StringSection Blog

Posts Tagged ‘String Arranging’

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.

Composing New Age Music

Thursday, May 3rd, 2012

‘New Age’ or Relaxation Music, like all music intended as a background ambience, can elicit very mixed responses from different people. Whilst some find the neutrality of the synthesized sounds relaxing (rather like a blank canvas), others have commented that they find it repetitive and overly artificial. Well crafted music should allow the person meditating, performing yoga or experiencing a holistic therapy to mentally ‘switch off’ from internal thoughts and external stimuli. It also serves the purpose of masking intrusive noises, such as outside traffic and conversations which may be occurring nearby and the presence of music may help the client feel that they don’t need to make conversation with the practitioner to alleviate the silence. Ideally slow, without too many changes of tempo, relaxation music should create a backdrop to aid calming and allow the client to focus on any treatment they are receiving.

Often though, this seemingly neutral music can cause consternation in the listener. The seemingly slow ‘swirl’ of the synthesized keyboard textures is not everyone’s cup of tea. The use of birdsong, waterfalls, rainfall as well as the sound of dolphins, whales and other creatures can be distracting rather than relaxing. Sampled indigenous sounds (such as didgeridoos or chanting) may be greatly enjoyed by many but can occasionally alienate people who are not immersed in a New Age philosophy. So, as all our tastes are different, whilst New Age music is ultimately designed to have a relaxing influence, for some it can have the opposite effect or even provoke scorn. A friend who works as a massage practitioner commented that for the majority people who are simply coming along for a treatment on tense shoulders or a sports injury, she usually selects albums of quiet classical guitar or harp music as these are tasteful and calming without any unfamiliar or artificial noises.

This was something I reflected on whilst writing the album ‘Music for Healing, Relaxation and Massage’. The music was always going to be written with real instruments replacing the more usual synthesizers, I wanted to make sure that it was an album that could be played and enjoyed by most people, without a practitioner or clients being distracted by anything unfamiliar. The instrumentation included violins, violas, cellos, flutes, oboes and cor anglais. As the music was composed with orchestral instruments in mind (and not on a keyboard transcribed electronically), each melodic line was written to have complete independence from all the others – this is a hallmark of classical music in general. If you were to highlight and listen to one instrument, its melody would make perfect sense on its own. The music also had to effectively hold the listener in a suspended state of relaxation without using minor chords, changes in tempo, original melody – as all of these usual compositional techniques could be too distracting for a client receiving healing. The important thing was to avoid writing anything that was too memorable – again, this is the opposite of what a composer or string arranger would usually do. I was advised that if a client came out of a therapy humming a catchy tune, they may not have been able to fully relax into the treatment. Writing in this new genre was a challenge, yet an opportunity to try and create a certain mood or atmosphere, where the music contributes to the effect of the healing session without dominating in any way.

Another challenge was to write twelve tracks (each of almost exactly five minutes in length), each of which had a slightly different mood, but which merged one into another seamlessly. So, it would be as if each track had a subtly different shade of colour, without this being too jarring on the senses. The beginning of the album was to represent the beginning of a treatment, with the patient gradually acclimatizing to a deeper state of relaxation, therefore the music had to reflect this by becoming more ethereal and thinly scored as the treatment progressed, being at its most sparse and minimal in the three central tracks. After this, the album gradually comes back down to earth and becomes more ‘grounded’ at the end of the healing session, with a final ‘reprise’ as a gentle signal that the hour is drawing to its close. The last track is a continuation and variation of the opening track, so this signals the end and prepares the listener for the return to the everyday world.

Although when I first started this project, I hadn’t really considered writing like this, what I gained from the project was the ability to compose in a totally new style of music – one that enables the listener to be in the moment with a sense of stillness. I had to curb any natural temptation to write interesting harmonies, counter melodies, rhythmical changes and powerful orchestration as these can be too stirring on the emotions. Feedback from several sources (including our local chiropractor) was that the music was very different from anything else she played in her clinic and that lots of her clients had remarked on how using a real orchestra was a breath of fresh air. Some people have suggested that stringed instruments might have a healing effect in their own right, with natural vibrations emanating from the harmonies and the input of human beings actually performing music on real instruments makes it sound…well, real!

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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.

When you don’t need strings…..

Monday, September 13th, 2010

Occasionally we receive enquiries from people who would like parts written or a string arrangement for a pop track but on listening to the track, it sounds very full already without strings: in short, adding strings can just be one more thing that makes a song too ‘busy’ and risks overloading the listener with too much going on.

Although in many cases, strings can be written around melodies and other instrumentation to fill in, enhance, support or even add new counter melodies there are some songs that just won’t benefit from strings at all and if the string arranger has sound musical judgement, he or she may advise a client not to use their services at all.

So what type of song may not need strings at all?  Any track which is already heavily laden with guitar and percussion, vocals, keyboard and bass will need to have ‘room’ in it for strings – either as an instrumental break, or in a verse / chorus where things are quieter and the strings can come through. Strings can also be used to add a ‘sheen’ of simple chords over the top of other instruments if there is already a lot going on. When a track sounds complete with a full range of notes already covered there may not be any benefit at all from including yet another group of instruments  (a string section) and the song can begin to feel cluttered or over the top.

Problems can arise when a band or songwriter have already produced a song then decide afterwards that they’d like to include strings as well on top of everything else. If the piece is written knowing that the strings will be coming in at some point, space can be left for them (a bit like designing the layout of a room and leaving space for a sofa rather than cramming it in somewhere as an afterthought!).

Up and Down Bow Staccato….

Monday, May 17th, 2010

This is a technique reserved for the most skillful players and when executed rapidly and cleanly, up and down bow staccato can have a mesmerising effect. It is different from normal staccato in that the bow in effect scoops several times in an up or down direction with a gap in between each note. Slowed down, the bow presses into the string (like the martele) and then releases as the bow travels before stopping – and then the whole process starts again. The movements and distances involved are minute and many players find that stiffening the bow arm is a way of playing this effectively.

Up and down bow staccato is notated as a series of notes with dots above the note heads all slurred together, often as many as 24 notes in one bow. This is exactly the same notation as for an up or down spiccato passage and it is up to the players judgement as to which technique to use. As an example, in Sarasate’s Zigeunerweisen there are many such passages but as they are notated so rapidly, they cannot be played as staccato at such a high speed and therefore must be spiccato whereas in Wieniawski’s second violin concerto (first movement), there are passages of semi quavers that are written at a speed where an up bow spiccato wouldn’t be impressive, but an up bow staccato would wow the audience!

In a string arrangement, it would probably only be written at a very slow speed – perhaps accented to create an attacking or percussive feel with the strings. Only in a string concerto that was designed to show off the talents of a virtuosic performer would the rapid up or down bow spiccato be written.

It may well be that putting a passage of rapid up (or down) bow staccato in front of a group of studio musicians could cause a few raised eyebrows and would generally be written for a solo instrument (where the player was warned in advance!)