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Angus @ I Feel Love ponders some string quartet arrangements of songs by someone whose name escapes me at the moment… In a typically blogtastic moment, I read this in terms of k-punk’s latest wisdom (see below).

I think Angus is right to an extent – a lot of people buying records like this do so to “inflect their liking of pop music with a bit of surplus capital” (incidentally, I think the same is true in the opposite direction: old-timers trying to be groovy).

I’m not sure I agree with him on the inadvisability of arranging for string quartets per se, though. Yes, good ones are rare, and most are ridden with clichés, but the ‘Man-Sized Sextet’ (sex-, quar- … what’s a little due- between friends?) off PJ Harvey’s Rid of Me is one hell of an exception. What’s more, it sounds like nothing in the classical repertoire – grittier than anything I know, and I know some grit. I’ve also seen the Kronos Quartet do some Sigur Rós arrangements, which against expectations also worked.

What is the problem – and here’s the rub – is that in arranging music written for the recording studio it’s easy to jettison 90% of that music: the sound it makes. Ask anyone to sing the riff from whatshisname’s ‘How Soon is Now’, and they can’t, really, even though it’s only two notes. But play them on your stereo, and they’ll all recognise it. Any arrangement will just be pale imitation unless it has the balls to recompose the original (as my PJ Harvey example does, in fact).

Brian Eno once said something along the lines that in two-second bursts, all string quartets sound the same, from Haydn to Bartók. But play a two-second burst from (almost) any pop/rock track, and it’s instantly recognisable. And that’s at the heart of what both Mark and Angus are getting at, I think. ‘Tunes’, harmonies, counterpoint, ‘dull expertise’ are not necessary in pop/rock, but the quality of sound is essential. You can do this with arrangements for ‘classical’ instruments, but it’s harder than most record execs think.

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