Wednesday, 2 May 2012

Detuning the Violin

            Detuning the violin is a very common technique but there are some risks to the violin so care should be taken. Wherever possible the violin should tune down as too much tension could damage the bridge and weaken the strings. Constant retuning will damage the strings. Slackening the strings too much could result the bridge falling off if knocked and the sound post could fall as well. 

Prepared Violin

            Prepared instruments are instruments that have had their timbre changed by having various objects on or between the instruments vibrating strings. It is usually found on piano’s but there are compositions for prepared violins.
            Wrapping a small piece of wire around a string causes the wire to create a buzzing effect. The amount of buzz can be controlled by bow speed and bow pressure. The wire buzz works on all strings, but I used it on the G, as it resonates the most the buzz lasts for longer. As the wire is vibrated it travels along the string touching harmonic nodes and these nodes can be heard. Care must be taken when performing this technique as the strings could be damaged by the vibrating wire and the bow hair could become damaged.
            Another technique is to place a hairpin over the strings of the violin and to pluck it. This gives a plethora of different pitches. Stephen Montague introduces thimbles to the strings in Silence: John Yvar and Tim. He instructs on how to play the prepared violin.

1.     Violins and violas are held in the lap with the scroll against the chest (similar to the cello position). The bow is not used. The strings are played with 2 thimbles – one  thimble on each hand (probably easiest to play if it is on the middle finger of each hand). In general each thimble (right hand and left hand) plays across two strings. Each of the strokes of the thimble across the two strings produces complex non-harmonic pitches due to the pins. The right-hand hits the E and the A strings, producing a higher pitched timbre, while the left hand strikes the A and D strings, producing a lower.
2.     A “hairpin pizzicato” is produced by plucking on the end of the pin


3.     On occation the players “slap” the strings with the flattened fingers to produce a very different sound from the thimbles. However the thimbles simultaneously hitting the fingerboard help with the intensity. 

Percussive techniques

As the body of the violin is hollow it does make a good percussive instrument. Tapping the body in various ways has become popular with composers and using different parts of the hand can create different timboral effects. For example you can slap the body of the violin or tap with the pad of a finger. The composer should explain what is wanted by either writing in the notes at the front or in the score. The violin gives slightly different sounds depending on where it is being struck and also with the different parts of the hand. The option to dampen the strings is again there as striking the body of the violin will create the to resonate.
            The violin can either be held like a cello when performing these techniques or as normal. Caution should be taken when striking the instrument, I would advise using a spare if you have one, also one of the techniques that can be used is to strike the violin with the fingernails. This will result in a short tapping sound but may cause varnish to chip off the violin causing damage.
            It should also be noted that if one hand is used to perform the technique then it leaves the other hand free. For example if the violin was in the normal playing position and tapping with the right then it would leave the L.H. able to perform other techniques such as L.H. pizz such as in George Crumb’s Black Angels.


Nail Pizzicato

            Using the nail to pluck the string creates a sharper attack than when plucked with the pad of the finger. If the nail of the left hand is used then a more metallic sustained sound can be heard.
Violinists usually do not generally grow their fingernails as it interferes with their day-to-day playing. Using plectrums could be an option. Using a banjo fingerpick can reproduce the sound of plucking with your nail and if it is needed using a thimble on the L.H. can produce the more sustained sound. Care should be taken when using these items for sustained periods of time as violin strings were not designed to be plucked with hard objects, composers should bare in mind that a set of strings can cost £80!



                                        Crumb Black Angel (1970)

Subharmonics and A.L.F’s are relatively new and not really understood. With the correct bow placement, pressure and speed then it is possible to perform an octave below the fundamental. For example playing an open G on the violin with a frequency of 196Hz then performing a subharmonic of this creates an octave G at 98Hz. Using this technique it is possible to play all the notes in the octave. This technique was one of the hardest for me to get to grips with as there are so many different variables that affect whether it is possible to play or not. The bow has to be at the correct speed, the bow has to be at the correct pressure and it had to be at the correct position along the string. I also found that it was easier on some violins than others, for example I found that it was much easier on my lecturers violin than my own and I think that was because my violin the tension of the G string was less so it would be much more difficult for it to ‘catch’ the subharmonic.
            To play this technique there seems to be 3 factors mainly at work:
1.     Bow pressure
2.     Bow speed
3.     Bow position

Bow Pressure
            Lots of consistent bow pressure is needed, basically as much pressure as you possibly can. Start off right at the heel trying to get the crunch sound, then try to maintain that same pressure throughout the full length of the bow, meaning that you will have to apply much more as the bow reaches the tip. I found that holding the bow at the frog helped to get much more leverage and pressure.

Bow Speed

            The bow has to be a consistent slow bow, too fast and you will not get or you will loose the subharmonic. Too slow and it will not be an even pace and you will not get the subharmonic.

Bow Position

            This will differ slightly depending on your violin but I found that playing close to the fingerboard, about 1 – 2cm away was the best position on the violins that I tested.

It must be noted that you can only play subharmonics on the G string as the pressure needed and the angle of the bow means that the G string is the only option.

            George Crumb was the first person to compose for subharmonics in Black Angels calling them pedal tones. He used them to depict the devil in one of the movements.

A.L.F’s are related to subharmonics but are not true subharmonics. Mari Kimura has mastered this technique and people compose pieces containing subharmonics specially for her. 


Harmonic Glissando

            This can either be played as a natural harmonic glissando or a false harmonic glissando both resulting in different effects.

Natural harmonic Glissando

            Using this technique I found that a firm even bow stroke was best so that the harmonics can catch, with a fast glissando it works best on the lower strings as the higher harmonics don’t have time to catch. A slow glissando on the G would optimise all the harmonic series and would bring out all the minute sounds between the nodes. I particularly like the effect when the finger sliding from the end of the fingerboard to the bow as the effect is a light fluttering sound.

False Harmonic Glissando


            There are two ways of producing a false harmonic glissando, the first being to perform a false harmonic with the first finger stopped slide the fourth finger, lightly touching the string, towards the stopped finger. The closer the fourth finger gets to the first finger the higher the pitch of the harmonic.
            The second way to perform a false harmonic glissando is to perform it with a fixed hand. This means that when you perform the harmonic you slide the whole hand. As a performer you would have to remember that the higher up the fingerboard you went with the glissando you would have to move your fingers slightly closer together to keep the tone correct. Legeti uses this technique in his piece Ramifications

Sul Ponticello – playing near the bridge

Crumb Black Angel (1970)
            This technique can be used to create either a timberal effect or a pitched effect. Depending on the distance of the bow to the bridge it can change the effect, the farther away from the bridge more tone will be produced.
            The tone of this technique reminds me of n overdrive pedal on an electric guitar, it also works extremely well with overpressure. The closer to the bridge will result in higher harmonics being produced. If a constant dynamic is required then more bow pressure will be needed as the bow reaches the tip.
            Playing on the bridge will result in a timberal effect as the bow hair will be divided across the bridge and it will also be playing the actual wood of the bridge. For example William Sydeman writes a chord to be played on the bridge and indicates that specific pitches are not wanted.  This is depicted with the note heads looking more like drum notation than a normal classical notation. For shorter more sticatto sound it might be needed to dampen the strings by clamping the L.H. to the fingerboard.