Reflections in the Looking Glass – The Pursuit of a Musical Language for Strings
by Quinsin Nachoff
This article was published on August 1, 2020 at the International Society of Jazz Arrangers and Composers website (ISJAC). Thank you to curator JC Sanford for the opportunity!
Down the Rabbit Hole
Pivotal Arc (Whirlwind Recordings), coming out in a few days, features my evolving language composing for string instruments. It explores the connection between classical and jazz idioms with a Violin Concerto, written for soloist Nathalie Bonin, and a String Quartet written for the Molinari String Quartet. The Concerto was developed over a decade, working closely with the soloist, whereas the Quartet was composed right before the recording session, meeting the performers for the first time at rehearsal. A common thread between them is a focus on imaginative musical risks and finding connections between genres.
Near where I grew up in Toronto, Canada, there was a great reference library that had a large vinyl collection of music covering a diverse range of genres and styles. In high school I was getting turned on to so much music by taking out twenty records (the library checkout limit) every few weeks and listening to something new nearly every night. As a budding saxophonist, I was getting clued in to John Coltrane’s music, the 60’s quartet and beyond, thanks to my private teacher, Alex Dean. I had picked up the complete Bartok String Quartets by the Emerson Quartet at the library around the same time. Even though the instrumentation and approach was very different, in many ways I heard a deep connection between them: the intensity, vibrancy, immediacy, melodic elements, rhythmic development and some of the harmonic approaches. Even though Bartok’s music was fully notated, it still has a feeling of improvisation and spontaneity. And even though Trane’s music was highly improvised, it has a deliberate sense of development and form. They both have a vibrant blend of intellect and emotion.
This inspiration from these two sources grew into two of my first albums. Magic Numbers (Songlines), recorded in 2004, incorporates a String Quartet led by Nathalie Bonin with saxophone trio of bassist Mark Helias, drummer Jim Black and myself on tenor and soprano sax. Horizons Ensemble (Musictronic), recorded in 2005, was with pianist John Taylor, improvising cellist Ernst Reijseger and violinists Nathalie Bonin and Parmela Attariwala. For both of these albums, I wanted the strings to be another voice within the ensemble, interjecting and steering the conversation, not always, or even often, in a background role.
In preparation for composing, I dove into the Bartok scores, and also found the Debussy and Ravel String Quartets really helpful. I highly recommend them, in particular for composers coming from a jazz background, as the harmonic language is familiar and the writing and development is quite clear. You get a good sense of the ranges of the instruments and combinations of the four voices. From there I found it easier to then go back to Beethoven Quartets and move ahead to Shostakovich Quartets and beyond.
By digging into the literature, doing the homework, listening and checking out scores I learned a lot, but this is only one key element. As Jim McNeely (via Bob Brookmeyer) mentions in his recent blog post, doing it is also critical. By writing the music and then having the opportunity to hear how the players responded to it, how the registers sounded in real life and how the overtones interacted and resonated, helped immensely to focus and clarify my imagination: so what I was hearing in my mind would better match reality. (I had the good fortune to study with Jim on and off for several years: a great learning experience from one of the best.) This crucial element comes into play later in the story. From these experiences, I was able to take what was effective and discard what was not.
To the Present
Nathalie had been integral to both of those early albums. She had a strong classical background, but was also interested in improvising and worked in a wide cross-section of styles and ensembles. After a performance, we started tossing the idea around of writing her a concerto that would showcase some of her diverse interests. The commission came about in 2008, thanks to the Canada Council for the Arts. Writing for a specific person and working with her to develop the language was a growing experience. I knew some musical settings she was really good at that I wanted to showcase, such as the abstracted Tango of the first Movement, the moody ballad of the second, with room for her to improvise a cadenza into the third movement. But I also wanted to push her and challenge her with some new directions (it is a Concerto after all!) For example, by incorporating some of my own improvised language coming from the perspective of a jazz saxophonist, or some of my own interests at the time, including exploring Balkan music which manifested in the beginning of the third movement. The Concerto was completed in 2013, demoed in NYC in 2014 and recorded in 2018 in Montreal. (Raising funds to record large ensemble works is no small feat as I am sure many readers here can understand.)
In contrast to the Violin Concerto, which was developed in collaboration with the soloist over several years in addition to a long working relationship, the String Quartet was composed over a short period of time. I had not worked with the Molinari String Quartet before and did not know any of them personally. We were supposed to workshop some of the material together, but because of unexpected delays, the final score was delivered four weeks before the downbeat and I did not have the opportunity to hear any of it before our first rehearsal. Everything needed to work, as there would not be time to revise parts or rewrite sections. I had checked out the Quartet’s previous recordings that included works by Kurtág, Schnittke, R. Murray Schafer, Gubaidulina and knew they were working on an upcoming album of John Zorn’s music. I was confident that they were comfortable dealing with a complex notated language. They are not improvisers, so this would be a fully notated work. This would be a companion piece to the Violin Concerto, so to maintain some unity, I decided each movement would be a mini-concerto for one of the four players, in this order: Violin II for Movement I, Viola for Movement II, Cello for Movement III and Violin I to close out the work.
In writing the piece I still wanted to push myself and take musical risks, but calculated ones. At the first rehearsal, after only hearing the first few measures, I was very happy, and extremely relieved (!), to discover that all of the effects/extended techniques I imagined worked! Theoretically I knew these all should work and imagined what they would sound like, but sometimes in practice the dynamic balance does not quite work or executing a concept can be technically problematic. Thanks to earlier experiences of writing and working with strings my internal imagination was now much more matched with reality. While listening to the quartet play, I became fascinated with how much liberty each player would take in their featured movement. Each time we ran through it in rehearsal or did a take in the studio, they would subtly change the emphasis or push and pull the time in a different way – keeping it really fresh and with a sense of improvisation.
Translating the Thought Process
Rather than settling on a single element, I will discuss one short section from each movement of the Concerto and String Quartet, drawing some parallels to my background as a jazz saxophonist or revealing some of my thought processes.
Violin Concerto – Movement I – Opening Violin Cadenza
As a saxophonist, playing standards in a solo format or in duet with drums is an important part of our practice. (Think Trane and Elvin Jones!) With this in mind, for the beginning of the Concerto I wanted the violin to set the form and tone of the movement. It is a Tango, but the clave has been expanded to a 3-bar structure. One of the string instrument effects that I asked her to use was grind where she applies extreme bow pressure to get an uglier, crunchy sound for rhythmic effect. As well, some standard string effects were used: sul pont. (sul ponticello), where the bow is kept near the bridge to bring out the higher harmonics, producing a strident, nasal quality and sul tasto, where the bow is kept over the fingerboard to produce a softer, thinner tone. There is also some fancy finger work where she plays one note and plucks other notes with her left hand: the +s in m23 for example.
Violin Concerto – Movement II – Ending Transitional Cadenza
At the end of the second movement I gave the violinist the start of a written cadenza to use as a launching point for her improvisation that would connect to the third movement. I have found this can be quite an effective strategy for combining composed and improvised material. It helps to set the tone and direction of an improvisation while still allowing the soloist to freely express and personalize it.
The final measures that launch into the cadenza incorporate double and triple stops, where a string player will use a different note on each of their strings to play 2, 3 or 4 notes at the same time. To have a better understanding of these, I learned to play some mandolin, as it has the same open strings as the violin. This way I was not just intellectually figuring out what could work but got to feel it in my fingers, albeit at a snail’s pace.
Violin Concerto – Movement III Excerpt
Another standard effect for strings are artificial harmonics, where the player will finger a note and then lightly touch the same string farther away with a different finger to play a higher harmonic instead of the fingered note. ‘Touch four’, touching a fourth away from the depressed note, produces a note two octaves higher than the depressed note.
This excerpt is from the final movement, near the end of the piece. At this point in a traditional concerto the soloist usually displays all of their most flashy, virtuosic work. I had already explored this direction extensively, so I decided to go for a contrast. There are several exchanges between soloist and orchestra, where instead of bravura from the soloist, everything drops out, the time becomes more floating and the violin is melodic, intimate and whisper-like high in the stratosphere. In some aspects this is even more demanding, needing to maintain a tremendous level of focus and control. The double stop harmonic at [OO] is particularly challenging and delicate as one false move and the notes will not speak properly.
String Quartet – Movement I Excerpt
The first movement features Violin II as the more prominent voice. At the beginning I incorporate a lot of glissandi and some quartertones to embellish the melodies. As jazz musicians, the blues is a fundamental element. It has a lot of microtones, gliding and ornaments that inform how we interpret melodies and express ourselves. (I was tuned into this idea at a master class with James Newton.) I was also inspired here by how Johnny Hodges would interpret melodies in Ellington’s band: a lot of gliding around the melody, but for powerful emotional effect.
The first violin is in their own universe at the beginning, gliding quietly in the stratosphere, creating some ambient sound so that they can appear suddenly at [A].
String Quartet – Movement II and Movement III Excerpt
On the saxophone, practicing harmonics is a fundamental part of developing a mature sound, as well as being used in improvising as effects or coloration, from Lester Young to Michael Brecker. We practice all kinds of torturous exercises to get more and more control over the upper partials (often sounding like a Wookiee in the early attempts!) Stringed instruments are also very capable of producing beautiful harmonics and effects. At the end of the second movement I have the cello and viola in counterpoint in controlled harmonics, creating an ethereal texture to which the two violins have their own contrasting commentary.
The third movement is a showcase for the cellist. At the beginning of the movement, the bow is set aside and the player digs into solo pizzicato material that is reminiscent of a jazz bass solo, with some gentle accompaniment from the other players.
String Quartet – Movement IV Excerpt
One of the themes returns at [AA]. At m380 (and again at [BB]) I am using quartertones for a different goal, to make the response to the theme sound transfigured, twisted and abstracted. Integrating quartertones into my saxophone improvising has been a focus over the past several years. My aim with this, and similarly how I approach extended string techniques, is to weave them seamlessly into the language of what I am expressing musically. I find it most interesting to integrate effects into the flow of the pieces, often coexisting with more traditional writing. This lets me explore contrasts and commonalities.
Given the setting for this article, I have focused more on how my jazz background has influenced my string writing, but in reality everything is much more fluid. A working relationship with an individual performer over time comes with many rewards, allowing you to grow together. However, developing the skills to work with new collaborators is equally important. If you are inspired to write more for strings, do your homework, study scores and try to gain experience by doing it with real musicians. Look for common threads or connections between elements, either literal or abstract. I encourage you to take calculated risks, as it is how we best learn to develop our own language and realize what we are hearing in our imaginations!
About the Author:
NYC-based saxophonist and composer Quinsin Nachoff has earned a reputation making “pure, bracing, thought-provoking music” that is “cliché-and convention-free” (Ottawa Citizen). His music moves fluidly between jazz and classical worlds and is soul-stirring yet intricately cerebral. His passions reach into both arts and sciences, with physics or astronomy concepts sparking inspiration for exhilarating compositions.
A state of constant unpredictability is vividly captured in Nachoff’s group Flux, which features the talents of saxophonist David Binney, keyboardist Matt Mitchell, and drummers Kenny Wollesen and Nate Wood. The band has earned critical acclaim during performances throughout Canada and the US. Their JUNO-nominated second release, Path of Totality, thrives in the spaces between genres, styles and inspirations, and garnered numerous yearend best-of lists including DownBeat’s The Year’s Top Rated Albums (4.5 stars): “Path of Totality is a stunning, deep dive of an album, the sort of music in which one could spend hours submersed.”
Nachoff was already blurring the lines between composition and improvisation on his 2006 debut, Magic Numbers, which paired a jazz rhythm section with a string quartet. Since that time he has found success in both worlds. In November 2018 he premiered a Violin Concerto, his first String Quartet (commissioned by Quebec’s Molinari String Quartet) and a large ensemble piece, Pivotal Arc, in Montreal. These are the latest additions to a growing catalogue of compositions for a variety of diverse ensembles. At the 2017 Vancouver International Jazz Festival he premiered his Saxophone Concerto with the Turning Point Ensemble, while his piece Stars and Constellations: Scorpio was a commission from the Penderecki String Quartet that incorporated bassist Mark Helias and drummer Dan Weiss of Nachoff’s Ethereal Trio.
For more info about the author visit www.quinsin.com
Pivotal Arc (Whirlwind Records) is available for download, CD or limited edition vinyl at: https://quinsinnachoff.bandcamp.com/album/pivotal-arc