Play It Again:  On the Riches of Repeating Bass Lines

“Play it again, Sam,” is not the actual line and it is not uttered by Humphrey Bogart in Casablanca. Ingrid Bergman is the one who tells the piano player, “Play It, Sam.” The tune she’s requested is “As Time Goes By.” The title and the six-note melodic figure, placed successively higher up on the piano, are laden with romantic reverie and the weight of history in motion, but they also say something about music itself—how repetition, like the ticking of a clock, seems to freeze time even as the melodic cycles mark its passing.

The larger structure of a song like “As Time Goes By”—set in the time-tested 32 -bar format—can also be repeated, its bass line and harmonies offering a platform for improvisations that can encompass the elegiac and the immediate: past, present, and future coalescing in musical sound.

The reverie of Dexter Gordon’s “As Time Goes By” expands soulfully: Augustine’s distension animi:

The great tenor saxophonist and others of like stature were also masters of shorter cycles of musical time: the 12-bars of the blues, or the still tighter two-bar harmonic turnarounds sometimes tagged on to a tune in order to construct an on-the-fly coda.

These building blocks of musical time are ubiquitous in many diverse musical traditions.

The minor-key, four-note descending bass line of “The Cat Came Back” was elaborated four centuries ago with stunning and seemingly undepletable inventiveness all the way to the arbitrary limit of 100 variations by the flashy organist at St. Peter’s in Rome, Girolamo Frescobaldi.

Town fiddlers and titled court violinist could have a go at bass lines that relentlessly repeated beneath the variations that they improvised and that, like a self-winding clock, seemed capable of going on forever: variety and sameness enmeshed over time.

Such bass lines are close cousins of the ever familiar, if less florid and fantastical, doo wop patterns that yielded so many songs in the 1950s and beyond:

This treasury of musical figures has long funded ensemble improvisation, but also, as in the Frescobaldi example above, solo display.

In these modes of music-making the bass repeats obstinately (hence the Italian term for the technique, basso ostinato), though this line too can be ornamented with runs and leaps, quicker intervening notes, rhythmic alterations, unexpected rests, and chromatic inflections.  Whatever variety is introduced in this foundation, the soloists can rely on the succession of harmonies and let their highly trained creativity unspool in cyclic time.

Chaconnerie, a CD spanning nearly five centuries of bassi ostinato collected and performed with exuberant virtuosity by the Spanish harpsichordist Silvia Márquez, landed in my mailbox earlier this week.

Released in 2018, the disc was deposited in that mailbox by my friend and colleague, the composer of the last of the recording’s ten tracks, the distinguished Puerto Rican composer, Roberto Sierra. The “chaconne” embedded in the CD’s title refers to a dance—a libidinous one, it was said—imported from the New World after the Spanish conquest: sonic gold extracted from the colonies.  This disc is a sounding museum of musical artifacts fabricated from these raw materials.

All of them glint with the exotic, as Márquez points out in the wittily informative booklet. Her notes invest these historical and aesthetic contexts with a sense of fun. Quirky rhetorical figures parallel the unexpected turns that make these repeated bass lines sparkle.

Márquez begins with three numbers from the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries travelling up from Sicily to Rome and over to Iberia, and moving from sunlit brilliance to the darker interiors of courtly chambers.

We then jolt forward to the swinging 1970s with pedal-to-the-metal groove of György Ligeti “Hungarian Rock.” This mighty modernist knew his history, but his retrospective glance at the chaconne is just a quick one the rearview mirror: at highspeed he leaves the past behind. At the wheel of this twentieth-century classic, Márquez drives the harpsichord with tremendous control that revels in the risks of speed and enjoys those sharp turns, throttling ahead until, at the dazed conclusion, she lets off the gas as if in amazement that the racecourse could be survived at all.

After this immaculately executed frenzy, Márquez tours the titans of the great European keyboard dynasties:  a Couperin, a Scarlatti (Alessandro, not his now more famous harpsichord playing son, Domenico), two Bachs, and a spirited contribution from Handel, son of a surgeon who tried his best to bar the prodigy from pursuing a musical profession. The effusions of Handel’s Chaconne in G Minor prove just how misplaced his father’s worries were: the grace, grandeur, and energy of his musical imagination in these varied repetitions of the venerable passacaglia bass prove how unstoppable his desire remained even after he’d become European star and a rich one too.

There were no better bass-liners than the Bachs. Márquez presents a compelling transcription of Johann Sebastian’s celebrated Ciaccona for solo violin, followed by the sprawling twelve variations of “Les Folies d’Espagne”— the madness of Spain rampant in north Germany, played on a monster three-manual harpsichord of Hamburg hue.

The Bachs are a tough act to follow. Enter Sierra.  Written for Márquez and nominated for a Latin Grammy for Best Contemporary Composition, his 5:43 thrill ride is entitled, “Montuno en forma de chacona.”  The piece draws its repetitive power from the Puerto Rican traditions that inform much of Sierra’s music.  Equipped with real historical knowledge and compositional rigor thanks in no small measure to his teacher, Ligeti, Sierra navigates this Caribbean keyboard vamp (Montuno) into unchartered territory.

The score is a riptide of shifting meters, harmonic swerves, deft contrapuntal maneuvers that enliven and often cloak the bass pattern, even as its restive force propels the craft.  The homage to Ligeti heard (and felt in the keyboardist’s fingers) is fascinating and sincere. This admiration inspires Sierra to create a work of kindred scope, momentum, and irresistible excitement. There are also manic echoes of Bach (J. S.) in the careening two-part counterpoint. Past and present spark from Márquez’s ever-agile fingers.

Midway through the Montuno there is a lull troubled by gloomy clusters. After a fitful utterance of the fabled Folia pattern, the barque’s sails fill again. The craft encounters high seas, the harpsichordists fists slapping against the keys. The final storm lingers in a ringing, ominous aftermath. Only at the calamitous conclusion are aware that time has passed. Did the ship make it from the Caribbean back to Spain?

On this disc anchored by Sierra’s sublimely careening ostinato, constraints become a form of liberation.

DAVID YEARSLEY is a long-time contributor to CounterPunch and the Anderson Valley Advertiser. His latest book is Sex, Death, and Minuets: Anna Magdalena Bach and Her Musical NotebooksHe can be reached at