This article was written for Soundescapes by Australian musician Richard Vaudrey.
Have you ever stopped to think why the instrument of choice for the majority of song accompaniment is keyboard or guitar? When you think about it, what else could it be? You can’t exactly play a baseline on the baritone sax whilst belting “Ground Control to Major Tom”. So that rules out all the instruments you blow, leaving us with the percussion family and the orchestral string family, neither of which scream first choice for your local open mic night.
Keyboards and guitars are both fixed pitch, polyphonic instruments, which means these instruments can create lots of different notes at once (known as harmonies if you hit the right notes). The fixed pitch refers to the fact that at the touch of a key, or the pluck of a string with frets to guide your fingers (those metal rungs on the neck of a guitar) the notes that appear will be harmoniously ‘in tune.’ This means with relative ease, a musician, songwriter or dilettante can safely produce the pleasant sounding harmonies needed to accompany their vocal melody.
Perhaps you thought keyboards and guitars are just more common. In fact, the very reason we have a proliferation of keyboards and guitars is their ability to easily produce harmonies, making them incredibly versatile and useful to both the expert and the amateur. The hours and skill it takes to produce great sounding ‘correctly in tune’ notes on a non-fixed pitch instrument such as your violin, cello, trumpet or tuba is immense. After the ten thousand hours of fine lip adjustments or meticulous finger placement practice, you’re still only left with a beautiful single line of notes. With no full harmony to sing your song to, it’s time to join an orchestra, or find a chamber group to fill out the other harmonies and satisfy your musical desires.
However, recently we’ve seen the emergence of a new sub-genre; the string playing songwriter. Undoubtedly soon to be coined the ‘string-er songwriter’, a burgeoning new scene of classically trained string players using their violin, cello or double bass as the foundation for their song accompaniment. People such as Esperanza Spalding, Arthur Russell, Owen Pallett, Andrew Bird, Kishi Bashi, Ben Sollee, Alana Henderson and Xani Kolac to name a few.
So, what’s the big deal, string instruments are kind of like guitars, aren’t they? Not quite, and there’s a few interesting reasons you may not know about that make this ‘stringer-songwriter’ union even more special.
A string family instrument can play 2-3 notes at once at best. Given that as a natural single line instruments, there may be moments where only two notes occur (one in the vocal, one on the instrument). This can create harmonic ambiguity. Just as a well trained cellist knows if they try and put a bass line to Bach’s solo cello suites there are moments where potentially there are two options as to what the inferred bass note and resulting chord is. Harmonic ambiguity if used well can be a beautiful thing. Think of it being similar to a lyric that means different things to different listeners, depending on their own experiences.
Stringed instruments have an incredible variation in sound and colour. Not only can they utilise guitar like plucking (pizzicato) figures, but they also have a bow. The bow sustains the sound in an emotive and coloured way. It’s no coincidence that every acoustic guitar playing songwriter wants a cello or violin on their record. It adds depth and emotion.
New uses of technology on old
String players are now exploring the grounds forged by electronic guitarists before them. Effect pedals. Delays, reverbs, loopers and harmonisers to name a few enable the formerly classical instrument to create multiple versions of itself, creating new fascinating sounds with the hallmarks and familiarity of sounds we’ve heard in popular song production since the inception of the electronic guitar.
Every string player sounds unique and every
singer sounds unique
Combine the two and we have this magical factor of something inherently personal. I find the listener is equally drawn to the instrument and the vocal.
For me it was Arthur Russell that sent me down this path. His hauntingly beautiful cello textures and melodies that weaved rhythmically and harmonically below his unearthly voice. His music changed my thinking from cello as a classical instrument, to cello as a new tool for songwriting and accompaniment. And now some short years on, my writing process stems entirely from improvisations and sound exploration on the cello. Each new idea, each new sound, evoking a new story, a new melody. Just as every picture tells a thousand words, every sound tells a thousand words. And a stringed instrument sure can make a thousand sounds.
Catch VAUDREY and XANI as they present Songs and Strings on 7 April in the Salon at Melbourne Recital Centre.
For further listening, check out VAUDREY's Songs and Strings playlist on Spotify: