Strings Attached

For this week’s post, I chose a selection of tracks featuring gorgeous string arrangements. This isn’t a “best of” list. There are so many great examples, these are just a few.

String arrangements made their official entry to the world of pop music with The Beatles. Namely with Yesterday.

McCartney’s dreamed melody was recorded in June 1965, four days before he turned 23. George Martin, the producer of that session and the one responsible for the String Quartet (truly historic moment – as from then on, string arrangements became almost a must for any production of that kind), described the recording session of Yesterday with these words:

“Paul played his guitar and sang it live, a mic on the guitar and mic on the voice. But, of course, the voice comes on to the guitar mic and the guitar comes on to the voice mic. So there’s leakage there. Then I said I’d do a string quartet. The musicians objected to playing with headphones, so I gave them Paul’s voice and guitar on two speakers either side of their microphones. So there’s leakage of Paul’s guitar and voice on the string tracks.”

I imagine the situation: classical musicians arriving at Abby Road Studios for a Beatles recording session, for the first time. So much to adjust to. For both sides.

Jumping more than 30 years ahead (1997), we come to the track which inspired me to do this list in the first place:

In her fourth studio Album, Homogenic, a musical lexicon of Iceland’s landscapes, Bjork’s orchestrated compositions for strings are played by the Icelandic String Octet.
Joga begins with strings only: a simple melody harmonized in parallel fifths. There is a feeling of emptiness and richness at the same time. The strings are multiplied, creating a velvety sound, but the orchestration is minimalist and clean. It reminds me of the sensation of an arabic orchestra’s unison. Later, when the track evolves into volcanic explosions, the strings play a stressed and ecstatic melody. Stretched intervals, dramatic unisons and melodic jumps are mixed with electronic beats. The result is the great wonder of Bjork: music which sounds like wild nature and makes your heart break inside. Or in her words:

“Emotional landscapes”.

Though sounding like another dramatic heartbreak song, this breakup is actually not from a lover, but rather from Jamiroquai’s bass player at the time, who left the band while working on the Album Synkronized (1999). I must have listened to King for a Day about a million times. It seems to me as if the tension and the drama keep climbing, even after the track is finished. Combined with a harpsichord, the sophisticated string arrangements create a Baroque-like sound, while polyphony and layers serve the furious lyrics in a perfect way. Jamiroquai’s string arrangements are probably the best there is out there. The use of strings in their music is exceptionally interesting and impressive because of the atypical (and therefore immediately recognizable) sound the strings are given: no escaping into long melancholic lines, and no banal rhythmic repetitions. Like the rest of the production, every line in itself is beautiful and interesting, while together it is a detailed and structured symphony.

In 2002 Beck released his fifth studio album. The entire album is said to be written following a hard breakup. Lonesome Tears is really about the ongoing circles and mazes the heart goes through after a breakup. On-and-on it goes in search of some peace of mind. The strings here are made by the one and only Nigel Godrich. What I most love about this production, is that these long melancholic lines of the strings go absolutely nowhere. One is constantly tempted to anticipate the next harmonic step, but the road never reaches its end. The violins climb higher and higher, becoming more and more stressed, desperately asking for a resolution that never comes.

Speaking of Beck, in 2009 he produced IRM, the third studio album by Charlotte Gainsbourg. Le Chat du Café des Artistes is such a powerful and captivating track, right from its dark and smoky beginning. Notice how Beck’s string arrangement uses basically a single melodic line, a rather unusual and extreme line. When this line is not played, the strings are glued to the voice, creating the perfect texture and atmosphere to this imaginative track. Funny enough, also here the strings suggest an arriving climax and resolution – both fail to come, while the song really ends in the middle of everything.

Arriving to a moment of private joy, some months ago one of my dear friends, Zohara Niddam, published Lost.
Zohara is a singer-songwriter from Tel-Aviv, who keeps surprising me with her inventions. Responsible for these truly exceptional and fascinating strings is another friend Naama Zisser. Clearly influenced by contemporary classical music, the strings reflect beautifully the mental state of which Zohara is singing about: being alone, but feeling lost in sounds and details. These psychedelic repeating glissandi are rather aggressive, but at the same time completely internal – like shadows and noises existing only in your imagination.
Rounding up this list (and slightly off topic), let me go back to the beginning, with this gorgeous performance of Yesterday, by the acclaimed 12 Cellists of the Berlin Philharmonic.