, handing it to him, he looked at it and threw it in the rubbish bin and said "Let's start again." I got the bridge out of the rubbish bin and kept it. I look at it now and it probably deserved to be in the rubbish bin. It wasn't right and at the time I couldn't quite see it. I definitely couldn't see it because I wouldn't have given it to him if I thought it was incorrect.

Q. Do you think there was some element of witholding information?

The information was witheld until you were ready for it then he was very open with it. As the years have gone by and that was well over ten years ago, I look back and think I did get a very good grounding. There are many different ways to skin a cat, many different techniques for varnishing, for cutting a bridge, for fitting a bass bar.

He did make out that his was the definitive way. Since then I have seen there are many different ways that you can do the same job. As I teach so many people myself and have so many apprentices coming through I've learnt a very different way of approaching them. They have to learn it my way first then they are quite welcome to adapt it from there.

Q. The double bass is quite cumbersome compared to a small light instrument like the violin. How small can you make a double bass that still has adequate response in
the bottom end?

It's a fascinating question. One of the things that has gravitated me towards the double bass is the fact there is so much variation in them. You will notice in the showroom here Iv'e got really quite small sloping shouldered models to large rounded instruments. Totally different sizes and shapes and they are all double basses. It has got to do with the fact that the double bass can be played in so many styles of music. An orchestral player wants a very large double bass. They don't care how large it is because it's about moving bottom end and there's physics involved here.

If the instrument is too small it can't create that big deep sub sound that you need. If you want to play a lot more in a lyrical, improvising way, you want a smaller instrument that resonds really fast, very similar to the way violins are. The lower arched instruments are often louder and more powerful and the bigger ones tend to have a warm tone and possibly not the power and the same thing goes for the double bass. You are fighting physics, you can't go too small.

Once the string length or the body size is reduced, the air mass is insufficient and they just don't sound, they don't have that warm rich tone. Vice versa you can go too big. The most popular size is three quarter. If you go to the full size double bass, the string length is too long, it's too hard to play and they are too slow to respond. It is a power to weight ratio. The amount of power you have to put into making the air move inside makes them far too cumbersome to play, that's why the three quarter bass has become the most popular size. We don't use half sizes as they just don't put out the sound. The air can't develop.

Q. What is your favourite instrument?

It's vocals. I'm a frustrated singer, no doubt about it but, when it comes to listening to music I instinctively listen to the bottom end of any piece of music I hear. I know lots of people, my girlfriend included, who listen to the melody straight away. I don't listen to that, I find myself listening to the rhythm and the bottom end. I love playing the double bass and I love being the accompanist to the violinist or the singer or the lead guitarist or the ensemble, it really doesn't matter. I have played so many genres of music, orchestrally, lots of jazz bands, lots of popular music, lots of rock music. Accompanying is what I like to do but in the ideal world I would have been a singer, I just don't have the voice for it.