Thursday 28 April 2011

Wil Malone

Wil Malone is a musician, producer and responsible for the string arrangements of Massive Attack’s ‘Unfinished Sympathy’ and The Verve’s ‘Bitter Sweet Symphony’ – two songs that featured on our playlist ‘Pop Meets the Classics’ (January 2011 post).

As a musician, Malone was a member of the psychedelic bands ‘Orange Bicycle’ and ‘Motherlight’ and classical instruments feature prominently on his solo album ‘Wil Malone’ and the soundtrack for the horror movie ‘Death Line’. Malone mentions Samuel Barber’s ‘Adagio for Strings’, Paul Buckmaster’s string arrangements for Elton John’s albums and David Bowie’s ‘Space Oddity’ as big inspirations for his own string arrangements.

Earlier this month, Anne Dudley explained on our blog how the string arrangements of ABC’s ‘Lexicon of Love’ orginated and here Wil Malone shares, the origins of the string arrangements of ‘Unfinished Sympathy’ and ‘Bitter Sweet Symphony’.

‘Unfinished Sympathy’
With ‘Unfinished Sympathy’ it was the band and the producer who asked me to do the string arrangements for the song. I remember, the track was originally eight minutes long and they let me hear many demos of the song; all sorts of constructions and different ways of doing it. I asked them what they had in mind for the string arrangements of the track and it was Massive’s producer Jonny Dollar – he was highly responsible for putting together the track – who said: “do what you feel like”.

The reason for inclusion of the string arrangements was to be supportive. In my view, in pop music, strings have to be supportive to the vocal, although they also have to give a boot and a sense of tension. If you have a rough track, it’s good to have the strings as a classical contrast sound so that you create a tension, a suspense going on all the time between the roughness of the track and the purity and classical feel. In pop music you’re usually working on a track with bass, drums, guitar, synthesizer, vocals and the strings have to blend with all that. My approach for ‘Unfinished Sympathy’ was that it’s a really open track: basically it’s just a groove – keyboards, and a great vocal by Sara Nelson – so you just let it drift, just let it chill.

With most string arrangements that I do, the strings are ‘put back’ in the mix. In other words they are so quiet you don’t really hear them, or they’re mixed up, so that you can just hear the top lines; but on ‘Unfinished Sympathy’, the strings are exposed. You can really hear them and I think that makes something different.

The string arrangements were played by 42 session players in EMI Abbey Road studio 1. I wanted to make the sound rich so that it vibrates in your chest and stomach, but to also keep it cool, so not so much vibrato – hit the bar lines very accurately. When you are writing, descriptively, in classical music there are emotions that you want the orchestra to have or play, but in pop music that isn’t true. There is no point in writing instructions like ‘dolce’ unless it really means something; basically it is a different way of writing for strings in pop music as you’re writing to a mix, you’re trying to blend your sound into the sound that is on the track.

‘Bitter Sweet Symphony’
Richard Ashcroft, the singer-songwriter of The Verve, asked me to write the arrangements for their track ‘History’ from their second album ‘A Northern Soul’. He liked what I had done and he asked me to write the strings for ‘The Drugs Don’t Work’ for their album ‘Urban Hymns’. And this track came up and they played me a riff [Malone hums the tune of ‘Bitter Sweet Symphony’] and they said that’s what we want. So I wrote it and but I wanted to have it a bit more bounce, jump if you like, and I added some bits and pieces. And it’s always on the same chord, quite Arabic – it doesn’t change.

Also in this song the strings are very pronounced and that’s why people talk about it, because you can hear them. Apart from Richard’s voice, they became the most important element of the song. The strings were basically performed by the same team of session musicians who did ‘Unfinished Sympathy’ but done by a smaller group of 24 people at Olympic Studio. My instructions to the musicians were to make the strings tough, determined, not pretty, not to make them poetic.

Emotional response
When people hear a string ensemble playing together, sometimes, they are emotionally moved by it. I have seen them cry on sessions when they hear it; but as the person who has written the string arrangement, I know what they’re going to sound like, so I’m not going to cry about them, I will just be happy when they sound great. In a certain sense all show business, film, music, etc is a form of manipulation. The benefit, thus, is for the person ‘receiving it’. That’s what you try to do: to put a bit of humour in it, or some wit, maybe a bit of elegance or create an unnerving effect. That’s what great string arrangements can do.

Written by Thierry Somers

Wednesday 13 April 2011

Anne Dudley

Throughout her career Anne Dudley has experimented with many musical genres. She has been a member of the avant-garde synthpop group, Art of Noise, who used innovative ways of ‘sampling’; has created many film scores, including ‘Black Book’, ‘The Crying Game’ and ‘The Full Monty’ (for which she won an Academy Award); has been the musical director of Bill Bailey's ‘Remarkable Guide to the Orchestra’; and, most recently, she created her first opera ‘The Doctor’s Tale’ in collaboration with Terry Jones (one of the members of Monty Python).

Dudley is also renowned as a string arranger: she arranged and conducted a Russian-school classical music opening theme for Frankie Goes to Hollywood’s ‘Two Tribes’ and the epic string arrangements for ABC’s album ‘The Lexicon of Love’.

Two of the fifteen songs on our play list ‘Pop Meets the Classics’ (January 2011) featured Dudley’s string arrangements. Here, in her own words, Dudley shares how the string arrangements of ABC’s ‘Lexicon of Love’ originated; explains the difference between ‘real’ strings and strings created on a synthesizer; and how it feels to be standing on the conductor’s rostrum.

The big epic sound
In 1980 Trevor Horn was producing ABC. At that time the band didn’t have a keyboard player or a bass player, but they had some really good songs and lyrics that Martin Fry had written. As the songs were in a basic form, Trevor wanted to re-arrange them; to have them become more interestingly structurally and to build a much bigger epic sound around the ‘bare bones’ of the band.

I had worked with Trevor before on a few things and he asked me to do the string arrangements of the songs. The first track on which we worked with ABC was ‘Poison Arrow’, which was released as a single and was quite successful [It reached #6 on the UK singles chart]. The next main single was ‘The Look of Love’ for which Trevor wanted a big string arrangement on the song. This seemed a great opportunity to do something big and bold.

We recorded the strings in Abbey Road in Studio 1 and had, what I considered, a quite large string section in those days – probably about thirty musicians. We had the full string arrangements, violins, cello’s, contrabasses, and a brass and winds section – so we used the whole spectrum sound.

When I first heard the mix of ‘The Look of Love’ I was quite surprised how Trevor really featured the strings, which became a major part of the whole sound. They had more importance that I had first envisioned. They weren’t just the icing on the cake: they were the substance of the cake and a lot of commentators spoke about “the big epic sound” after the album came out.

‘All of My Heart’
It was one of the last songs we did. To be honest, I thought it was a very dull song. By this stage, after recording most of songs, we were very confident that the strings would give it something really different and elevate it above the ordinary. Thus, there are some really bold counter melodies in the strings’ part; and at the end of the song I took the opportunity of doing something quite intricate, quite complex. I was very pleased with the sound of the ending. It went somewhere else, it seemed slightly English pastoral, Ralph Vaughan Williams-esque.
I’m also very happy with ‘Valentine’s Day’, which starts with these manic arpeggio’s. Again, there was nothing really in the song until we put the strings on it and we made a feature out of the arrangement of the song.
It’s quite interesting to look back at the things one does. The album, as a whole, has a distinctive character about which I’m quite pleased.

Fun and joyful
In the lyrics on the album there are some funny lines, for example in ‘The Look of Love’: “If you judge a book by the cover / Then you judge the look by the lover”. It’s meaningless but it sounds important. I have always liked humour in music, which is a very rare and difficult thing to do; if there is a little tongue in cheek in it then I’m very happy about that. I suppose the string arrangements on ‘The Lexicon of Love’ are quite fun and joyful. It’s very grandiose as it swoops up to the high octaves – perhaps just a little bit over the top. A little bit too good to be true –quite lush and extravagant.

Strings vs. synthesizers
I believe records where the string arrangements have been recorded with ‘real’ strings will sound less dated, than those when the strings were played on a synthesizer. For example, Ultravox’s ‘Vienna’, a record of the 1980s, sounds very dated to me. I think it is a great song but the strings really don’t sound like strings. It would have been a different record if the strings were done by an orchestra, although now, it has this wonderful synthetic 1980s gloss to it.

On the rostrum
When you’re conducting an orchestra the sound of strings playing together can evoke an emotional response. It lifts your spirit when the strings start playing together. It’s almost like a sort of manipulative thing. I don’t really know why. I sometimes put it down to energy. When you got 30 or 40 musicians in a studio in front of you they are giving you a lot of energy. If you are recording strings, even if they play quite quietly, you can sort of feel that energy. It’s quite difficult to get anything like that if you’re just using synthesizers because you haven’t got the energy of all these musicians.

I’m not the world’s best conductor but I want to be there on the rostrum conducting the musicians because I think they like to have direct communication with whomever has written the notes. And to be on the rostrum is a nice feeling. I wouldn’t swap it for the world.

Written by Thierry Somers

Anne Dudley and Terry Jones’ opera ‘The Doctor’s Tale’ – a tale about a devoted doctor, whose patients love him and who has a wonderful cure rate, but the General Medical Council say he has to stop practising because he is a dog – is commisioned and prodcued by ROH2, and performed from 8-16 April at the Lindbury Studio Theatre in London.