Spacebomb: Strung out on strings

Orchestral strings. The name compels many to fling off their headphones and flee for the door. But string instruments get a bad rap. The fine folks at Spacebomb talk about why this is so, and why we should give them a second listen.

When it comes to orchestral strings and popular music, sometimes strings get a bad rap as the sure-sign of an “overdone” record — cooked to a chewy, inedible mass. I can think of several examples that perpetuate the feeling of apprehension that the “pop string arrangement” may give to some music lovers. A certain live Bill Withers album comes to mind, where some heavy-handed producer later and inexplicably overdubbed string parts (mostly boring pads and verbatim doublings) over the bulk of the record. James Taylor’s “Fire and Rain” is well and good, until the third verse, when the low strings double the bass line and the mindless D-pedal only serves to annoy. And everyone was excited when Let It Be… Naked was released with its spare remixes lacking the Phil Spector “wall of sound” — “The Long and Winding Road” is especially affected, arguably for the better, without the large orchestral arrangement.

If I may mix my metaphors, when a record is about to jump the shark, it is often the epic string arrangement that becomes the straw that breaks the camel’s back. That said, I believe that strings have been and will continue to be an irreplaceable color of the palette of popular music record producing because strings have certain musical traits that, frankly, no other instruments can achieve.

First, each part in the string section (1st violins, 2nd violins, violas, cellos) has several people playing the same thing, usually at least two to as many as fifteen people playing the exact same part. Whenever you have a mass of people playing similar or identical parts, the edges of the notes/rhythms and the details of the sound get a bit mushy — the good kind of mushy. This is mainly because two individuals will not play the part identically to each other (even if they are A-list players).

One of my favorite string arrangements is done by Harry Robinson on Nick Drake’s “River Man.” It’s a dark, lilting, waltz-like tune in 5/4, with a very repetitive rhythmic guitar part. The sharpness of the guitar rhythm is starkly contrasted by lush and slow-moving strings. It sounds like a rather large orchestra, and I imagine it was like pulling a mule through mud to conduct them through the odd metered arrangement. At some moments they are considerably far behind the beat, but rather than being distracting, it’s intoxicating. If a pianist or horn players were attacking the rhythm this lazily, it would be at best very distracting, at worst, unlistenable. While this is a somewhat exaggerated example, we are used to hearing strings play this way.

[audio:|titles=River Man|artists=Nick Drake]

The same thing is true about pitch. If you have ten violinists playing the same note in unison — even if they’re great players and they’re playing in tune — they are not perfectly in tune. The wideness of the tuning in orchestras is part of what is pleasant about it. When everything is pristine and perfectly in tune on modern recordings, they’re almost impossible to play in tune with, because everything is so perfect. The pitch is extremely narrow, and voilá, everything needs to be “auto-tuned” to sound good. While I reject the antiquarian notion of liking old recordings simply because they’re old, I do believe the tuning is part of the reason older recordings are more pleasant to listen to. That wideness of pitch is something that music needs and strings are here to deliver. The rhythmic articulation and tuning variations lead to a “mass of people” sound that is rivaled only by a choir or by recording numerous background vocals — you just can’t get that sound any other way.

The transparency of strings is also a fundamental factor in their importance in popular music. Sometimes I’ll hear songs many times before I actually “hear” the strings (and I’m listening for them). Take George Harrison’s offering on Abbey Road’s “Something,” for example. Once I finally noticed that there were strings, I realized how integral they were to the recording. They have a remarkable ability to augment without burdening a musical structure. George Martin’s arrangement isn’t pads in the background; in fact, many of his lines are the ones we find ourselves singing along with but they somehow sneak by without the earmark of the “epic emotional string thing.” Some of the great Motown arrangements from Paul Riser and David Van De Pitte are also like that. One day you’re listening to a song you’ve heard a thousand times, and then you notice the strings, and then on top of that, you realize that the string arrangement is your favorite part of the tune.

Trey Pollard conducts his string arrangements for Matt White’s album on Spacebomb Records in February, photo by Sam Allen

The linear nature of string-writing is the perfect complement to the vertically conceived chord progressions that are typical of popular music accompaniment. A blocky chord sequence gets smoothed out by the fluid nature of linear string writing. They can and do address the chords, but they don’t all have to do it at once and they can delay, anticipate, and use chromaticism more freely than, for instance, a guitar can. To be fair, this kind of linear writing isn’t exclusive to strings, but it does epitomize its use.

Think about “Eleanor Rigby.” On The Beatles Anthology series that aired on television in the 90s, there was a segment with Paul playing the tune solo, just him and a guitar. He was playing the chords, chunking Freddie-Green-style, 4-to-the-bar and singing. I remember hearing it and thinking, “That’s not how it goes, he’s playing it wrong.” I was so used to the fluidity of George Martin’s arrangement, that just hearing the chords sounded clunky and uninspired. Even though the double-string quartet arrangement is largely rhythmic chunking on the chords, the counter-melodies that occur throughout make the performance what it is.

For an absolutely breath-taking example of strings in popular music, listen to Nelson Riddle’s setting of “When Your Lover Has Gone” on Sinatra’s In The Wee Small Hours. This arrangement is the perfect illustration of strings doing something that no other instrument/group can do. Aided by the lack of a rhythm section, the strings’ freedom of phrasing and rhythm allow Sinatra to take his time with certain words and phrases. The performance turns on a dime several times and builds to an amazing climax. And while they are definitely following the general harmonic motion, they are not a slave to it. Even though the composer of the song certainly composed at the piano and wrote down the basic melody with a chord progression, the strings, in the hands of a skilled arranger like Riddle, have the ability to transform it into something that seems at any moment could sprout wings and fly away. And because it originates from the timbre of the strings, it doesn’t come across as cerebral or tricky, it transmits almost exclusively emotion and lyrical intensity. Again, take note of the transparency of the strings — the arrangement is fairly busy and would seem on paper as if it would be distracting and grab our attention away from the melody/vocals. But in execution, the orchestra seems to sit back and create the perfect backdrop to whatever the listener should be focused on — most often the lyrics and the person singing them. I think the most important distinction is that music like this cannot happen in a standard melody/chord performance.

Since the first time I wrote something for strings and had it played, I’ve been enamored with them. The linear freedom given to an arranger is particularly appealing. Also, to my ears they have more to give dynamically than almost any other instrument, without ever being too much. Ask a trombone player to play as loud as he can and, after you finish cursing his name, you’ll never do it again. But strings just get more and more intense; it seems to me to be a rather rare trait in a musical instrument.

[audio:|titles=Will You Love Me (excerpt)|artists=Matthew White]

As of this publication, I’ve written two albums worth of string arrangements for Spacebomb Records — Matt White’s solo record and the recently recorded album by Joe Westerlund. It’s one of my favorite musical endeavors: arranging, conducting, and recording strings. So far, Matt’s given me nearly free reign when it comes to my contributions. He’s described the general sound he’s going for and then we decide where they’re going to go, and that’s it. For his solo record, his direction was “Modern Sounds of Country & Western Music meets Randy Newman meets 60s Tropicalia meets The Impressions’s Young Mods Forgotten Story,” which sounded like Christmas in July to me.

[audio:|titles=Hot Toddies (excerpt)|artists=Matthew White]

One particularly fulfilling tune to write for was “Hot Toddies” which, for the bulk of the song, is only strings with Matt’s vocal and Pinson’s percussion. I had some space to stretch out and really write some stuff (I’m particularly proud of the second verse). For Joe’s record, the tunes are small vignettes in the large arc of a story and the strings are almost playing their own character throughout. One of the highlights was orchestrating Joe’s beautiful Ravel-esque “Farewell Bolero.” I’m fortunate that Matt and the rest of Spacebomb appreciate strings’ contribution to the record-making process and are willing to go through the scheduling and part-printing headaches to make it happen. So, thanks guys.

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Additional Listening:

[audio:,,,,,,,,,,,,|titles=Joga,Just My Imagination,Both Sides Now,Faust Arp,A Change Is Gonna Come,Baby,Tropicalia,My Girl,Madman Across The Water,A Summer Afternoon,I Love You So Much It Hurts,Only The Lonely,I Think It’s Going To Rain Today|artists=Björk,The Temptations,Joni Mitchell,Radiohead,Sam Cooke,Gal Costa,Caetano Veloso,The Temptations,Elton John,Stan Getz,Ray Charles,Frank Sinatra,Randy Newman]

1. “Joga” – Björk – Homogenic

Arranged by Eumir Deodato, a Brazilian composer/arranger whose work can be heard on records by Antonio Carlos Jobim, Astrud Gilberto, Frank Sinatra and Roberta Flack, to name a few. One of my all time favorite songs and the strings are a huge part of what makes it all work.

2. “Just My Imagination” – The Temptations – Sky’s The Limit

This arrangement by David Van De Pitte is at the top of my favorite Motown arrangements list. In the same phrase it’s playful and chromatic, then epic and lyrical. Plus, they hit the b7 for some reason on the intro. Also, revisit Van De Pitte’s arrangement on Marvin Gaye’s “What’s Going On?.” You’ve heard it a million times, but next time the strings will change your life slightly.

3. “Both Sides Now” – Joni Mitchell – Both Sides, Now

The definition of lush strings by Vince Mendoza with a huge filmscore-sized string section. All divisi-ied out, it’s a perfect example of that beautiful string mushy-ness, and a perfect marriage of song and arrangement. Compare it to the original acoustic guitar/vocal version, there’s no contest. And check out Vince’s equally lush, but restrained arrangements on Bjork’s Vespertine.

4. “Faust Arp” – Radiohead – In Rainbows

I assume it’s Johnny Greenwood’s arrangement. They’re not nearly as lazy rhythmically as Nick Drake’s “River Man,” but it’s another example of well-placed lyrical, long strings smoothing out a simple acoustic guitar accompaniment.

5. “A Change Is Gonna Come” – Sam Cooke

Arr. by René Hall. Some beautiful lines and well-paired with the brass.

6. “Baby” – Gal Costa – Tropicalia ou Panis Et Circensis

Caetano Veloso’s tune and a Tropicalia gem. Rogerio Duprat was the arranger for all the late 60’s Tropicalia records. I hear some similarities between this and Marty Paich’s Modern Sounds in Country & Western Music (see below) but more exploratory and a bit challenging for the listener.

7. “Tropicalia” – Caetano Veloso – Tropicalia

Another Duprat treasure. Psychedelic strings at their best.

8. “My Girl” – The Temptations

The Temptations got the best arrangements it seems. This time from the other half of the Motown arrangers, Paul Riser. They enter with a lush 9 chord and keep getting better. I think Motown perfected the NON-ballad string arrangement in pop record-making.

9. “Madman Across The Water” – Elton John – Madman Across The Water

Paul Buckmaster arrangement. Strings come in halfway through with some ambitious riffs. I wasn’t familiar with Buckmaster’s name before the bit of research I did for this. He worked with English rockers like The Rolling Stones and David Bowie and did the arrangement on Harry Nilsson’s “Without You” on Nilsson Schmilsson.

10. “A Summer Afternoon” – Stan Getz – Focus

Best example of the so-called “Third Stream Jazz” movement. Arranger Eddie Sauter explores all of the string section’s available sonorities while Getz floats over the compositions like someone reciting Shakespeare in your ear while your trying to watch a great movie.

11. “I Love You So Much It Hurts” – Ray Charles – Modern Sounds In Country & Western Music

Marty Paich did the string writing on this classic album. Nothing but lyricism here. He was another student of Italian composer Mario Castelnuovo-Tedesco, fellow students included Nelson Riddle, Henry Mancini, Jerry Goldsmith and John Williams.

12. “Only The Lonely” – Frank Sinatra – Sings For Only The Lonely

Nelson Riddle. Another great arrangement on my other favorite Sinatra/Riddle record. Full orchestra, beautiful woodwind writing complimenting the strings. Frank sounds good, too.

13. “I Think It’s Going To Rain Today” – Randy Newman – Randy Newman

Randy’s arrangements are often orchestrated versions of his very thoughtful and deliberate piano parts. This is an amazing song and when the strings take over for the piano on the 2nd verse onward, it’s clear that the strings are “singing” in a way that his voice never could. The bridge is staggeringly beautiful and well-crafted.

Songs cited:

“River Man” – Nick Drake – Five Leaves Left (Arr. by Harry Robinson); “Something” – The Beatles – Abbey Road (Arr. by George Martin); “Eleanor Rigby” – The Beatles – Revolver (Arr. by George Martin); “When Your Lover Has Gone” – Frank Sinatra – In The Wee Small Hours (Arr. by Nelson Riddle); “Hot Toddies” – Matthew White – upcoming record on Spacebomb Records (Arr. by Trey Pollard).

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Spacebomb Records presents Karl Blau (with band) on Wednesday, July 20, and Karl Blau Dub Night on Saturday, Wednesday 23, at Balliceaux. 10pm, ages 21+, $5 each. Balliceaux is located at 203 N. Lombardy St. in Richmond, VA. (804) 355 3008

For more information, visit

photo by Sam Allen

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