String Noise are New York violinists Conrad Harris and Pauline Kim. They term themselves a “classical, avant-punk violin duo”, which goes some way to conveying their collision of technical finesse and brazen, often visceral approach to experimentation. As well as performing the material of modern classical mainstays – Scelsi, Stockhausen etc – the group regularly engage with improvisatory collaborators and front the premieres of works by the likes of Phill Niblock, John Zorn and Annie Gosfield.
Their first two releases have been created in collaboration with composer Eric Lyon. Last year’s “The Book Of Strange Positions” brought together Lyon’s original work with a set of beautifully re-configured cover tracks: a delicate rendition of Radiohead’s “In Limbo”, a jagged assault on Black Flag’s “Gimme Gimme Gimme”, a nightmare incarnation of Half Japanese’s “No More Beatlemania”. With new EP “Covers”, the group rejoin Lyon to weave four more songs into the String Noise modus operandi, including cuts by The Germs and Deerhoof. Speaking of Deerhoof – the EP was recording in the closet of drummer Greg Saunier. Once you know that, it’s impossible to not hear the impact of such intimacy and physical constriction.
Below, Conrad Harris talks about the merits of working with Eric Lyon, crossed wires of punk lyricism and the cosy recording arrangement of “Covers”.
So how did you come to work with Greg Saunier on this one, and what was it like recording in his closet?
We met Greg a few years ago through our mutual friend and colleague, pianist Daan Vandewalle (who attended Mills College at the same time as Greg). We heard him with Deerhoof a number of times and he also came to some of our shows. I guess you could say our paths crossed in the new music scene. For the recording, Greg had a few microphones of various vintages set up in his closet. And it was very close quarters. We had to make sure our bows didn’t snag any of Greg’s couture. You can probably hear some extra percussive noises from our instruments hitting the shelves. Then Greg squeezed in for “Panda Panda Panda.”
The production of Covers really captures that friction between bow and instrument. I can hear the hairs of the bow dragging against the strings, and it seems accentuate the visceral potential of the violin – occasionally I find it reminiscent of the late Tony Conrad in terms of timbre. It’s great. What led you to adopt such a stark and raw production for this one, particularly given the space and soft reverb of your recent album, The Book Of Strange Positions?
Greg is fascinated with this close miked sound. A lot of our conversations preceding this recording had to do with this recording aesthetic. A lot can be lost in recording instruments with large amounts of reverb. Reverb has its place, of course, but with just two violins with this type of music, a more raw sound seemed to make a lot of sense.
It’s wonderful to hear The Germs, Brahms, Deerhoof and Minutemen brought together so cohesively, and I think that’s largely down to the potent sense of character that permeates the approach to reconfiguring and performing these pieces. What was the thinking behind covering these four tracks in particular?
“Lexicon Devil” by The Germs was the first cover that Eric Lyon arranged for us. After a concert we played, Eric came up to us and started singing “Gimme gimme this, gimme gimme that…” and said he was going to arrange the song for String Noise. I thought he was referring to Black Flag’s “Gimme Gimme Gimme.” In any case, a day or two later his arrangement Lexicon Devil was in our inbox. (I later requested the Black Flag song. Adding to the confusion, he throws in a little “Gimme! Gimme! Gimme! (a man after midnight)” by ABBA.
The cohesive element in these covers is Eric’s arrangements. They bring more to the songs than two violins trying to sound like a rock band. Two violins can’t sound like a rock band and I wouldn’t want us to. I’d like to think that we sound like a quirky duo that turns songs into new music works.
When we get together with Eric we invariably talk about which song we want to cover next. Always songs of bands we admire. As for the Brahms, that just showed up in our inbox one morning.
The process of reconfiguring these songs for two violins must be interesting. I was listening to your cover of Radiohead’s “In Limbo”, and I noticed how the violins weave elegantly between mimicking the guitar line, then the vocal line, then the bass line…I feel like there’s a lot of harmonic “implication” at work, whereby the dynamic between the two players makes inferences toward the textures that are absent. How easy is it to reconfigure these pieces for two violins while retaining the spirit of the original pieces?
That is all Eric. We do make minor changes occasionally. Greg too when we recorded and played together as a trio. The Brahms song in particular becomes more noisy and cacophonous when we perform it with Greg. We tend to stretch the time more and go a bit overboard – in a good way I hope. “In Limbo” was altered a bit too in live performance. With the added percussion and use of some eclectic violin mutes we came up with a more eerie sound than we went with on the recording.
How did the creation process of Covers compare to that of The Book Of Strange Positions? Were there any lessons learned on the first album that helped inform the direction you took with this EP?
Covers was easy. The three of us worked together seamlessly. Greg had a clear idea of the sound he wanted to capture and we loved the result. The Book… wasn’t as easy. We went back and forth on different issues on sound, editing, etc. I think we made it more complicated than it needed to be. But in the end we were happy with it too.
How do you negotiate “roles” between the two violins? Are there particular player characteristics that dictate how the parts are written, or who takes which part?
Eric knows us and our playing. He always writes “Pauline” and “Conrad” on the score instead of “violin 1” and “violin 2.” Or “Prince” and “Princess” in “Kiss.” Actually I’m not 100% on that one. I took the “Prince” line. I suppose I shouldn’t make assumptions. Eric arranged “Kiss” the day after Prince’s death and we played it with Greg at the end of our set at National Sawdust on April 23rd.
I see that you’ve participated in performances of compositions by If, Bwana, improvised setups with Ken Ueno, performances of Stockhausen pieces…how do you find the process of adapting to enact the music of such a wide variety of composers?
We’ve both been playing “serious” contemporary/avant-garde for a long time now, both individually and as a duo. String Noise works a lot with composers who write for us and also play duos by some of the stalwarts of the avant-garde: Luigi Nono, Giacinto Scelsi, Karlheinz Stockhausen, etc.
What’s next for String Noise?
We just got back [late last night] from the Czech Republic where we played the premiere of Petr Kotik’s “William William,” a dance opera composed for 3 singers, narrator, dancers, and String Noise. We have a number of pieces written for us already recorded and are planning to get them released as an album in the near future. We will continue doing cover songs and hopefully do some more shows with Greg. Also we will be recording Greg’s “Superintendent for the Destruction of the Gods” that he wrote for us. Perhaps in his closet.
Alvin Lucier is writing us a piece that we are excited about and we have some shows coming up in the Fall. One in particular that we are looking forward to is at the Miller Gallery in Pittsburgh. A more “avant-garde” program of duos by Nono, Scelsi, and Bernhard Lang.