Joel Quarrington’s radical tune-up

The bassist’s great triumph isn’t the Juno he just won, or even moonlighting with the LSO
Photograph by Blair Gable

Last month Joel Quarrington won a Juno award, in the category of Classical Album of the Year: Solo or Chamber Ensemble. A few days later Quarrington’s colleagues in Ottawa’s National Arts Centre Orchestra threw a surprise reception for him. There were speeches and cake.

Quarrington is the orchestra’s principal double bassist. Partly because his instrument is normally viewed as lumbering and ungainly, he didn’t get excited when Garden Scene, his latest album of virtuoso bass pieces with piano accompaniment, was nominated for a Juno. Violinists usually win that sort of thing. “It’s not in my nature that I would have ever gone to that event,” Quarrington said.

But then he won, and now people congratulate him everywhere he goes. The people who seem happiest are his fellow bassists. This is because Quarrington, a big 55-year-old with curly hair and a goofy grin, is considered by his peers to be among the finest bassists anywhere. And also because he is a bit of a revolutionary on the instrument.

Most bassists tune their instrument so its four open strings are separated by intervals of a fourth, from low E to A to D to G. This makes their lives hell, because every other string instrument in the orchestra tunes in fifths. The basses spend a lot of time matching what the cellos do, only an octave lower. But since the cellos tune their strings from a low C to G to D to A, the bass can’t follow the cellos down to those lowest notes. And because tuning is more art than science, the basses constantly have to make little adjustments to fit the pitch the other string instruments produce. Nobody ever thinks about this but bassists, and it’s no fun.

That low C is the big problem. European bassists add a fifth string to get down there. North American bassists typically add an extension, a few extra inches of neck that poke up from the top of the fingerboard. They flick a mechanical lever to activate the extension when they have to go down below E. It’s a pain.

One week in 1987, Quarrington needed to play some Bach, which required he move quickly in and out of the bottom register. He had no time to flick an extension on and off. He loosened his low E string until it could reach down to the C, then he tuned the other three strings in fifths to even the other notes out. He thought he’d settled a technical problem. What surprised him was how much easier it was to match the other instruments’ tuning. But the strangest thing was how much clearer and more sonorous everything that came out of his bass was. This has something to do with overtones. Quarrington has never looked back.

He is not the only bassist who plays in fifths but he may be the most prominent. His attitude is contagious. Marjolaine Fournier, who sits next to him in the NAC Orchestra, switched to fifths two years ago. The extra overtones make her instrument more resonant too. “I used to have a really good bass,” she said. “Now I have a fantastic bass.”

Callum Jennings is one of Quarrington’s bass students at McGill University. He switched to fifths over the Christmas break. Would he go back? “No way.” A bass tuned in fourths “feels like it’s broken.”

Lately Quarrington has been playing frequent guest stints in the London Symphony Orchestra. “I really wanted to see what it was like to play with a bona fide great orchestra. I went into it thinking I’d spend a week finding out, and that would be the end of it. But it was too exciting.” Now he juggles life in Ottawa with his escapes to the U.K.

In an ordinary year Quarrington would have been no likelier to try out for the LSO than to show up at the Junos. This is no ordinary year. In January his older brother, the novelist Paul Quarrington, died of lung cancer. “He and I were really close. We’d often talked about doing different projects together. Going to Ireland together, doing a fishing trip. You don’t realize how many things you put on hold. You say, ‘Well, I’ll get to that.’ ”

Paul Quarrington responded to his cancer diagnosis by speeding up instead of slowing down. “It was a good lesson,” Joel Quarrington says. “Don’t put anything on hold.” The two travelled to Nashville to record strings for an upcoming album of Paul Quarrington’s songs. They were working on the album until three days before Paul died.

Since then, Joel Quarrington says, “I’ve actually done a whole mess of things I didn’t feel like doing.” The result has been a mid-career renaissance.

Video: Joel Quarrington’s bass revolution