Notes 59.2 (2002) 352-354
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The Contemporary Violin: Extended Performance Techniques. By Patricia Strange and Allen Strange. (The New Instrumentation.) Berkeley: University of California Press, 2001. [xiii, 337 p. ISBN 1-55553-472-4. $26.95 (hbk.); ISBN 0-520-22409-4. $24.95 (pbk.).] Music examples, bibliography, discography, list of scores, internet resources, index.
The violin family is beloved for its seemingly infinite flexibility of sound, color, and nuance. For centuries the voice of the violin has been prized for its proximity in character to the human voice, sharing its capacity for subtlety as well. Closer to our own time, composers have begun to branch out and consider the violin from differing points of view, exploring the instrument's possibilities for tonal colors and effects, alternate tuning systems, electronic modifications, and the use of the violin body as a percussion instrument. The Contemporary Violin: Extended Performance Techniques by Patricia Strange and Allen Strange attempts to catalog and explicate these possibilities, illustrating each technique with appropriate examples from the literature.
This is a voluminous work, evidently a labor of love, and the product of intensive thought, research, and experience. The book is well organized by type of technique, grouping ideas into chapters entitled "Bowing," "The Fingers" (further divided into right and left hands), "Percussion Techniques," "Harmonics," "Tuning Systems," "... and Variations" (dealing with experiments with the form of the violin itself), "Amplification and Signal Processing," and "MIDI, Strings, and the Computer." In a field which thrives on creative experimentation and thus always growing and in flux, the book gives a feeling of some kind of completeness and authority. There are numerous music examples establishing context for the techniques discussed, a bibliography of scores from which the examples are culled, and a discography of available recordings, guiding the reader who is interested toward avenues for further exploration.
Unfortunately, the book does not satisfactorily fulfill its promise as a practical compendium of the capabilities of the contemporary violin. Its most egregious drawback is the insufficient illumination of the sonic landscape. An accompanying compact disc with aural examples would have served to make this book quite a bit more useful. It seems reasonable to suppose that many readers of this book are likely to be composers wanting to expand their awareness of recently developed possibilities for the instrument. They will need to have at their fingertips not merely a listing of available techniques, but also some grasp of the expressive gestures embodied in these techniques. Often there is no verbal description that can adequately convey the impact of the sounds produced. In one instance, when discussing Tamar Diesendruck's Etudes for Violin and a special use of the instrument meant to imitate the vocal inflections of cartoon characters, the authors state: "This music must really be heard—the notation cannot convey the full sense of [End Page 352] the effect" (p. 197). There is no listing of a recording in the discography, leaving a reader eager to understand the intended effect frustrated and helpless. The flavor of different systems of tuning would also be significantly more vivid if heard on a recording. Fortunate composers will have access to a willing performer happy to participate in experimentation and creative searching, but a reference volume such as this one should not rely on such felicities of fate.
Another unsatisfactory aspect of the book is the absence of a clear explanation of the extent to which various techniques adversely affect the instrument. Some may render it unstable for the remainder of a performance while others may cause actual physical damage. In the first category the main problem is tuning. When the technique of pulled harmonics is covered (whereby the string is pulled to the side to change the pitch of a natural harmonic, a practice discussed on p. 138), a composer needs to know that the technique will almost definitely pull the string out of tune so that later natural harmonics will not give the notated pitch. (In fact this type of pulling is often used by performers to quickly lower the pitch of a string that has gone sharp...