Unlike musical instruments, voices don’t last forever. Voices take time to mature and can begin to fade very early. So, vocalists have an expiration date, which is why conductor and singer Dr. James K. Bass takes advantage of the present while preparing for the future.
Bass, who happens to be a bass, sings frequently and conducts multiple musical groups, all while working as a professor and director of choral studies at UCLA. He sings bass with and is the associate conductor for Florida’s Grammy-nominated classical choir Seraphic Fire and is the new artistic director for the symphonic choir Long Beach Camerata Singers.
Bass chooses to take on so much because he knows that singing is a temporal skill, he explained to the Signal Tribune in an interview on Tuesday.
James K. Bass goes into detail in this audio interview with the Signal Tribune about the impact of an orchestra and how the music can influence an audience.
“Voice, it has a shelf life, so as a conductor or a teacher, you can go until you no longer have sanity,” Bass explained, “but as a professional, classical singer, there’s a point when people will say, ‘There’s somebody better than you, and I can hire them,’ so you have to do it while you can.”
While a broken instrument is replaceable, a broken voice is not, which is why he advises all singers to take advantage of the now.
“In order to make a living or in order to be involved in these high-level events, you basically hit the iron while it’s hot, because you don’t know when it’s going to go away,” Bass said.
He added that in many ways he developed his philosophy to do as much as possible from advice his dad gave him.
“My father’s lesson was, ‘Burn the candle at both ends until you burn the house down,’” Bass said, which he takes to mean that as long as he can do something, why not do it?
But part of this practice also developed from necessity because the ability to succeed and make money as a classical musician requires significant effort and travel.
“In the modern classical world, if you live in one town, and you say, ‘I’m only going to work in this one town,’ you’re never going to make enough money to pay for rent,” Bass said. “And so the classical world is a very fluid market where you’re going all over the place, and if you’re any good at all, then multiple places are going to want you.”
Luckily, doing as much conducting and directing as he does will pay off later in life, should his ability to sing wear out.
“The older you get, the better you are. […] If you get to a certain point at a certain age, you’re not going to go backwards; you’re only going forwards,” Bass said. “A singer is the opposite. You get to a certain point and then there will be that summit, and you’re going down the other side. Conductors tend to get more expensive as they get older and better, and singers get less expensive.”
As a conductor for the Camerata Singers, Bass will not just be responsible for conducting the ensemble, but also for the selection of pieces to be performed, when concerts will happen and what opportunities the group will take.
His first concert with the group, called the Camerata Peace Project, will be on Friday, Oct. 8, with rehearsals beginning Tuesday, Aug. 22.
“In a typical choral [or] orchestral concert, you go and hear a group perform some major work,” Bass said, “and in this case, what we want is people to have an understanding of how amazingly human the idea of folks coming together and joining in choir like this [is].”
So, in lieu of singing a large classical choral piece, Camerata will be performing smaller works that harken to the themes of peace and unity.
“This allows me to pick pieces that have the most emotional content and place them in one idea,” Bass said. “We will be doing a brand-new work that’s only a year-and-a-half old, but the text was written by a young Somali immigrant living in Minnesota. We’re going to be doing music that comes from Southern religious tradition. We’re doing a Russian piece. We’re doing a piece by [Leonard] Bernstein.”
This eclectic vocal mix will be combined with a pre-show roundtable discussion moderated by Arts Council for Long Beach Board President Tasha Hunter and accompanied by a narration written by Bass himself.
“The narrative is reflective of the music and of society,” he explained. “There will be some […] descriptions of the music we are about to sing or something describing what we have just sung, but then I have woven in anecdotes and famous quotes of the world’s most famous purveyors of peace.”
He plans to have the narrative also fit in with the talk beforehand, he said.
The talk itself will feature spokespeople from different ethnic and racial groups and organizations who will discuss issues of diversity and inclusion and what it means to have a sense of belonging.
Bass explained that many of these messages are communicated because of one huge asset that choral music has– words.
“Ultimately, a part of this is to create social commentary about justice and peace,” he said, “ and we have the vehicle to do it through this symphonic choir.”
By creating a conversation through his very first concert, Bass will no doubt create a Long Beach-wide conversation about the Camerata Singers.