Friday, August 27, 2010
The String Problem
I’ve just been listening to Alan Ferber’s new recording ’Chamber Songs’, which features his nonet with the addition of a string group. I always keep an eye out for new jazz recordings that feature strings, because I have a particular interest in string writing, and am very curious as to how strings can be better integrated into a jazz context. I enjoyed Ferber’s recording, it has some very nice writing and playing on it and it’s really well recorded. He definitely knows what he’s doing, particularly with the nonet. Some of the writing had a tone poem quality to it that is quite attractively elegaic. But, for my own taste, I could have used a bit more counterpoint and polyphony from the strings and in the string writing in general.
This tends to be quite a bugbear for me – I love writing for strings and have done a lot of it both in my capacity as a jazz composer and also while writing for classical musicians. So far I’ve written two violin and piano sonatas, a violin concerto, a string quartet, a sonata for solo violin, a sonata for solo viola, a sonata for viola and piano, (for Tanya Kalmanovitch), a piece for string orchestra, music for string trio and clarinet, music for jazz guitar trio and string quartet (for John Abercrombie), and music for soprano saxophone and string quartet (for Dave Liebman) , as well as using strings in various orchestral pieces. As a bassist I am of course a string player myself, so I’m perhaps biased towards them and therefore fussier than the normal jazz musician when it comes to writing for strings..
Strings have proven to be problematic in jazz, in the sense that even in the 21st century a violin soloist, (or even rarer, a cello soloist, or viola soloist) in a jazz group is the exception rather than the rule. However in this post, I’m interested in discussing the integration of a string group as part of a composed piece, rather than discussing the paucity of string soloists in jazz, (perhaps that’s for another time).
String writing in jazz tends to be rather hit and miss – and perhaps more miss than hit. In general jazz writers tend to go for one of two options when writing for strings–they either use the strings as surrogate horns, or go for the dreaded “string pad” effect. “String Pad” is the term I’ve heard string players use to describe, in a less than complimentary way, the type of writing they often encounter from composers outside the classical world when dealing with strings. In this String Pad genre the composer goes for slow-moving chordal, lush backgrounds over which the jazz soloist does his or her thing. You can hear a lot of this string pad affect on “Bird With Strings”, where the lush backgrounds support Parker’s fantastic soloing. In this kind of writing the composer uses a string ensemble as a kind of block effect - slow moving chords that display the richness of the string sound. I can understand the temptation to use this kind of effect – after all the natural sound of a string group playing a chord is one of the richest sounds you can ever experience in music. And since we don’t normally deal with strings in jazz, when we get the opportunity to do so it’s very hard to resist the novelty of having this rich sound at your disposal. But it really is a kind of one-size-fits-all unimaginative way to use strings, and whenever I hear that kind of sound I always think to myself that the writer is being, at the very least, a bit lazy.
in reality string ensemble writing is all about counterpoint. From the baroque period onwards, (and even before this), counterpoint is the major feature of all string writing. They lend themselves so well to polyphony, and of course extend across the full range from deepest bass to highest treble. And strings not only cover the full range of the human voice, they also are able use as many expressive devices as the human voice. So with their ability to cover a very wide pitch range, and the huge range of techniques and devices that are available when writing for strings, it really is a cop-out to mainly use the strings as a kind of harmonic blotting paper filling up all the available space with their woody richness.
As I said, in string writing counterpoint is, to use the technical term, the shit. But in jazz we don’t tend to use counterpoint a whole lot – at least not in mainstream jazz writing. Have a listen to any post-bop recordings, then try and identify any use of counterpoint in the tunes. There’s usually not a lot there - any small bits of counterpoint tend to be used as small fillers to the main melody rather than any truly independent line. Like anything of course, there are exceptions to this – Mulligan’s piano-less quartet being a famous example, then George Russell’s masterpiece ’Jazz Workshop’ is another. But these are exceptions, counterpoint is rare in post-bop mainstream jazz.
And when we do use counterpoint, we tend to use a very “top–down” kind of writing, where the melody is played mostly in the higher pitched instruments and any counterpoint that’s going on is really just engaged with filling out the chords of the harmony underneath the melody - they’re often really just glorified guide-tone melodies. When I hear this kind of thing, I always get a sense that the composer conceived the music at the piano – you get that sense of the melody being played in the right hand while being supported by left hand chordal action. But examining compositions for string quartet by great composers reveals a whole other world of counterpoint. In this genre all four instruments are equal - the violins, the viola, or the cello can have the lead at any time, and themes, sub-themes, melody, and accompaniment are constantly flipped around through the ensemble. Rather than have the violin play the melody all the time supported by the lower instruments as in so much jazz string writing, in this world all the instruments are equal and are fully engaged in the cut and thrust of the musical dialogue.
There’s probably a reason why we jazz composers tend not to do this when writing for strings – this shit is hard! Counterpoint is hard. When you have four voices moving independently, their horizontal forward motion creates a vertical harmony. The writer needs to be aware at all times of the function of every note in all four instruments, how they relate to each other, and how they relate to the underlying harmony of the piece. Classical composers train for years to be able to do this, we get little or no instruction in this area–naturally enough, since we have other fish to fry, fish that take years in themselves to fry properly. But that’s no reason to succumb to the lazy string pad syndrome. I think if you have the luxury of working with a good string group you should try and write something worthy of the possibilities that this kind of ensemble can bring to your music.
My most recent piece that involved a string group is a recording that will be coming out in the not too distant future of a piece that I composed called “Renaissance Man”. This is a a large-scale piece for a jazz guitar trio and string quartet, with John Abercrombie as the guitar soloist. In this six movement work, I tried at all times to use the strings in the way that I believe they should be used, as contrapuntal protagonists in the musical dialogue, as well as occasionally using them for their beautiful colouristic tendencies. Here’s a sneak preview of one of the movements – the only one that is completely written, and features the string quartet alone - its called “And This Was Odd Because”, and features the group in very rhythmic groove oriented playing, as well as the aforementioned counterpoint.
If one has ever attempted to write string music, the best advice I can possibly give to anyone who wants to write for strings, but maybe hasn’t had much training in the genre, is to check out Bela Bartok’s six string quartets. Everything you need to know about string writing is contained somewhere in these quartets. The whole history of string writing to that point, is contained here - Everything you need is here with the possible exception of extended techniques, but really if you’re not an experienced string writer you is shouldn’t be worrying too much about extended techniques anyway. And Bartok puts plenty of different techniques into the string writing anyway – more than enough for all but the most experienced of string writers. Check out the amazing movement no. 2 from Quartet No. 4, where he uses the mutes to create a creepy rustling effect as the music hurtles around the four instruments.
Now THAT’S string writing! And of course great music. I still keep my ears and eyes open for great jazz string writing, but I’ve not had a huge amount of luck so far. Any suggestions as to good stuff to check out will be gratefully accepted and acted upon.
In the meantime here’s a little video clip from the making of the aforementioned ‘Renaissance Man’ recording – the CD should be out in early 2011.