StringSection Blog

String Arranging

The trouble with a click track is……

Sunday, March 2nd, 2014

A click track is one of the most useful tools available in the recording studio. For many years it has helped musicians to gain a rhythmic tightness whilst multi tracking, as well as being used in Film and T.V. for the purpose of synchronizing music with on screen action. It can however be a restriction when attempting to record any piece of music which requires rubato (nicely summed up as ‘the temporary manipulation of the rhythmic pulse, to allow an expressive quickening or slackening, but without affecting the overall pace’).

Recently I was asked to arrange a waltz from a famous 19th century opera, to be included in a feature film. When listening to a magical performance of it by The Royal Philharmonic Orchestra under the great Sir Thomas Beecham, it left me wondering what the secret of their magic was. Before the main theme is even stated, a short introduction accelerates towards fanfare-like chords, ending with a dramatic pause. The melody then melts in tenderly and engages the listener with the contrast already presented (like entering a warm room on a chilly day). The piece crescendos and subtly speeds up through its sequences of ascending scales. This is contrasted with a much more extrovert and bold second subject, whose character is confident and metronomic. But it is clear that the sensitive (almost insecure) first subject of the Valse is given a slightly different speed and tonal shade depending on the key it is played in. The contrasts of the push and pull in the tempo conjure up different emotions in the listener; whereas the first and second themes are given entirely different characters, like actors in a play.

My brief as a string arranger was to orchestrate the piece for string sextet and to try and capture some of Beecham’s magic through his skilled use of rubato. When we came to the studio, this was without doubt a challenging piece to record with a click track (for the combination of 2 violins, 2 violas and 2 cellos), as everything had to flow organically, yet move around the click track without deviating a single beat. The inner parts that often have the job of providing the second and third beats of the waltz were the trickiest of all as these had to lend stability to the dance without sounding rigid. The whole track will accompany dancers in the film and my hope is that they will feel completely comfortable dancing to the track, without any of the lilting quality being lost.


Scordatura – for convenience rather than effect.

Tuesday, February 11th, 2014

Recently, I recorded some string parts for a client, who had written pieces for a string quartet, but only sixteen notes of this fell below the range of the violas by only one semitone. Rather than booking in a cellist and the client paying one musician a minimum two hour session fee to play just 16 notes, with the agreement of the client I detuned my viola by a semitone and played them myself. Because they were covered by higher Bs written an octave above, it wasn’t noticeable that they were out of range at all, and the end result was very satisfactory. Scordatura used more for convenience than effect.

The word ‘Scordatura’ means ‘to mistune’ and it is the technique of changing the conventional tuning on a stringed instrument in order to change the tonal quality or harmonic possibilities of the instruments. Violins, violas and cellos are all tuned in perfect fifths and occasionally the pitch of the strings can be adjusted in order to create a special effect. A famous example of this is at the beginning of Camille Saint-Saens’s symphonic poem ‘Danse Macabre’ (Op. 40), where the solo violin has an E string detuned to an Eb. This creates an interval of a diminished fifth when played with the open A string and is used to describe death as a fiddler summoning all the skeletons from their graves. 

One of the most celebrated innovators of scordatura was Heinrich Ignaz Franz Biber who wrote a collection of fifteen sonatas for violin and continuo, known as the ‘Rosary’ or ‘Mystery’ sonatas. Each sonata employs a different tuning for the instrument. Jeremy Eichler wrote: ‘The alternative tuning, known as scordatura, is not some minor technical detail. Each new configuration is a secret key to an invisible door, unlocking a different set of chordal possibilities on the instrument, opening up alternative worlds of resonance and vibration. The violin quite literally changes the essential qualities of its own voice’. 

The great Italian violin virtuoso and innovator Niccolo Paganini also used scordatura in his first violin concerto, but this was for different reasons. Originally written in the key of D major, he instructed the player to tune the entire violin up a semitone and perform the work in Eb major instead, in order to give the solo part a more brilliant tonal quality.

When writing for string quartet or string orchestra, it’s worth bearing in mind that the bottom note of the cello and viola is a C. This doesn’t necessarily mean that the key of B major or B minor should be avoided, only that the tonic note of this key will fall a semitone below the range of both instruments. Having said that, Ludwig Van Beethoven, perhaps the greatest master of the string quartet, wrote more than one work for this format in the key of Bb major!



Part 3: Nick Drake String Arrangements on ‘Bryter Layter’

Monday, July 8th, 2013

Nick Drake’s second album entitled ‘Bryter Layter’ was recorded in 1970, after Drake had effectively ‘dropped out’ of Cambridge. He had ended up living in a bedsit in Belsize Park organised by the producer Joe Boyd after spending months sleeping on friends’ sofas and floors. It was a year where he finally became disillusioned with performing live: it seemed that the scenario was too exposed for his introverted and withdrawn personality and he backed away from it feeling battered and bruised.

‘Bryter Layter’ was an attempt to try and sell more records (after the commercial disappointment of ‘Five Leaves Left’) as there was a recognition that Drake’s obvious songwriting talents had not translated into sales. By adding drum and bass guitar as well as a variety of different instruments it was hoped that the songs would capture the public’s attention and propel him into greater prominence. It eventually led to disappointment as it failed to sell many more than its predecessor and artistically marred some of Drake’s creations through often inappropriate arrangements (the low points being the subway-style saxophone in ‘At the Chime of a City Clock’ and the gospel choir that seems so out of place on ‘Poor Boy’).

The album starts with a track entitled ‘Introduction’ – a pretty fragment of an idea that seems to lead on so naturally from ‘Five Leaves Left’ and has the feeling of waves lapping against the shore. It consists of an arpeggiated acoustic guitar pattern accompanied by some lush string writing. Again, Kirby adds some simple but attractive string lines that are in sympathy with the ambience of the track.

Sadly, this mood is shattered in ‘Hazey Jane II’ which has a Tijuana-style brass sound reminiscent of an Easy Listening record. Admittedly the mood is more upbeat and so wouldn’t have suited the acoustic guitar/congas/strings combination, but nonetheless the arrangement seems like a slight mismatch of styles.

The strings return in ‘At the Chime of a City Clock’, a subtly observational song where sadly Drake’s acoustic guitar playing is again pushed more to the background. There is a feeling in this track that the ingredients that created the magic of ‘Five Leaves Left’ have been largely overlooked and so the song doesn’t always play to Nick Drake’s obvious strengths. Here the strings are asked to fit into a mix with drums, bass, vocals and guitar (and later a meandering saxophone) so end up being sidelined, rather like the acoustic guitar.

‘Hazey Jane I’ is the fifth track on the album and here the strings are pushed back in the mix, despite the track only having a light scoring (the guitar, vocals, bass and drums being not as active as in ‘City Clock’). They are sensitively arranged and again work well in tandem with Drake’s acoustic guitar work but the plate reverb smothers them, giving them a Mantovani-like feel. . .and that isn’t a good thing!

In the title track ‘Bryter Layter’, the unison upper strings (doubling the flute) are used for the main ‘hook’, in this dipsy, dreamy, light-hearted number.

The last track entitled ‘Sunday’ (like ‘Bryter Layter’ a purely instrumental track) also contains strings and despite their subtle presence, they do add a warmth to the track that belies their skill. Generally written in the lower register, they give a harmonic richness and depth that ‘fills out’ the track nicely.

‘Bryter Layter’ does contain some beautiful tracks (such as ‘Northern Sky’, one of the best songs on all three albums). The overall impression though, is of a producer throwing as much instrumentation at the album as possible. There are strings, flutes, saxophones, gospel choirs, harpsichords, cocktail pianos and even a dodgy sounding viola. This mishmash of different styles may not be entirely the producer’s fault: Drake may have been responding to criticism that the first album was too ‘samey’ and therefore set out to make the mood of the songs in the second offering more upbeat and varied. But his sublime songwriting talents were of a delicate nature and overall (despite some wonderful highlights) this album doesn’t quite hit the mark as ‘Five Leaves Left’ did (and ‘Pink Moon’ was to do in a different way). Nonetheless, for the growing legions of Nick Drake fans, it is a cherished offering which begs the question of what he could have achieved if his life hadn’t been cut so terribly short.



Part 2: Nick Drake String Arrangements on ‘Five Leaves Left’

Sunday, June 23rd, 2013

The album ‘Five Leaves Left’ was started in late 1968 with Joe Boyd as producer (a man who had produced ‘Fairport Convention’ amongst other bands and who had been introduced to Drake through the bass player Ashley Hutchins). Initial string arrangements were scrapped and it seems that Boyd took a gamble in accepting Drake’s recommendation of his former Cambridge University friend, Robert Kirby as string arranger. This young undergraduate (with no experience of arranging for the pop medium) surprised everyone with his accomplished arrangements, which had such an empathy with Drake’s intentions.

There was one song however that he felt unable to confidently approach, and that was the second song entitled ‘River Man’. For me, this is one of a handful of songs which totally encapsulate Drake’s style: melancholy, unresolved, washed out, drifting from major to minor on words that speak of some deep, hidden malaise. The strings needed to be equal to it, so the budget was stretched and veteran film and television composer, band leader and arranger Harry Robinson (or according to Wikipedia. Robertson?) was drafted in. His string arrangement is masterful and I believe is the finest one to grace the album. He draws on the whole vocabulary of English string writing from Frank Bridge, to Delius and Britten. This type of arrangement could never be done by a record producer or pop songwriter with no grounding in classical music as it requires so many different skills: the ability to notate music with a full knowledge of each instrument; an understanding of harmony that goes way beyond the periphery of rock and pop music, and a saturation in English classical music that gives the song its added richness. In essence, it does what the second album ‘Bryter Layter’ tries and fails to do: it gives the song a further dimension. Counter-melodies cross and fade, chords are well spaced and always in the right register, textures are allowed to change, melodic lines passed from one section to another. For another example of work by this wonderful arranger, listen to Sandy Denny’s track ‘The Lady’.

‘Way To Blue’ has a deliberate Baroque feel to it, with ostensibly homophonic string writing and striking suspensions. It is simple yet powerful and Robert Kirby draws on his own knowledge of music by such composers as Handel and Albinoni with some attractive descending string lines, reminiscent of a French Overture from an 18th century Suite.

‘Day Is Done’ is sympathetically arranged with some loving counter melodies which perfectly complement the track. They add interest without ever being obtrusive and gain contrast through legato counter melodies, repeated staccato chords and at times a subtle doubling of the guitar line. They are light yet full and many songwriters who have listened to this song immediately want their strings sounding like this…..and clients seeking string arrangements frequently use it as an example of how they’d like me to approach their own song.

‘Cello Song’ is such an evocative piece: I recently heard it in a documentary called ‘Deep Water’ about an ill-fated sailor in the 1968 Golden Globe sailing competition. It perfectly encapsulated the buzz and activity of setting up a sailing boat and yet seems to represent (to me) a feeling of being hopelessly lost. ‘But while the earth sinks to its grave, you sail to the sky on the crest of a wave. So forget this cruel world where I belong, I’ll just sit and wait and sing my song.’ The solo cello seems to convey so much with so few notes: exotic, slightly Eastern, yet hinting at something passive and surrendering.

The strings in ‘The Thoughts of Mary Jane’ enter about halfway through in a hazy tremor. They add a lushness to the texture but achieve this without being too thick. It’s all to do with the arranger’s feel for register and chord spacing: knowing how to add enough without overcrowding the track. Again, Kirby’s gift for melody adds sympathetic touches while allowing the song to retain its lightness.

In ‘Fruit Tree’ an oboe and cor anglais add a mellow yet yearning quality to compliment the strings. The strings often have quite compact, diminished chords and their throbbing insistency contrasts with the more fluid woodwind lines.

Any arranging (whether for strings, brass or woodwind) depends entirely on the given musical matter and serves a purpose in complementing, illuminating and elaborating on it. Constant Lambert, commenting on Verdi’s later operas wrote ‘. . .the greater richness of the orchestral accompaniment is what chiefly distinguishes these operas from his earlier works, but, as in the case of Tchaikovsky, this richness is merely the logical counterpart of the greater power and flexibility of the melodic line.’ In essence, the arranging is only as good as the material it is complementing.

Part 1: Why Nick Drake String Arrangements are so Popular. . .

Tuesday, June 18th, 2013

The music of Nick Drake is now (almost 40 years after his premature death in 1974) more popular than it ever was in his lifetime. It continues on its journey with an impetus entirely of its own, awakening the consciousness of people across the world. Brad Pitt is an especially famous devotee of his music and hundreds of bands nowadays are influenced by the subtle yet affecting qualities of Nick Drake’s albums. Many clients who get in touch with us requesting string arrangements specify that they’d like a particular track to include a string arrangement like Nick Drake’s, so this is the first in a series of blog articles about some of the techniques of orchestration and harmony which make the strings on his albums work so well.

Nick Drake’s music is often described as ‘wistful’, ‘melancholy’ and ‘pastoral’, encapsulating a peculiarly English poetic touch. He often seems to be viewing the world from a detached perspective as if somehow elevated from it. The whole atmosphere created has a feeling of being slightly narcotic, as if experienced in a haze. Drake’s delivery is educated and middle-class with no attempt at a trans-Atlantic posturing: indeed, the words and delivery are more reminiscent of 19th century English poets than of any comparable contemporary songwriter. His guitar playing is highly rhythmical, with many cross rhythms that require little additional percussion (although the use of a conga in a track such as ‘Cello Song’ complements the guitar well). His style is also fragile: it doesn’t require much to break the magic spell and sadly this does happen on certain tracks of the second album ‘Bryter Layter’. Often the melody line is simple and diatonic – yet underneath is a labyrinth of complex chords, attained through his experimentations with open tunings. But the focus of these three articles will be the string arrangements which often so perfectly complement Drake’s songs. I’ll take an overview of his brief life and slim output and then focus on two of the three albums released: namely ‘Five Leaves Left’ and ‘Bryter Layter’. The third album entitled ‘Pink Moon’ was much stripped down from the previous two efforts and as such didn’t have any string arrangements on it at all.

Drake was often described by those closest to him as being a remote personality whom few people (if anyone) truly got to know. He attended public school at Marlborough College before spending six months at the University of Aix-Marseille, eventually going on to study English literature at Cambridge. It was here that he met Robert Kirby, who provided most of the string arrangements on ‘Five Leaves Left’ and ‘Bryter Layter’ (he was also introduced to the American producer Joe Boyd who was to have such an important influence on his recording career).

His first album, ‘Five Leaves Left’ (named after the slip of paper found in ‘Rizla’ cigarette papers) was recorded at the end of sessions for Fairport Convention’s ‘Unhalfbricking’ album (hence, the use of Richard Thompson on the opening track). This was not a satisfactory arrangement and although the album turned out well and generally received good critical comment (although some felt there was a lack of variety in the tracks), it didn’t sell more than a couple of thousand copies. Part of the problem was Drake’s inherent shyness: he was reluctant to be interviewed and cut an awkward figure when he performed live (often spending a long time tuning up his guitar and largely ignoring the audience). ‘Bryter Layter’ was given the easy listening treatment, with saxophones, drums, gospel singers and harpsichords, prompting the Melody Maker magazine to describe it as “an awkward mix of folk and cocktail jazz”. Again, the album didn’t sell well, and this, coupled with his growing unease with performing on stage, led to him withdrawing into himself further (Boyd also left to work in Los Angeles, so Drake lost a musical mentor).

‘Pink Moon’ proved to be his final offering and runs at a meagre 28 minutes in length. The album was largely recorded in two days and it seems that John Wood was the only other person involved in the making of it. It is pared down to guitar and vocals, with piano in just one track. Again, initial sales of the album were disappointing and Drake effectively stopped writing songs. He became even more withdrawn and returned to live with his parents in Warwickshire, which he seems to have accepted as an inevitable necessity. Kirby described a typical visit from his friend: ‘He would arrive and not talk, sit down, listen to music, have a smoke, have a drink, sleep there the night, and two or three days later he wasn’t there, he’d be gone….and three months later he’d be back.’

In 1974 he approached Wood about recording a fourth album and songs were recorded, but he had deteriorated both in personal appearance as well as in musical performance (necessitating overdubs for his vocals and guitar as he could no longer record both simultaneously). This, coupled with unsettling outbursts of bitterness made the recording of these tracks an unhappy experience. Drake died of an overdose of antidepressants in November 1974 at the age of 26. His legacy amounts to little more than 2 hours of music, yet the influence he continues to exert over singer/songwriters and string arrangers is considerable.

In the next blog article, I’ll explore why the string arranging in the first two Nick Drake albums (and in particular, ‘Five Leaves Left’) is so successful and is still so often held up as an example of good string arranging today.