LoudQUIETloud was the name of a Pixies tour documentary. But the term could as easily apply to New York chamber duo String Noise, which has more than lived up to its name while inspiring and cultivating an entirely new repertoire of compositions for two violins. Scarce options existed in that specialized category before Pauline Kim Harris and Conrad Harris inaugurated the combo in 2011, six years into their marriage.
“It was never intended,” Harris says. “It just kind of happened, and it kind of made sense.”
“It was a wild experiment,” Kim adds.
“And we’re still experimenting,” Harris continues.
That process is on full display this week as String Noise headlines back-to-back evenings at Areté Venue and Gallery in Greenpoint, Feb. 20 and 21. Says Kim, “We’re challenging each other outside of what you normally would imagine a marriage could be like. It’s just the two of us.”
The first show takes “whispering” as a theme, with pieces to honor quietude by Catherine Lamb and Jürg Frey, and the world premiere of Lou Bunk’s Field. Night two doubles as an album-release celebration for composer Michael Byron’s Fabric for String Noise. The title track of a new CD just out on Cold Blue is a demanding two-movement composition, with lines that twist around each other in a rigorously sustained upper register, pricking the ears like sharp thorns on a vine. It’s bracing and hypnotic all at once.
That program also includes the world premiere of Fidelio by Luciano Chessa, a piece inspired by Arthur Schnitzler’s 1926 Traumnovelle and Stanley Kubrick’s screen version, Eyes Wide Shut. In order to perform the music properly, Kim and Harris will wear jingle bells. (It was, after all, a Christmas movie.)
As befits its collaborative nature – which includes endeavors such as Pauline’s work with dance troupes and Conrad’s role in the FLUX Quartet – String Noise will highlight the work of another composer and arranger in March, participating in two evenings devoted to original pieces and punk-rock song arrangements by Eric Lyon on March 13 at Areté and March 14 at Spectrum.
It was Lyon who several years ago convinced the duo to bring Los Angeles punk legends the Germs into the concert hall—an act for which String Noise remains notorious. That seemed like a fitting place to begin this conversation.
NATIONAL SAWDUST LOG: So, going back almost to the beginning, how did you guys catch the Germs?
KIM: The Germs were kind of a happy accident.
HARRIS: After a concert, Eric Lyon said he wanted to write this arrangement and he started singing, and I thought he was singing “Gimmie Gimmie Gimmie” by Black Flag, but he was singing “Lexicon Devil” by the Germs. Anyway. It has the same word [“Gimme”]. So that happened. We kept doing more of that, so we have maybe 30-40 arrangements by different people.
KIM: We also did a fun project for music to go along with the film The Decline of Western Civilization.
HARRIS: It covers the punk scene in L.A. right around 1980.
KIM: We basically replaced all the music.
HARRIS: We got a DVD and we had someone alter it, and took out the sound when the band begins to play, and we play arrangements of the song.
KIM: We had 15 of our friends make arrangements of 26 songs.
HARRIS: We performed that live. It’s kind of killer.
KIM: The more we started doing these punk tunes, what was really fun was we were going crazy with extended techniques. Every performance got more out there. Before you knew it, it started to sound new and cool. It’s not like we were trying to play the song. We keep the integrity of the song so it’s still a cover, but what tends to happen after some time it takes on a whole new life. We’re doing all covers as a set for the first time next month.
HARRIS: That’s going to be at Spectrum, March 14.
KIM: The night before is all Eric Lyons music at Areté.
Listening to you play Michael Byron’s piece, the intensity and difficulty of it, the gnarliness of the way those lines mesh, it doesn’t feel too far away from what you do to the Germs. Technique is a binding thread, as is the energy.
HARRIS: It’s also the way it’s recorded: very close-miked and raw sounding.
KIM: It’s very awkward to play and it’s not natural to the violin. Even when we’re playing low notes, we’re playing super high up the G string. We’re creating these chords that are modal, not in a key. It’s like the sound of the gamelan, because the resonance has to keep sustaining. We had to do them in full takes, because there was nowhere to cut in and re-do anything.
HARRIS: All the lines overlap. It’s basically a live recording.
KIM: And that’s the energy you’re feeling. It was an unusual project.
What was your relationship with Byron?
HARIS: FLUX has a string quartet that we’ve done of his.
KIM: We’ve known him for a really long time.
HARRIS: Flux recorded a piece of his called The Celebration. It’s with piano and voice and string quartet, with Tom Buckner and Joseph Kubera.
How hard is that to stay on top of what Byron wrote? As you’re saying, it goes against the grain.
HARRIS: You kind of have to get into a sort of groove, in a way, and you just go.
KIM: It’s a mindset for me. You look at it and say, “Oh my God,” and then: OK, here we go!
Sounds like something you really enjoy.
KIM: Yeah, if you come out alive at the end. We lived to tell the story! No pain, no gain!
I assume your muscles and nerves are functioning at a higher level than regular humans. But what’s the investment in getting a piece like this to where you can record it?
HARRIS: There’s something practicing going on for a number of hours. If we’re on the same page, feeling the same beat and cueing each other then the challenge isn’t as much putting it together—weirdly enough, it’s more individual.
KIM: The minute I get a score sent to me, we start looking at it, processing it, and we have a rehearsal to assemble it. After that first rehearsal, having gone through it slowly, then a lot of it is the time that is spent maturing those concepts and ideas. It’s more playing and making musical concepts out of it.
HARRIS: Making it sound convincing, whatever the piece is.
What is it about Byron’s writing, and in this particular piece, do you respond to strongly?
HARRIS: What I like about it is it’s just this wall of sound that doesn’t stop. I find it powerful, a massive thing. And it’s so fast. You keep hearing the notes you just played, the resonance, and it’s just a wall of sound.
KIM: Two violins making a ruckus. He kind of does that with his piano pieces, too, and also this four-bass piece on the same album. He really got the violin to resonate, so it creates the illusion of more going on.
As far as stamina, it’s as if you’re sprinting.
HARRIS: We’ve only performed it twice. Maybe we’ll get to the point where it’s more meditative than vigorous, but I’m not going to count on that.
Once you’re done are you done for the night?
KIM: It’s like a warm-up [laughs].
HARRIS: It’s pretty tiring.
KIM: It’s almost 20 minutes straight.
HARRIS: I think it’s more than 20 minutes.
KIM: It’s a good tired. It’s not like we’re injured and in pain.
HARRIS: It’s not painful. At least, physically it’s not painful.
Tell me more about your ongoing collaboration with Eric Lyon and your expanded repertoire of punk covers.
HARRIS: We’re doing 20 songs. We said, “Oh yeah, sure, that’s a great idea.”
KIM: We did?
HARRIS: And then a couple of days later… [to Pauline] I don’t know. Maybe we never said it was a good idea.
KIM: In the garden of your mind.
HARRIS: But, anyway, it’ll be fun. That’s going to be a lot of energy. For anyone that comes to the show, we’re giving away a new recording.
KIM: A new, four-cover [recording]. Two Minutemen songs, a song by Flipper, and our first pop cover, by Prince. We had a show at National Sawdust. Eric was arranging “Kiss” for us, and then we heard the news about the passing of Prince. It was so sad.
HARRIS: I thought it was the other way around.
KIM: God, war stories, man.
HARRIS: Anyway, we really loved the arrangement, and we altered it a little bit. That’s going to be part of the four-song EP, in some format, probably a cassette with a download code.
So with all this punking out, you’re also planning a set of whisper music. In addition to the premiere of Lou Bunk’s Field, you’re playing Catherine Lamb’s in (tone) and Jürg Frey’s Ohne Titel (Zwei Violinen).
HARRIS: We did Catherine Lamb’s piece in our first full concert as a duo.
KIM: It’s microtonal. We couldn’t play softly enough, but it was soft enough that you could hear the gradation of the different pitches. It’s interesting to play really intense music and, oppositely, play something that requires a different kind of control. Conrad’s quartet does [Morton Feldman’s] six-hour string quartet. Playing music quietly is a different kind of challenge and it’s also physically exerting, almost similarly exhausting.
We tried these events called No Noise. We needed a place to shut out everything. There’s so much stimulation, when you think about what we’re exposed to—not at will, but also because we have no choice to have control over your environment, to have space between stimulation and yourself. We did this event called No Noise at the DiMenna Center for Classical Music. It’s probably one of the only remaining large live rooms in New York City. It’s a suspended room, so it’s a box within a box within in a box. It’s super quiet. And they recently renovated, so it was closed for a year, and now it’s even better than ever.
It was just incredible. We started with 20 minutes of silence, then someone played Stockhausen solo piano for about 20 minutes, and we had another 20 minutes of silence, then another 20 minutes of Stockhausen, and then ended with 20 minutes of silence. And it was life-changing – also, to see the social behavior, of how awkward it is at first to be exposed to that. We served cocktails and you were able to do other social things, but no talking. We had the lights lit a certain way so the focus was on the piano. Everybody started in the darkness and by the end of the evening everybody was right by the piano in the light. Not that we’re trying to recreate something like that, but we thought it would be interesting in this time when there is so much noise.
Also, there’s the influence of Christian Wolff, where he says he wants to bring the listener into the music, not throw music at them. That was interesting—to create a program that allowed people to come into the sound, and into the silences, and somehow connect in that way without it being a big party. Which we’ll have the next night.
HARRIS: There’ll be plenty of noise the next night.
String Noise performs at Areté Venue & Gallery in Greenpoint Feb. 20 and 21 at 8pm, and participates in “Lyonfest” there on March 13 at 9pm; stringnoiseduo.com
Steve Dollar is a freelance journalist and critic for the Wall Street Journal and other publications.
Classical music coverage on National Sawdust Log is supported in part by a grant from the Rubin Institute for Music Criticism, the San Francisco Conservatory of Music, and the Ann and Gordon Getty Foundation. The Log makes all editorial decisions.
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