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!)
Left Hand Pizzicato is a specialised technique which is generally employed in more virtuosic string music and involves the fingers of the left hand actually plucking at the string, often with another finger ‘stopping’ the string to create the pitch. It differs in sound from a normal pizzicato because of the place on the string where the plucking occurs. Normally, a pizzicato would happen within two or three inches of the top of the fingerboard whereas by it’s nature, left hand pizzicato occurs much further down, a few inches from the ‘start’ of the string, near the nut (raised area at the bottom of the strings).
When the strings are plucked in normal usage, the sound is fulsome and (depending on the string) will take a slight amount of time to die away, whereas in L.H pizzicato, the sound is much tinnier and has a thin, pecking sound. Paganini uses it in his 24th Caprice to great effect by alternating it with ‘up bows‘ which have a similar sonority.
In L.H Pizzicato, the strength of fingers is important and those string players with well developed finger muscles will find it easier to perform than those with weaker fingers. Like normal pizzicato, the string is plucked sideways with the finger applying lateral pressure in a ‘dragging’ motion followed by a rapid release.
Most importantly of all, it is marked by a cross (+) above a note. The effect of L.H Pizzicato is a surprising one and gives a very flashy touch to a piece. It very rarely occurs in orchestral music or arrangements for a whole string section but appears more in the solo repertoire.
The literal definition of the Italian word ‘Rubato’ is ‘robbed time’, which doesn’t seem to be a particularly attractive way of describing something that adds such emotional meaning to a piece of music. In essence, it is where music is slowed down or speeded up to create an expressive effect. When done with artistry and musical sensitivity, rubato can subtly ebb and flow but without distorting the rhythmic pulse. What is taken away is always added back, rubato would never slow a pulse down and then not regain it later on, it is in a sense elastic.
In the studio, the only way of effectively playing rubato in an ensemble is through playing ‘live’, where all the session musicians are actively listening to each other and making minute adjustments as they play. It would not be possible to achieve a natural ‘pulling up’ or quickening with a click track. A click track is frequently used in recording situations, especially where string parts are to be added over existing instruments or vocals – it takes the form of a metronome beat heard only in the headphones of the session musicians who are working on the track. A click can be speeded up or slowed to suit the beat of the music players are working on and can even accelerate or slow down, but this rarely sounds very natural.
When music is of a metronomic nature (such as rock or pop music), then a click track can be highly effective and when used well, will not be betrayed in the end result. Recordings can sound perfectly natural where a click track has been used and often can have a tightness and accuracy that could only be achieved with a lot of rehearsing. Of course, if multiple overdubs are used then a click track is an essential tool and will cut down the studio time needed.
In more sophisticated music which is ever changing, the use of a click track can be more of a hindrance than a help and in that situation, musicians opt to use their ensemble skills and the end result will hopefully be far more natural.
When a composer or string arranger wishes to create a specifically warm or hazy sound, they may well write in the direction ‘Sul Tasto’ meaning ‘on the touch or on the fingerboard’. In effect this means bringing the bow further away from the bridge until it is over the end of the finger board. Here, the string has less tension as it is further from the point of suspension on the bridge and therefore has less resistance, so cannot take as much pressure. Generally Sul Tasto is used for a softer dynamic (such as p or pp) and like a harmonic, a faster, gentler bow is utilised.
Yehudi Menuhin defines it as giving “….a velvety and cooing sound. The string is soft, not as resistant, and cannot take any pressure….”
When a full string section plays Sul Tasto, the effect can be of a very soft sheen with any surface noise absorbed by having so many players. In a solo instrument, recording with a close microphone can pick up some of the surface noise (the bow against the string), but it has a lilting, ethereal quality, not unlike a flute.
Counterpoint is the art of writing individual parts that have complete melodic independence from one another yet work in harmony and compliment each other perfectly. It is a skill that comes from an advanced understanding of harmony and an innate grasp of what will sound correct. If done with imagination and flair, counterpoint can completely transform any piece of music into something rich and complex.
Fortunately, there is no computer (as yet!) that can automatically write counterpoint – it is an art that comes from a human beings inspiration.
There have been many sessions that we have been asked to provide strings on where the string parts have been sustained in nature and harmonically slightly empty (often travelling in octaves or unison with little texture in the middle). This can be appropriate where the other instruments are busy in the track but often it’s inappropriate and doesn’t fully utilise the presence of live strings in the studio – there is a feeling that they could do so much more. In this context, counterpoint in the form of a skillful counter melody or an interesting, moving part can provide a special feeling adding climax and interest to the string parts. When a composer is completely reliant on a keyboard and therefore bases much of the writing on blocks of chords, then the strings never really come alive. It is the presence of the individual strands which make up a beautiful, flowing whole – rather like a tapestry with different threads and colours woven through it.
If a string arranger is considering writing a counter melody (whether above the tune or in the middle register to add detail underneath), they can start by playing around with the three notes of the triad in the existing chords (in the instance of a 7th chord, this may be 4 notes). Before long, a melody will start to unfold based on these notes and eventually the shape of the melody will emerge, often through passing notes which allow it to effortlessly travel from one chord to another in a smooth succession.
Here’s an example of a string arrangement I wrote for string quartet – based on the traditional Christmas tune ‘I Saw Three Ships’. Although many carol books suggested which chords to put with it, I was happier experimenting until it felt right.
Violins: Vaughan Jones and Louise Bevan, Viola: Adrian Smith, Cello: Tony Woollard
As an example of a counter melody, at around 16 seconds in, the second violin begins a counter melody to the same rhythm as the first violin. At 29 seconds in, the viola and cello have the same motif, an octave lower whilst the upper strings have a pizzicato figure to add rhythm and life. All the lines sound pleasing when played individually. The rhythm and tune is moved around between different instruments to add interest whilst the pizzicato bridge section builds up in thickness as well as volume to add climax. At 1 minute, a new counter melody is introduced like another layer being added in the second violin, whilst violin 1 and cello are in octaves. At 1 minute 20, the tune from the second violin breaks into the first violin part to dominate the piece with the main theme becoming secondary but still discernible. At around 1 minute 40 seconds, a totally new melody emerges that now replaces the main melody all together, yet is it is still in the same style and fits the chords harmoniously. At 1 minute 56, a canon in four parts is begun where part of the theme is treated fugally, passing from one instrument to another but always overlapping and building up a busy counterpoint which ends with the cello repeating a two bar phrase. The distinctive rhythm is kept going from 2 minute 15 onwards in the cello part whilst the second violin gets the melody and the first violin has an intricate and showy folk type accompaniment – this builds up to a climax before the two violins have an identical one bar phrase in sequence and the whole piece ends with the rhythm played by the viola in an echo of the opening of the piece.
Generally writing or arranging for strings does not always have to be this busy or intricate (unless they are required to be a real focal point!) but when strings are required to stand up in their own right (without additional instruments in a track), they need to really come alive!
One of the most common ways in which arrangers add strings to a track is through the provision of chords. There are in essence three basic ways of using a chord in music.
One is called a ‘root’ chord, the others are a ‘first’ or ‘second’ inversion of a chord. If the chord in question is in C major and the note C is placed at the bottom, then this is a ‘root chord’ of C. If the next note in the chord (E) is placed at the bottom, this is a ‘first inversion’ and if the third note of the chord (G) is at the bottom, this is a ‘second inversion’ of the chord.
When arranging for strings, inversions add variety to the harmony and give the opportunity for all the parts to move in a musical way. What this means is that you can have an inner part (viola or second violin) moving in step so that when the session musicians play just that part, it has a logical and satisfying musical line to it and doesn’t just jump around randomly.
This is crucial when writing a bass line as it underlines the entire harmony and has to flow as a line of music in it’s own right (as well as fitting with the individual chords).
Sometimes, chords may all be grouped quite close together with the parts low in their register – this is when the rest of the track may have a ‘hole’ in that register which needs filling by the strings. In other situations, the gaps between the individual notes of the chord might be very wide and spaced apart – when a more sparse texture is needed. It’s always possible to thicken or thin out the texture of the strings by doubling notes in different registers (a careful use of double stops), or by not using all the notes in the chord.
A double stop is where two notes are played simultaneously on any given instrument. As the celli, violas and violins are all tuned in fifths, the interval of a fourth, fifth, sixth and octave can all work well. When it comes to thirds, these work better in the violin and viola parts than they do with a cello, but your studio musicians won’t thank you if both the notes in the third are written on the same string!
Other chords which require more than three notes in them are seventh chords (again in the chord of C this would be C, E, G and a Bb on the top), or diminished chords – which are a succession of minor thirds spaced one on top of another.
Jazz chords are a whole area in themselves where the arranger needs to have a good knowledge of harmony and be able to hear the chords in order to arrange around them.
In the next blog entry, I’ll be writing about the effective use of pedal notes.
Live strings have always been a popular choice for adding to pop or rock tracks, for many reasons. Often the texture of a particular song may be sparse and stringed instruments provide the perfect way to expand and fill out the sound. Sometimes a catchy “hook” played by the strings can really help a track come alive. In the case of The Beatles, a unique (and often imitated) soundscape was provided by the strings, with an edgy and percussive texture that added a real vibrancy to the songs. There are also tracks which spring to mind where an epic, orchestral string sound has been achieved. In all of these instances a skillful string arranger has been able to improve the existing music by sensitively arranging this most versatile of combinations without getting in the way of the rest of the instrumentation.
In this blog, I would like to write about what differentiates good string arranging from the less effective and hopefully give a few insights into what exactly goes into it. Often bands or composers (particularly those on a tight budget) will want to add string arrangements of their own to a particular song – and sometimes these are really terrific, so all we need to do is ‘tidy up’ the score and write in bowings / dynamics / articulations before the session. On other occasions, parts are written as simple chords on a keyboard, then hastily transcribed to stringed instruments – and it does seem like a false economy to hire a studio, book session players and present them with parts that don’t really make the most of the full range of sound and playing effects that strings can offer.