Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Dominique Rivière: Rimbaud ä Djibouti

Today’s Traditional Tuesday pick is an original instrumental that Parisian resident Dominique Rivière wrote to feature the mandocello. With the exception of the violins provided by Robert Le Gall, Rivière plays all of the instruments. Today’s featured tune is “Rimbaud ä Djibouti.”


I became acquainted with Dominique Rivière when I received my combined birthday/Christmas present of an Irish bouzouki in 2007. Although he plays guitar and accordion, Rivière is known for his virtuosity on a family of instruments called CBOM (sometimes pronounced as C-Bomb). CBOM is an acronym for Cittern, Bouzouki, Octave Mandolin, and Mandocello. (Although, some would leave out the mandocello preferring that OM is for octave mandolin). These four instruments have similarity in construction and often times they are similar in tuning.

The author playing his CBOM - a Johnson MA-500 Bouzouki

I am not sure exactly what Dominique is playing on this particular recording besides his mandocello; but it could include cittern, bouzouki, and/or guitar, as he plays all of these. The percussion must be him hitting the top of one of his instruments. I also have difficulty determining which these instruments he is playing, as they all appear to have a similar tonality to the bouzouki.  Note, the term bouzouki here forward is used for references to the Irish/Celtic bouzouki and not the Greek instrument from whence it was descended (think of the song "Never on Sunday").

His cittern, a Stephen Sobell model, is a four-course (8 string) instrument that is tuned like an octave mandolin (GDAE) – which is tuned the same as he tunes his bouzouki (although the cittern does not have the octave strings in the G & D courses). Sobell makes a five-course model that people generally tune to an open chord.

On today's featured tune, Rivière plays a Paul Hathway mandocello. A mandocello typically is tuned one fifth lower than an octave mandolin or a bouzouki or an octave below a mandola (CGDA).

Typically the mandocello is the equal to a ‘cello, while mandolas and mandolins are the equivalent plectrum instruments to violas and violins respectively. Before you ask, yes Virginia, there is a beast called a mandobass that is tuned the same as the bass in fourths (EADG).

To understand how Dominique strings his mandocello, I turned to the manufacturer’s web site. Paul Hathway, who makes this instrument, suggests the use of a bouzouki tuning (GDAE) as being optional for his mandocellos.

According to Hathaway, “Because the mandocello has a string length of 660mm [about 26 inches], the same as a bouzouki, it can be strung with bouzouki strings and tuned G D A E. This will give you a bouzouki with a much bigger body and a much fuller sound.” This is apparently what Dominique Rivière has done with his instrument as it is much higher than a typically tuned mandocello.

I will admit, the instrument has the girth that a bouzouki doesn’t have. The larger sized body is evidenced in that many mandocellos have either 12 or 14 frets to the body, while Irish bouzoukis often have 15 frets to the body. While the scale length (from bridge to nut) is about the same - the difference is offset with the larger body on the mandocello.

When comparing bouzoukis and mandocellos, the Irish bouzouki neck is thinner than its older brother. I would assume (as I haven't had the pleasure to handle one) that a mandocello is probably a sturdier instrument.  The body of my own bouzouki is rather light & thin and appears to not have as study of construction as other instruments in my collection.  This may be blamed on cheaper construction as mine is a Chinese assembly line instrument and better bouzoukis are probably heavier.

Tuning Schmuning & What's the Darn Thing Called

I guess it boils down to two things - how you tune it and what you call it. Tuning an instrument is often one of personal preference, and tuning a guitar to anything but EADGBE does not make it less of a guitar. We didn't even consider tenor guitars and tenor banjos in this discussion. These two instruments are often tuned in fifths like CBOMs.

If you want to cause an uproar, go to the tenor guitar Yahoo group and be adamant about tuning. This discussion occurs about twice a year and there are proponents of CGDA, GDAE, DGBE, and to a lesser extent GCEA. For my tenor guitar, I prefer CGDA.  It can get quite maddening. The tenor banjo, which  is typically tuned CGDA, is often tuned to GDEA for use in Irish music.

Often what differentiates a bouzouki from an octave mandolin is scale length and the presence of octave strings on the G & D courses. Octave mandolins are typically between 20 and 23 inches in scale length (nut to bridge) while bouzoukis are 26-27 inches for the same. Often the terms become interchangeable. On the instruction tape, "The Mandolin and Bouzouki of Tim O'Brien," the instrument that is depicted is of a shorter scale than typical bouzoukis. I would have called it an octave mandolin.

The presence of octave strings in the G & D courses, a holdover from the Greek instrument that inspired the Irish bouzouki can be simply be a matter of preference. I like the octave strings; however, bouzouki virtuoso Beth Patterson doesn't use the octaves because as she told me - as a solo performer she needs to have a little more punch in the low end - so she tunes the G & D in unison. Realizing that this preference exists, string maker John Pearse sells his bouzouki strings with 10 strings that give the player the opportunity to choose either unison or octave configurations.

Beth Patterson live in Lewisburg, WV; February 2008; photo by author

Beth Paterson also uses a tuning that has become standard for the bouzouki (GDAD); however, when the bouzouki was first introduced to Irish mandolinists, they initially adopted the GDAE tuning and many (including myself) still use it today. The GDAD configuration has some advantages over GDAE as it gives an added tonality with a drone like quality from the high D course.

I like to play jazz type chords (such as major 7ths, 9ths, & 13ths) and these are next to impossible to play in GDAD; however, I am experimenting with GDAD. If I ever get an octave mandolin, I will use GDAE on it and GDAD on the bouzouki - until then, I am still toying with GDAD and it is not my current tuning of choice.

Regarding names of these instruments, it can be equally confusing.  This is evidenced, as I mentioned above, with bouzoukis and octave mandolins. In fact, the octave mandolin identification for the shorter scaled instrument in this family is not universally accepted, as some prefer to call it the octave mandola. Even the mandola is referred to in some circles as a tenor mandola. Confused yet, good - we are all on the same page.

Enter Stephen Sobell who began making instruments about the same time the bouzouki was becoming popular in Ireland. In deciding upon a name for his long necked lute, he borrowed its identity from a medieval instrument - the cittern. The cittern was actually in the guitar family and not the lute family, but who is going to quibble about this - I think it was a good choice on his part. Sobell currently offers citterns in both four and five course models.

Beth Patterson, however, plays a five course instrument that she calls a 10-string bouzouki - I personally would have termed this as a cittern and not as a bouzouki - but that may be how the instrument's maker has marketed the beast she owns. In the midst of all of this confusion, someone had the brilliant idea for the appellation that has been placed upon this entire family of instruments - CBOM.

In a perfect world, there might be standardization - but right now there is not. May I suggest the following (knowing good and well that it won't be followed):
  • Octave mandolins: 8 strings (20-23 inch scale length) tuned GDAE with unison courses.
  • Bouzoukis: 8 strings (26-27 inch scale length) tuned either GDAD or GDAE (octave strings optional).
  • Citterns: 10 sting instruments (in a variety of scale lengths) - tuned anyway playable with unison courses.
  • Mandocellos: 8 strings (26-27 inch scale length) tuned CGDA with unison courses.
I haven't even tackled those strange mutants of the CBOM world - the blarge, bizzar, Bellzouki, and five string citterns. Even the mandolin family has its anomalies: four, five, and ten-string mandolins; mandriolas; mandolinettos; and piccolo mandolins, oh my.  

All of this aside, it's time we go back to discussing our featured artist. With Rivière's cittern, bouzouki, and mandocello all tuned as GDAE, the only difference between the instruments are the octave strings on the Bouzouki, the size of the body, and the scale length of the instrument.

They all sound very similar via the compressed limitations of YouTube and my own Wal-Mart purchased headphones. I am sure that when played live, they have different tonalities due to individual body size. With that said, does it matter? Not really, as Rivière does an excellent job playing any of these instruments as well as the accordion and guitar.  Check out all of his videos - they are well worth the listen.

Examples of a Mandocello Tuned to CGDA Tuning

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