When alt-j’s An Awesome Wave came out on SoundCloud I looped it. For weeks alt-j’s An Awesome Wave it was the only sound in my North London flat besides me shushing people who tried to talk over alt-j’s An Awesome Wave. A … Continue reading
As I mentioned in a previous post, I recently spent a couple of days recording in a church with fiddler and friend Flora Curzon. We went in without agenda or any goals beyond making some music, here’s some of what … Continue reading
I spent last week recording in a lovely old church with Flora Curzon (more of those tracks soon). In our search for the perfect acoustic we found ourselves in the building’s crypt where I stubbed my toe on an ancient bundle of … Continue reading
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.
I have a few Emerald Cities, personal Meccas, Rock Candy Mountains. There’s the Juilliard in New York, the Potomac river near my childhood home in Maryland, and the Edinburgh Fringe, the world’s largest arts festival. Really, it’s huge: 25 days long, more than … Continue reading
Last week I was lucky enough to sing on the show with Sam Lee – link here Continue reading
Organ pipes, saz, ukulele, hand-claps, guitar, forks, pitch-bent snare and loose change Continue reading
A couple of months ago, a crowd of music lovers packed the gunnels and stuffed the rafters of an east London annex for the first ever gado gado – a night of new compositions, dance, puppetry and visual art. I … Continue reading
Listen to the show here. This January was my first ever Celtic Connections in Glasgow – I was there playing with the perennially charming Sam Lee alongside Alice Zawadzki and Josh Green. Our second concert was recorded by Verity Sharp for … Continue reading