For those of my generation, who take listing to music as a serious act of commitment, 1966 was a watershed year. It was the year in which, in the United States, Capitol released “Yellow Submarine” as a single; but what really marked the occasion was the presence of “Eleanor Rigby” on the flip side. This latter would have been memorable enough for the elliptical poetic techniques used by the lyrics to evoke a painfully profound sense of loneliness (casting a contemporary light on Henry David Thoreau’s “lives of quiet desperation”). However, the message was provocatively underscored by producer George Martin’s decision to dispense with guitars and drums and score the accompaniment for double string quartet (four parts with two players on each part).
Hearing this music come out of juke boxes and Top 40 radio stations made many of us sit up and take notice. By 1966 most of us knew that The Beatles were going down roads never before imagined in the pop community; but the very idea of using the sound of a string quartet in a pop setting (as opposed to using fiddles in country music) was a real shock to the system. The result was a blurring of boundaries with a variety of fascinating consequences, such as the Kronos Quartet playing an arrangement of Jimi Hendrix’ “Purple Haze” composed by Steve Riffkin.
The use of a string quartet in popular song has now progressed far beyond the domain of the shock troops. For over two years Nahuel Bronzini has been working on a project called The String Quartet Experience. Bronzini is a guitarist who studied with David Tanenbaum at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music; but he has also acquired the skill sets of composition, arrangement, and most of the different disciplines involved in record production. The idea behind The String Quartet Experience was to invite song writers to submit new or recent pieces for Bronzini to arrange for performance with a string quartet.
This coming Thursday (December 3), as a consequence of support from a Kickstarter campaign, will see the release of a recording documenting the results of Bronzini’s efforts. All tracks will feature the recently-formed Amaranth String Quartet, consisting of violinists Katie von Braun and Abigail Shiman, violist Erica Zappia, and cellist Helen Newby. The songs themselves reflect Bronzini’s past in Argentina as well as his present in the United States. The first four tracks are songs in English by Mike Suarez, Camille Mai, John Haesemeyer, and Kendra McKinley, respectively. Each song is sung by its composer; and, with the exception of Mai’s piece, all include guitar accompaniment. These are followed by songs in Spanish written and sung by Diana Gameros, Ayelen Seches, and Tomás Latorre. Finally, Claudio Santomé sings Ariel Ramírez’ “Dorotea La Cautiva;” and, in the final track, Amaranth performs a set of variations by Bronzini composed on the theme of his song “That To Be Missed.”
Considering what is happening in the pop world these days, this album is like a breath of fresh air. By rejecting the plethora of special effects involving not only technology but also affective stances by the vocalist, Bronzini has evoked the chamber music setting to restore a comforting sense of intimacy to the act of singing. This is the sort of music that would get lost in the hubbub of a Super Bowl half-time show; but it is music that rewards listening in a quieter setting, allowing nuanced subtleties to work their magic in the absence of trivializing razzle-dazzle. This is popular music that allows the music to come into its own.
Bandcamp has created a Web page for the resulting album and is currently processing pre-orders.