Conviction is a new play written by Rebecca Morgan and directed by Ria Samartzi about Milada Horáková, an activist and sometime politician who opposed the Soviet occupation of Czechoslovakia, and Ludmila Brožová-Polednová, a Czech prosecutor involved in the trial which lead to Milada’s death.
Music! The show has music and I got to write it. There’s about 25 minutes of it, it’s all live and all on one instrument, a violin, played by Holly Donovan. These are rehearsal recordings of two of the tracks, Rye and Goeke:
as ever, if you’d like scores of either of these pieces, drop me a line at JonWhitten@hotmail.co.uk
I’ve never written a completely unaccompanied score for a stringed instrument before and it’s hard! I mean, I love violins. Some of my best friends are violins. But they’re not without limitations. Namely:
- Low End
The lowest note on a violin is a G3, G under middle C, and sounds like this. It’s not very low, appears pretty much half way along a piano keyboard, all men and most women can sing under it.
A professional fiddler really belting will peak at around 85 db*, a bit louder than a hoover, a bit quieter than a smoothie maker.
A fancy way of saying it can only play one note at a time. Ish. Ok, technically there’s a technique called double stopping which lets you play two notes at a time. It’s difficult to master, and there’s only certain pairs of notes it works with, but with practice it can sound pretty badass. So one note at a time except in some special circumstances where you can add a second.
NB If you are Maxim Vengerov then this is just another one of those rules for other people
There are upsides, of course, otherwise violins would be universally recognised as less useful than a bass ukulele with a loudspeaker. The sound of a violin is about as expressive and human as it gets. There’s nothing mysterious or indescribable about this, it’s just how the instrument works.
Once I’ve played a note on a piano, there’s not much I can do to change how it sounds; if I keep the key held down it will fade slowly, if I let go of the key it will stop suddenly, but that’s about all my options. Conversely, if I’m bowing a note on a violin, every tiny change in the pressure, speed and angle of the bow will effect the tone and volume of the sound I’m making.
If I play a B on a piano then want a slightly higher note I play the next key up, a C, which is higher by one semi-tone, the smallest interval on a piano. The violin doesn’t have keys though, and you change notes by pressing the strings at different points along the fingerboard. Let’s say that you’re pressing a string down at the point where it sounds a B. The next higher note a piano can play, C, would mean moving your finger by 1 cm. But, of course, you don’t have to move your finger that far, you could move 0.5 cm, or 0.2342 cm, or any other amount, and each distance would create a different pitch in between the two piano keys.
In music terminology, we call a pianos and harps and xylophones discrete instruments; they can only produce a specific set of pitches – their notes can’t ‘bend’
Violins, in fact any string instrument without frets, voices, trombones and theremins are all examples of continuum instruments, instruments which can slide seamlessly in between notes.
Add it all together and you get responsiveness, nothing about the violin is plug and play, it’s an instrument that constantly responds to every single thing the player does. And that, for me, is what makes it worth writing for.
*Assuming you’re listening from about 15 feet away in an enclosed room.