StringSection Blog

Posts Tagged ‘String quartet’

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!



Writing for strings on a keyboard (part 2)

Thursday, August 26th, 2010

Many violinists, violists and cellists have experienced the joys of playing a concerto with an orchestral reduction which has been written for the piano. Often, this is a more fulfilling experience for the string player than for the pianist. Part of the reason is because the reduction of a complete orchestral score to a piano part inevitably leads to ‘un pianistic writing’, but another reason is that tremolos (or tremolandos) are exceedingly hard to play on a keyboard instrument. They are sometimes written for virtuosic effect but the rapid depression of a single key is not practical, therefore the notation changes the tremolo to a rapid oscillation between two pitches an octave apart.

In reverse, there are many phrases that sit comfortably under a pianists hands that might be incredibly awkward when transferred to a stringed instrument which is tuned in fifths. An example of this could be rapid, slurred semiquavers that occasionally jump from an upper string to say, two strings down. This may fall within an octave hand span, yet the effect of rapidly jumping two strings could be clumsy and disrupt the flow of the music, even though it’s technically playable.

As many of the great composers knew, writing for stringed instruments well often involves ‘open strings‘ and writing within the key signatures which naturally suit the instruments. Any key is possible but as an example, the key of D major would project better than that of Db major. The reason for this is that there are more resonating notes in D major than in Db. To give a brief explanation, when played perfectly in tune, any G, D, A or E on the violin can be made to ‘ring’ and resonate more than other notes. As an example, the note A in the first position on the E string is an octave above the open A string and when played in tune can be made to ‘ring’ with the other string in sympathy. The same is true of the note A on the D string (the same pitch as the open A string) which is a very strong note on the violin with it’s ability to resonate with the open string and therefore a really meaty and rich sound can be produced on this note. On the piano, most notes in the middle register of the instrument have more or less an equal tendency to resonate (although I am sure there are many subtleties and differences between them). The ruling principle is not necessarily which key signatures sound strongest but which are easiest to play in terms of hand position. The point is, what sounds easy and right on a keyboard is completely different to what sounds natural and best on a stringed instrument.

When writing for strings (e.g a string quartet), the importance of using counterpoint (where each instrument has its own independent melody line that enhances and complements the others) is very possible on a piano, but for those writing chords it’s essential that each instrument in the string section has a line of melody which could be played in it’s own right and still sound musical. When writing chords, which notes are assigned to which instrument (whether violin, viola, cello or double bass) can make a huge difference to the overall sound and flow of the track.

Large String Sound for an Independent Release…

Friday, May 7th, 2010

Congratulations this week to the Granite Shore who have just sent us the final mix of two songs which we have provided strings for. As these two songs ‘Flood of Fortune‘ and ‘Highway Code‘ are to be released on an independent label ‘Occultation‘, our brief was to arrange and record strings to a high standard yet keep within a budget. The strings on Flood of Fortune were written for a large scale string section whereas Highway Code is more simply scored for string quartet.

Both tracks are to be released on vinyl and should be available from June onwards, but preview clips can already be heard on the Granite Shore website. It’s always very satisfying to hear a final mix back (as we only really get to hear the string parts at the end of a recording session!), and we wish the band all the best of luck!

Improvising in the studio, arranging and recording

Friday, June 5th, 2009

This week we contributed to two contrasting recording projects – one for some final year students at SAE in Oxford where the studio was absolutely state of the art and the particular studio we were in used a lot of analogue recording equipment including an old analogue valve mixing desk. The recording was part of an assignment for the students and their brief was to record 4 acoustic instruments on top of guitars / drums etc, with three tracks all in all. The session involved some music which was already scored and some which we were asked to improvise in order to fulfill the assignment brief.

On Monday we were asked for something totally different – working with a talented singer songwriting partnership who needed string quartet parts adding to some tracks which were almost finished. As I’d been asked to arrange the strings for two of the tracks, we’d been working together all week via email with small adjustments to get the strings sounding as close to the composers ideas as possible – this is a process which requires patience as often several revisions are needed before the song is ‘just right’. It’s always gratifying to get into the studio and finally record the parts – and after all the careful arranging work, we laid down the strings at the Dairy Studios in Brixton.  The session ran smoothly and we recorded three songs with very few ‘second takes’ needed. Although the majority of the music was scored for string quartet, there were a few bars where the sound needed to be thickened up with an extra violin or viola part, so I stayed on and carefully overdubbed a few phrases at the end to give a larger string section sound.