The duo String Noise consists of two violinists, Conrad Harris and Pauline Kim Harris, who are also married. They’ve been around for a decade, since making their performance debut at Ostrava Days in the Czech Republic in August 2011. Their work encompasses a broad range from modern classical and chamber music to arrangements (by Eric Lyon) of punk songs by Flipper, the Minutemen, Bad Brains and more. Last year, they released a CD of three pieces written specifically for them by Alvin Lucier; we reviewed it here.
The duo have chosen to celebrate their 10th anniversary with three albums, all released simultaneously but each very different from the others.
Alien Stories, on the Infrequent Seams label, is short and stark. It features five pieces by Black composers — Jessie Cox, Lester St. Louis (the cellist in trumpeter jaimie branch‘s Fly Or Die band), Anais Maviel, Charles Overton, and Jonathan Finlayson — and runs just 27 minutes. The title piece, by Cox, balances quiet percussive parts, where one violinist seems to have tiny bells attached to their instrument, with extremely loud, soaring parts. There are also some deep, resonant scrapes like the instrument itself is being sawn in half. Indeed, the sheer variety of sounds the duo are producing makes me wonder what the score looks like. Listen on headphones for best effect, but be prepared to be startled several times during its nine minutes.
The two pieces that end the record, Overton’s “Only Time Will Tell” and Finlayson’s “Yet to Be,” blend together almost as well as their titles. They could easily be two halves of one piece. The former has a folk-romantic quality that brings to mind Aaron Copland and the scores to movies set on the prairies, building from slow drones to fierce, Martha Graham-choreographing-a-square dance leaps and arcs; the latter starts out mournful and Carpathian, before erupting briefly, at the three-minute mark, into wild abandon.
A Lunch Between Order and Chaos, on the Chaikin label, explores a single idea — “unison” as a compositional tool and a performance strategy — with maniacal focus. It was produced by Greg Saunier of the band Deerhoof, and features compositions by Caleb Burhans, Tyondai Braxton, David Lang, Saunier, Paul Reller, and Philip Glass. The album is almost exactly twice as long as Alien Stories, but a full third of that is taken up by the Glass piece, which runs nearly 18 minutes.
First and foremost, A Lunch… is a remarkable feat of audio engineering. In order to facilitate greater unison-ness, the two members of String Noise recorded the album while standing together in a (large-ish, I assume) closet. And yet, things I would have expected — loud breathing sounds, for example, or creaks as one player or the other shifted position — are almost entirely absent. There are even some subtle reverb effects and shifts in volume which I assume were done during the mixing stage.
Most of the pieces feature fast, high-energy playing; Braxton’s “Unison” is particularly savage and ear-stabbing. It sounds like it could have been composed for (or by) guitarist Mick Barr of Orthrelm, Octis, Krallice et al. Lang’s “Warmth,” which comes right after it, is stunning, six minutes of harsh, discordant bow-strikes that sound like a YouTube “[famous classical violinist] shreds” video. But it’s also interesting for mostly featuring non-unison playing, including some solo interludes.
The big finale, the 17:40 performance of Philip Glass‘s “Two Pages,” is astonishing. Listening to it is like watching someone perform a feat of brutal athleticism, like doing a thousand burpees; you feel equally thrilled and bad for them while they’re doing it, and you stick around at least in part to see if they’ll succeed. It’s one of Glass’s early pieces, written in 1967 or 1968, and one of his most punishing — it’s basically a single phrase repeated six hundred million times, with the occasional slight variation that he throws in almost like a driver shifting gears, to make sure the player doesn’t get too comfortable. There are moments when one violinist or the other seems to flag slightly, slowing down for an instant before recovering, but the music never, ever stops. One thing that fascinates me, when listening to it on headphones, is the way the bow strikes the body of the instrument with each pass, creating a quiet but perceptible ticking that serves as a rhythm (or at least a click track). Like the album as a whole, it’s an endurance test for player and listener, but ultimately rewarding.
The third String Noise album of spring 2021 is completely different from the others. Eric Lyon‘s Giga Concerto features the duo as part of a large ensemble that also includes Saunier on drums and the International Contemporary Ensemble. The ICE lists close to 40 members on their website, but only 15 play on this recording, which calls for two violins, a viola, two cellos, bass, harp, classical guitar, flute and piccolo, clarinet, saxophone, bassoon, French horn, trombone, and percussion.
The concerto has six movements, which feature the entire ensemble. They are separated by versions of Johannes Brahms‘ Fünf Lieder (Five Songs) performed by just String Noise and Saunier. Three of the five are less than 90 seconds long, so they really serve as short bridges rather than stand-alone pieces. The last one, though, Verrat, is almost four minutes long and driven at times by a forceful backbeat. The six sections of Lyon’s concerto are sometimes quite reminiscent of Philip Glass movie scores, and also sweeping and romantic at times. The two violins are the lead instruments at all times, but the orchestra comes in and out in dramatic fashion, sometimes adding just a murmur of horns or a percussive punch, but other times rolling in like a wave. It’s highly melodic music, with a wide emotional palette and plenty of memorable “hooks” and rapid shifts. In some ways, it recalls Carl Stalling‘s scores for Warner Bros. cartoons of the 1930s, ’40s and ’50s, but it has greater coherence than those works, which were a series of stings pegged to specific visual cues. Lyon has composed an entire work designed to stand on its own, then intertwined it with Brahms.
Each of these three albums shows a different side of String Noise. Giga Concerto may seem like the easiest entry point, and A Lunch Between Order and Chaos the most challenging, but all of this music is brilliant, so the best option is to just dive in and absorb it all.
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