StringSection Blog

Posts Tagged ‘string arrangements’

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.

Recording strings at Voltaire Road Studios (Clapham)

Monday, July 16th, 2012

A couple of weeks ago, I was hired to record some live strings on 5 tracks by a band from Louisiana who are having their album recorded and produced here in the UK. The files for the string arrangements were all sent to me in advance so that they could be checked and any adjustments made before the recording date itself – this is always a good idea as it can save a considerable amount of studio time on the day.

The string parts (for violins and violas) had been written to add impact to the tracks so a powerful and committed sound was required. As such, the particular violin that I chose to use on the day is one with a really strong, focused sound. This is something worth considering, as stringed instruments can vary so much from one another. For example, one of my other violins which I regularly use to record with has a mellower, warmer sound with possibly more tonal variety, but for this particular job didn’t seem appropriate – I would be more likely to use that one for music which required a slightly gentler, more lilting feel.  Interestingly, both of these two violins are made by the same luthier – Martin McClean of Northern Ireland, both are fantastic instruments, yet each has its own distinct personality.

Recording Session at RAK Studios

Tuesday, April 3rd, 2012

Yesterday, we popped into RAK Studios in St John’s Wood to record string quartet parts for a band who wanted to enhance their track with live strings. The string arranger had introduced a “Bollywood” style to the writing, so there were plenty of glissandi throughout the parts. These were very effective and gave the music an extra dimension, adding a slightly mournful quality to the strings. This style of writing was reminiscent of some of the later Beatles string arrangements, using a classical Indian influence to great effect.

As various countries and cultures have their own distinct style of writing and orchestrating for strings, some arrangers and bands can choose to utilise this to add interest to a track. By writing a western pop or rock track and asking the string arranger to compose parts with a middle Eastern, Scandanavian or Celtic flavour, the whole feel of a track can be altered to suggest a fusion of influences. In the same way, a string arranger could be approached with the brief of writing parts in the style of various decades – for example 1960’s ‘easy listening’ strings or something highly classical in nature.


Saturday, February 13th, 2010

To begin with, a Cadenza is not something a string arranger would usually write into an average 3 minute pop song or rock track but they can be added into other styles of music and apply to any instrument (not just strings!). A cadenza comes from the word ‘Cadence’ (a cadence is an ending either to a phrase or even section of a piece) and is essentially an ad libbed passage in a piece of music (usually at a Cadence) where a solo instrument breaks out from the rest into a flourish. In the baroque era, a singer would often embellish a cadence with an improvisation (normally near the end of an aria). Later, in the classical period the cadenza developed into an improvised solo at the end of the recapitulation section and before the coda of a first movement (normally a concerto). In this form, the soloist would take themes from the piece and develop them, often changing the form into something quite different yet still related to the original melody. Cadenzas became increasingly virtuosic, allowing the performer the chance to really demonstrate their skills on the instrument – and in many cases became quite a few minutes long. Nowadays, a cadenza is less commonly improvised and more often carefully composed before the performance to cleverly capture themes from the piece and gain the maximum impact whilst still feeling ‘improvised’. The performer has the complete attention of the audience during a cadenza so it’s important to ‘get it right’ and most cadenzas are carefully prepared beforehand.

In a string arrangement for a song, the length of the track will determine how long a cadenza might last but in modern pop or rock music it now takes the form of an instrumental break – where the vocalist and other instruments takes a pause and one of the instruments comes to the fore with a solo phrase or quick flourish, possibly only lasting a few seconds. An appropriate section could be at the end of the introduction, before the first verse begins. 

So how does a cadenza differ from say, a guitar solo? In a guitar solo the beat or pulse of the track continues underneath – sometimes the same chords repeat, allowing the guitar to float over the top with improvised runs. In a cadenza, the beat of the music stops completely (like a pause), allowing the instrument to provide a fill in until the music starts where it left off. A cadenza is usually a solo instrument, but there’s no reason why a whole section of instruments couldn’t play one!

Pizzicato (plucked strings)

Tuesday, May 26th, 2009

Pizzicato is simply a technique where the strings are plucked rather than bowed (arco). It is a great tool to add variety to a piece and can enhance the rhythmic vitality of a section. As the tension of violin strings is higher than that on guitars, plucked notes tend to give an immediate response with a slightly ‘tight’ sound and a rapid decay.
When used in a full string section, pizzicato can cut through other textures without sounding abrasive, but can also be used to add a touch of humour or quirkiness to a song. Often single notes can be picked out or plucked as part of a counter melody, or if a single chord needs to be struck, 2, 3 or even 4 notes can be simultaneously plucked. In this instance, a knowledge of the tuning of stringed instruments is needed as the spacing of the chord is unique to the string family (being tuned in fifths). A string arranger has to take into account that on a given chord, there is a big spread of notes and it’s important to know which finger takes each string so that the chord ends up being playable by your session musicians.
When writing for stringed instruments, it’s always important to keep in mind how the four strings are tuned unless the lines are very simple. If the parts have been written on a keyboard, they may not necessarily be playable on a violin, viola or cello so unless the composer is a professional string arranger, asking a string player to check them through is advisable before entering the studio.
Although usually used sparingly, adding some pizzicato effects can be a great way to bring some bounce and life to string arrangements. Plucked strings can be soft and subtle or really dramatic.