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Arashi Lilith

Why I Am A Contemporary Violinist (and am obsessed with string cover songs)

July 1, 2012 at 10:46 AM

As a violinist with contemporary leanings, I end up listening to quite a bit of cover songs done by the Vitamin String Quartet. I always feel like I'm discovering a new dimension to my favorite songs as I sit with my computer and studio monitors. However, I've just picked out one new reason for that extra awesome I hear. I can actually hear the bass line!

Seriously, when was the last time you heard the bass line, distinctly, in a pop/rock song? A cello or a standing bass totally fix these issues. Suddenly it goes from a background noise requiring high quality sound to even pick out, to a distinct counter melody.

It's also great to really hear the melody of the vocal parts with the violin. Words in music are great, but they can be distracting. Luckily, most violin music is instrumental, if only because A) singing is difficult with a violin and B) the human voice just cannot compete with the violin's need to steal the show (it's one of the things that makes violin amazing, if you ask me). Modern music, with the exception of the heavily electronic sort, has forgotten this to a large degree. However, the melodies of many songs, when played on an acoustic string instrument, when freed of their vocals in this wonderful manner, tend to take on a whole new life. The beauty of subtle key changes and syncopated rhythms comes to life as in other styles such as jazz, classical, and folk. We get to really notice the influences of these styles on rock and pop, two very confused genres with multitudes of influences from all corners of the earth.

I play contemporary violin because this is what I would like to express in my music. I want to take the classical style and translate it to a new era, where we have chopping bows, and distortion, and synthesizers, and electric violins that look like guitars from the 80s, and you have an entire orchestra at your fingertips, and all the knowledge of centuries of music to draw from, all nice and written down or recorded just for you to make something even more beautiful.

I will still play classical, if only because my weakness for baroque cannot be denied. However my goal is to play every genre that appeals to me, which pretty much means every genre in existence. I'm 20 years old. I have been playing the violin for one year. I am dedicated, I have resources, I know I can do my part to add to this rich pool. But sometimes I do wonder how many people like me are out there. Artist recommendations are always welcome, so if you have any there's a lovely comment box just for that.

From Randy Walton
Posted on July 1, 2012 at 7:47 PM
You might want to check out Mark O'Connors fiddle camp. He offers classes in just about every genre, but alas, his camp is over for this year.:( You could get registered for next year, though.:)
From Christian Lesniak
Posted on July 1, 2012 at 10:21 PM
It is certainly a different experience. I've yet to hear a SQ cover that is anywhere close to as good as the original pop song. I think it has to do with the rhythm being too regular. They never swing it and let it breathe like the pop artists do. Maybe it's because they create the rhythm themselves together, rather than an artist that sings over a drum loop or a drummer that creates the beat, but in any case, it always sounds kind of stilted and undanceable.

I am really curious if this is a fundamental weakness of the string quartet set-up, or if it's a problem with the musicians, or if it's a problem with the arrangements, but I usually just go to the original artist. I'm sure there is still room out there for groups that can do justice to it.

I also don't usually care for most transcriptions of pieces. Why would I want to listen to even the best violinist playing a Chopin nocturne when its home is on the piano, and it is better suited to its timbres and articulations. Sometimes they work, but usually when the instruments have similar registers and timbres.

With that said, it's definitely cool to branch out and not have to stay inside the classical box just because your instrument is the violin.

From Skye Taylor
Posted on July 1, 2012 at 11:37 PM
The violin is just a tool like any other instrument, you can make whatever you want with it.

I play lot's of non traditional music on my violin, in fact I play in a very heavy sludge band with it, and 9 times out of 10 you wouldn't even know I was on a violin if you closed your eyes. Its great fun, and I get to innovate and do things which are typically frowned upon by the up tight crowd.

Anyone who just automatically says NO about something is severely limiting ones self.

From sharon lee
Posted on July 3, 2012 at 5:17 AM
I think you might enjoy this:
it's an improv bit done on Michael Jackson Smooth Criminal (yeah yeah, another one) by deVah quartet, my electric string quartet- we play mostly rock charts.

and another short clip:
This is the end bit of Arcade Fire 'we used to wait' leading into the first bit of Florence + the Machine 'cosmic love'

i'd love to hear your thoughts on it, and yeah, I totally agree that mainstream music does not utilize instrumental music to its fullest potential! hence my involvement in an electric quartet..

From Patty Wiegelman
Posted on July 3, 2012 at 1:14 PM
I have been listening to Vitamin String Quartet lately, and think they are awesome! I am not even sure how I found them, but it is making me want to play some of that music. You should check out the adult violin beginners on facebook, it is a great group of beginners that have tons of Q & A's and its very informative :)

From Man Wong
Posted on July 4, 2012 at 12:11 AM
RE: the issue of SQ covers not swinging like and/or missing the bite/attack/energy/etc of the originals, I suspect it has mostly to do w/ what Leonard Bernstein used to teach (at least in his Young People's Concert series) about the differences between "classical" music and pop/rock music (and various others). In particular, he believed that "classical" music should actually be called something along the lines of "exact" music, ie. it's intended to be played exactly as written. This ideology seems to be what drives most of traditional (European "classical") violin training/playing. And if you're trained in it, it's not exactly easy/natural to stretch out away from that.

People like Mark O'Connor specialize in fiddle music, not so much the traditional "classical style", and you can clearly see/hear the diff.

Anecdotally, you've also got great virtuosos of the past like Yehudi Menuhin who admit that he can't do what some of these fiddlers can do -- it's just a very different style that's rooted in their training and decades of seasoning. Then again, Menuhin also said he couldn't play staccato like Oistrakh could. :-)

Anyway, yeah, I agree that most SQ covers done by traditionally trained musicians don't really sound like the original -- and tends to sound... well... like classical music instead. They usually lose most/all of the energy, the spirit, etc. of the originals. Just misses most of the original impact/appeal and not very convincing. But I don't think that has to be the case, if the musicians really stretch themselves over a long enough period of time and break out of the old traditional mold (assuming that's what they actually desire to do).

For instance, you've got Adam DeGraff and various others here doing just that these days. Would of course be harder to get a whole group to do it together, but in many instances, that could probably work a bit like jazz improv though. But yeah, it's probably not that it can't be done well. More that it takes some breaking out of the mold, if certain classically trained musicians would even seriously want to do that in the first place -- and maybe there will be a new trend going forward...

FWIW, I recently came across this SQ cover of Stairway to Heaven that's quite good, but it's a cello quartet though: :-)

I'm thinking maybe the cello is more suited to the task (at least in this instance). OR perhaps it's more that cellists are more used to (and/or interested in) playing in this manner given the kind of music/parts they tend to get...



From Arashi Lilith
Posted on July 4, 2012 at 2:38 AM
I think with the cellist it's boredom with the small amount of solo repetition compared to us LOL.

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