“A double bass is more, how should I put it, an obstacle than an instrument”, says Patrick Süskind’s monologue “Der Kontrabass”. The conductors of the French state railway SNCF would certainly agree. Who needs those floor-to-ceiling, pear-shaped monsters in the hallways? The French double bass players naturally see things differently. Which is why it annoys her that the conductors are increasingly imposing fines for the “obstacles”. In an arbitrary amount of up to 150 euros, sometimes more, sometimes less. Cellos and double basses have always violated the transport standards of the SNCF – in contrast to skis or surfboards, for which there are official exceptions. But the fines have only been piling up since the beginning of 2021. The double bass players are now going on the offensive, a petition on Change.org now has almost 50,000 signatures, and the problem has even made its way into the French parliament.
The double bass players can only explain why the conductors have suddenly had no heart for somewhat cumbersome musical instruments for almost two years now: that some of them learned during the Corona crisis how satisfying it can be to point out rules and traffic tickets to other people to hand out.
Of course, the assessment is difficult to prove, but it also meets with broad approval in the German music business. He has the feeling “that the staff on air and train journeys are no longer so accommodating with additional luggage,” says an employee of the BR Symphony Orchestra responsible for logistics, who does not want to be named. Sabine Frank, who sends many famous soloists on tour with the Harrison Parrott agency, is more open: “The instruments no longer have the rank and service that used to be taken for granted.” Frank explains this with the airlines primarily by the fact that there are generally fewer flights than before Corona and these have become more expensive. After all, some instruments – cello and tuba, for example – have always needed their own seat on the plane. The instrumentalists or inviting organizers have always paid for it quite regularly. But if the flight is overbooked, it can happen that the ground staff asks the cellist to let his strange companion throw him with his suitcase. Which the same will usually reject with reference to the usual throwing practices there. One is dependent “on the goodwill of the ground staff”, says the employee of the BR-Symphoniker. “An example is arbitrarily set,” even in the case of violins that only slightly exceed the dimensions of hand luggage.
In any case, there are hardly any star pianists who travel with their own grand piano
After all, we’re not talking about the really big instruments here. About the digital travel organ, with which the organist Cameron Carpenter wanted to revolutionize the music business before Corona. During the various lockdowns, she found shelter in Berlin depots – until Carpenter ran out of money for the rent. In the meantime he only owns sad individual parts of the glamorous instrument. Nor should it be about concert grand pianos. The generation of star pianists who still traveled with their own instruments – Daniel Barenboim and Maurizio Pollini, for example – are getting on in years anyway. Larger drum kits are usually hired locally by orchestras when traveling by air, for shorter distances a station wagon or truck is advisable. The star classical drummer Martin Grubinger, for example, needs a 7.5-tonner when he goes on tour alone. If he travels with an ensemble, there are two.
However, it is the smaller instruments that are encountering growing obstacles. CITES is the acronym used to piss off musicians and tour managers, although no one disputes that it’s a good thing in principle. The Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora restricts trade, i.e. the import and export of rare, often endangered animal and plant species. Older instruments in particular still contain materials that fall under these regulations. Some old string bows have an ivory head, violin fretboards are made of ebony, recorders, guitar fretboards or marimba phones are made of protected Brazilian rosewood.
The wood of protected species can still be used in instrument making if it was cut down before the protection period expired. However, CITES regularly expands its lists in order to sensibly prevent the construction of large furniture from certain types of wood, for example. Difficulties for musical instruments are more of a collateral damage. Since 2017, all types of rosewood have been on the list, including grenadilla wood, which is often used to make oboes and clarinets. If such instruments travel across national borders, special permits must be obtained, which requires a multi-stage process via the various nature conservation agencies.
The wood in pretty much all violin bows could be affected next
Traveling orchestras are considered traveling exhibitions: “The traveling exhibition certificate can be used as an import license, export license or re-export certificate,” says the information sheet from the Federal Agency for Nature Conservation. At the same time, older, particularly valuable instruments, such as those played primarily by strings, are subject to cultural property protection, for which further exemptions are required. Most of the time, according to the scene, customs are not interested in the documents at all. However, you shouldn’t let that happen, especially trips to the USA are considered tricky.
Years ago, violinist Patricia Kopatchinskaja found out that customs officials in smaller countries can also be in top form when it comes to such issues. When she entered Switzerland, her violin was confiscated, a Guarneri del Gesu worth 4.5 million euros at the time. Kopatchinskaja had all the documents mentioned, but not two specifically Swiss ones. Because the Guarneri del Gesù belonged to the Austrian National Bank – almost nobody affords such an instrument privately – the matter led to a veritable state affair between Austria and Switzerland.
The passages of time sometimes flow together in a stream in a strange way. Hotel rooms and flights have become considerably more expensive for organizers and musicians since the Corona crisis and will inevitably become even more expensive due to inflation and the energy crisis. In addition, tours, especially of entire orchestras, are increasingly under moral pressure to justify themselves, for reasons of climate protection, or because of foreign policy sensitivities, for example when concert tours to China are criticized. In addition, the purely physical movement of the instruments is becoming more difficult.
The CITES conference is taking place again this week in Panama, after which things could get even tighter for the strings. The protection for pernambuco wood, from which almost all bows have been made for a good 200 years, should be increased. It is particularly light in the hand and ideally combines resilience and flexibility. It has not been allowed to be cut down for a long time, instrument making lives entirely from old stock. Because pernambuco only grows in the Brazilian Mata Atlântica, which has already been largely destroyed by deforestation. Musicians and bow makers are fully aware that this is a problem. Almost twenty years ago, the latter have therefore joined together in the “International Pernambuco Conservation” initiative, which is planting new trees on site. Now, however, not only the trade in old stocks could be made more difficult. If the protective regulations are tightened, German environmental authorities would have to certify all German string bows within the statutory period of three months. If the owners can still prove when they bought the bow. In contrast, the double bass, which is played with the bow, almost seems like a small obstacle.