For the last four days, I’ve been practising (and doing one rehearsal) on my ‘spare’ violin bow – a nearly worn out 15-year-old cheap student item, kept in theory in case I actually break the other one halfway through something but in practice more for the roughly one week in a year the main one spends being rehaired.
After desk-work today I picked up my proper violin bow, with new thumbgrip and restrung with what the receipt assures me is ‘best Mongolian hair’ (?!). The effect on (my impression of) how my practise sounded was almost instantaneous, even though it takes a couple of hours’ playing at least for new hair to ‘take’ with rosin properly and bed in – much more body, more power but also more subtlety and flexibility. Last night I felt like I was clutching the instrument cataleptically (in one of those classic pieces of musical transferral, with both hands), making improvisation almost impossible at the florid, intense speed demanded by the collective style of Kindred Spirit and leaving me in literal need of a break after ten minutes of refreshing my memory of Irish fiddle tunes for a St Patrick’s gig with Razzberry Jam. Tonight I played over 2 hours nearly solid, though obviously not all at maximum intensity.
All of which does raise speculative questions about what the impact of equipment on performance is. Our Western culture still has a sort of post-Romantic hangover in which there is an implicit belief in the unstoppable power of the true artist, who could presumably move grown men to tears armed only with a comb and paper. Probably little response needed to that as an explicit point of view.
On the other hand, Kindred Spirit’s previous (two) violinists have employed an arsenal of electric guitar-style effect pedals to manipulate and vary their sound, from overdrive, distortion and fuzz to wah-wah and (the only one I actively dislike) digital delays. Hitherto, even in the dirty and theatrical rock-n-roll sound-world of the Filthy Spectacula, effects pedals have largely just not seemed necessary. It’s both logical and more or less necessary, given the shoes I’m filling, that I head down the effects road in a fairly serious way this time.
What interests me that is I have a slight aesthetic reluctance to it, besides muttering darkly about the cost of new and additional equipment versus the profit margin on gigs. I think it comes from coming of musical age in the late 90s approaching the millennium, with the sort of ‘popular’ music you listened to if you weren’t in the in-crowd very much standing in the shadows of grunge (or, let’s be specific, Nirvana alone) on the one hand and Britpop (in the north-west, mostly meaning Oasis) on the other – two subgenres with strong punk-style DIY antipretention ethics, which extended to generally low-tech sounds, as well as songs your average moderately gifted teenager could replicate in recognisable form round a campfire. The following phase of my rock exploration – dominated by Radiohead and the White Stripes – pushed the other way on guitar widdling and enormous effect racks, though in very different manners, one essentially experimental, the other almost reverential to 1970s heavy-blues-rock; but later strata are hardly ever as solid as earlier ones. Part of my head still has the prejudice wonderfully embodied by Bill Bailey’s stand-up segment on U2 technical fails, that players with a sound based around effects are covering up the fact that they don’t really play hardly anything.
Which obviously requires correcting. Kit can certainly be abused, and can certainly be unnecessary or even obtrusive. But if something can be used to cover for limited ability, it does rather stand to reason that it can also be used to boost the possibilities of greater ability still further.
I’m very glad to have my rejuvenated bow back. I look forward to it making next month’s concert opera leading much more humanly practical and aesthetically appropriate, and boosting the power of tomorrow night’s Filthy Spectacula gig to recruit audience for our really big West Country opportunity in May (more on that later). But it should also remind me that it isn’t cheating to use an overdrive pedal. Or even a wah-wah.