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An awkward admission about violas!
Last post Wed, Dec 15 2010 by Steve555, 23 replies.
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Posted on Thu, Dec 09 2010 19:33
by Steve555
Joined on Sat, Jul 05 2008, Posts 22

I've been doing orchestral midi mockups since the early 90s, and have even been lucky enough to have a couple of corporate gigs transferred to real orchestra. But I'm ashamed to say there's a big gap in my knowledge about how to make good creative use of a viola section.

I wonder if anyone can point me to some standout textures (preferably in movie scores or classical pieces) that typify some of the colours that violas, uniquely,  can achieve.

I find myself using them for octave doubling, filling out extended chords, or formulaically  in 4-part writing. What I've never done is really exploited their unique qualities for effect, and so would love to hear any good examples of this kind of use.

Thanks

Steve

Posted on Thu, Dec 09 2010 21:05
by MassMover
Joined on Mon, Sep 29 2008, Posts 237
The unique sound is the lowest octave, as the cellos sound much more sonorous in that octave, and the violins just can’t reach that far, or sound weak in their lowest fifth. So everything you let them play below c and c, be it a melody, a rhythmic or alberti-style comping figure will bring out the special sound of the violas. Another attempt ist to give melodies you would normally put into the violins to the viola section and let the violins play below them. The violas sound much less brilliant in their high register, giving you a somewhat less direct sound.
Posted on Fri, Dec 10 2010 00:17
by jasensmith
Joined on Tue, Jan 15 2008, Arizona, Posts 1582

Have you seen this in the Vienna Academy http://vsl.co.at/en/70/3189/3191/5630.vsl ?  You might find it interesting.  I refer to it from time to time. 

Personally, I like the violas for their smooth and dark sound which works quite well for horror soundtracks because I think the cellos are a bit overused in that genre.  Here's a link to a track I did in that style http://sonicpsyops.com/audio/02_All_Hallows_Eve_hifi.m3u  The main theme is performed by a solo Viola, at first, then the full Viola section repeats it later.  If the link doesn't work try this link instead http://sonicpsyops.com/music.html then click on the song "All Hallow's Eve".  I'll admit that I'm no Jerry Goldsmith or anything but I think it's effective.


"If at first you don't succeed, try, try again. Then quit. There's no point in being a damn fool about it."
- W.C. Fields
Posted on Fri, Dec 10 2010 04:14
by William
Joined on Sun, Nov 24 2002, USA, Posts 5720

edit: The viola is a beautiful instrument in its own right.

Posted on Fri, Dec 10 2010 08:36
by BadOrange
Joined on Tue, Nov 23 2010, Quebec, Posts 60
I suppose it comes down to what colour you want but some things to think about

Despite the violin A string being quite piercing especially in first position, the viola A is quite piercing and almost nasal and it cuts rather well mixing well with woodwind doublings. So lets say you had a passage in that area and you wanted to give it some more prominence , you would use the viola.

Same foes for Cello. D would be the most musical string I would say while the A being the most brilliant. So you have some very legato passage that you want pronounced and it happens to be in that area, maybe the cello is what your orchestration needs

Just a few ideas. There are so many ways and philosophies that to make a general rule is impossible. It depends what else is playing among other things
Posted on Fri, Dec 10 2010 11:08
by Steve555
Joined on Sat, Jul 05 2008, Posts 22

MassMover - Yes I see your point about the character being most evident in the lowest octave. I should've guessed, but that's the sweet spot.

jasensmith - Thanks for link, some good info there.

William - heh heh, that's what I like, an unabashed opinion ;)  Well, I'm on a quest to be a fellow fan.  (But I'm probably not courageous enough to echo your feeling next time I'm with 30 or so other people holding wooden sticks.)

BadOrange - Thanks for the info, do I take it you have control of strings in the full VSL versions? (I'm on SE, about to upgrade with the xmas offer). Clearly at the range extremes there's only one choice, but the middle range has a couple of viable alternatives. Is there any info about how the samples were distributed across strings. I had previously assumed that - going chromatically from low to high - that the next open string was used as soon as it became in range.

Posted on Fri, Dec 10 2010 15:22
by William
Joined on Sun, Nov 24 2002, USA, Posts 5720

Sorry Steve I was just joking.  Your question is a very good one for an orchestration forum and actually difficult to answer.  I have worried about this myself because I don't want to write totally boring parts for any instruments.  I remember sitting in orchestra rehearsals and seeing how bored the violas were with the endless afterbeats they were playing, and thinking I don't ever want to write a part that players hate. 

In general the viola does have a mellower, more withdrawing sound than the violin, and it does not have the extremely rich resonance of the cello.  But those characteristics are why I like it so much, as it takes on either an unassuming, very blendable quality, or a somewhat mysterious, somber  or even haunting soloistic quality.  Its best range is probably in the low and middle octaves.  In the lowest notes it is extremely "serious" and sad, as if it has been drained of life,  almost funereal.  But the "sad" drained quality makes the instrument so perfect for expressive music of that kind that  you absolutely have to have it.  In its middle range it becomes espressivo.  The highest range starts to sound a bit strained, but you can use that for its effect as well.  I know this is all subjective though, and that is why this is a difficult question.  It should really be explained not with words but just music.

Maybe the best orchestral viola parts are found in the works of the Romantic/early Modern era when composers "liberated" them from their lowly accompaniment duties and allowed their sound to be used expressively.  Even though Brahms is not known particularly for his orchestration the viola parts in his symphonies always seemed very prominent and well-written.  And the symphonies of Tchaikovsky and especially Mahler used them very characteristically, and in the Modern era Debussy in Images, Jeux and La Mer had great parts as well as the early large scale works of Stravinksy like the Firebird and Rite of Spring.  The symphonies of Vaughn Williams show a masterful use of the entire string section with a lot of prominent viola parts.  Some other examples would be in a string-ensemble-only work like the Barber Adagio for Strings which is molto espressivo scoring for all of them.  And even though it is chamber music, the Debussy Trio for Flute, Viola and Harp uses the characteristic sound  of the viola perfectly. 

Posted on Fri, Dec 10 2010 19:35
by Steve555
Joined on Sat, Jul 05 2008, Posts 22

Thanks for the many examples, that's exactly what I was hoping for.  I have midi files for some of those already, so it will make recognising them easier. As you say, it's so subjective, but I'd always felt it was a sadder timbre at times. I look forward to soloing them in the Barber especially for that reason to hear their effect. I've never heard the Debussy Trio either, so can't wait to try that also. Thanks again, that gives me lots to follow up.

Posted on Fri, Dec 10 2010 20:36
by BadOrange
Joined on Tue, Nov 23 2010, Quebec, Posts 60
I prefer describing it based on frequency rather than emotion as that really depends on what is being played. I find that A string rather quite nasal and very distinct. Much more than the violin and as a result easier to cut in a given orchestration. Just go thru music and look for passages where the viola is not playing in its normal register. Ask yourself why and listen to some recordings. In every case, you will probably find the reason as these decisions are very deliberate.
Posted on Sat, Dec 11 2010 12:42
by PaulR
Joined on Mon, Dec 22 2003, England, Posts 2371

I am breaking my own rules and doing a classical work by Elgar Op. 70 for practice purposes and apart from anything else the use of sordino strings is genius. What I get from it, is the way the violas knit together violins, cellos and basses. It's too good for me to get sounding anywhere near right but it is good study.

Posted on Sat, Dec 11 2010 16:01
by BadOrange
Joined on Tue, Nov 23 2010, Quebec, Posts 60
Elgar is so underrated by the academic world. I know he sort of missed the boat by 10 years but I mean he was in England. But his music is quite impressive. His approach reminds me of chopin in that he did allow for nice hooks/melodies despite being surround by sophisticated harmony and structures. And unlike Wagner, you didn't have to wait 5 minutes. Definitely my favourite string orchestrator but I suppose that tends to happen when you are a violinist. I don't really have anything bad to say but I love his orchestrations. One of the few that can create such a dense texture without it sounding mush. It isn't so much the way he used it like lets say Prokofiev ( who hands down makes the most with the least) who could make 3 lines sound so thick but rather how he effortfully made so many elements come together. I remember performing Schoenberg's gurrelieder with the MSO and that was an absolutely muddy mess.
Posted on Sun, Dec 12 2010 11:12
by PaulR
Joined on Mon, Dec 22 2003, England, Posts 2371

Not so much underrated but he personally had problems coming from what he perceived to be a very working class background and Catholicism. Being a Catholic in England has never been easy and it was a lot worse in Elgar's day. A great orchestrator actually and the Enigma Variations are probably just about perfect. Not really my forte at all. I studied Enigma Variations, Noyes Fludde and Brandenburg Concerto No. 3 for what was called O level music in 1968 and finished up going all out baroque so Elgar is always new to me whenever I take a look. As is just about anything after 1759.

Posted on Sun, Dec 12 2010 20:08
by BadOrange
Joined on Tue, Nov 23 2010, Quebec, Posts 60
WHen I said underrated, I mean at schools. I remember going to 2 different schools and it was always the same composers they discussed and totally ignored others. I don't think Tchaikovsky, Dvorak , Elgar were ever mentioned in any of my classes. I feel like the teachers teach what they were taught and it is this long cycle of just examples that probably came from this one guy that liked certain guys and used those examples. There are many passages from all those composers that could be used instead of constantly using the same composers all the time. I found that in music, you really learn most of it yourself and the undergrad should really as a goal open you up to different things you might not of known. Well if my silly dreams of being a working composer ever fall flat. I teach teach but make sure that lets say in harmony class, have examples from as many composers as possible. So you learn about harmony and a little bit about history. Of course before I do that, I will have to take a few years and engage myself in a self destructive spiral of heroin use and poor hygiene. Then when I reach rock bottom , I start teaching at some inner city school and despite our cultural differences , I make a difference in their lives and they all pass the SATs and Charlene decides to keep the baby. hmmm I think I just described some awful movie with Fonda.
Posted on Tue, Dec 14 2010 13:13
by PaulR
Joined on Mon, Dec 22 2003, England, Posts 2371

You of course realize you've got no chance with 'making a difference' or  any of that stuff theses days right?

Posted on Tue, Dec 14 2010 17:03
by BadOrange
Joined on Tue, Nov 23 2010, Quebec, Posts 60
Not sure who that was aimed but finding the pertinence of your rude comment and what the guy above just asked is kinda hard.
Posted on Tue, Dec 14 2010 21:49
by jasensmith
Joined on Tue, Jan 15 2008, Arizona, Posts 1582

BadOrange wrote:
Not sure who that was aimed but finding the pertinence of your rude comment and what the guy above just asked is kinda hard.
 

I don't want to speak for Paul but I don't think his comment was directed at you, necessarily, I think it was directed at anyone who thinks they are going to make a difference teaching at inner city schools.  A common denominator of almost all of Paul's posts is a pretty pessimistic view of the current state of affairs.  And considering the aforementioned 'current state of affairs' I find myself agreeing with him more and more.  What's sad is that I've never considered myself pessimistic.  I have always thought of myself as pragmatic. 

Ok but now we are getting way off topic... 


"If at first you don't succeed, try, try again. Then quit. There's no point in being a damn fool about it."
- W.C. Fields
Posted on Wed, Dec 15 2010 01:10
by BadOrange
Joined on Tue, Nov 23 2010, Quebec, Posts 60
it was literally the plot to a movie with Jane Fonda. An attempt at humour. It was quite the trend setting movie but in a bad way.
Posted on Wed, Dec 15 2010 11:22
by PaulR
Joined on Mon, Dec 22 2003, England, Posts 2371
jasensmith wrote:

I don't want to speak for Paul but I don't think his comment was directed at you, necessarily, I think it was directed at anyone who thinks they are going to make a difference teaching at inner city schools.  A common denominator of almost all of Paul's posts is a pretty pessimistic view of the current state of affairs.  

Hahahah! That is in fact correct Jasen! Well done. But I can't stand forums where it suddenly becomes about individuals. I am banned from two music forums currently for using foul language and what was perceived to be rude behaviour.  It was not rude but in fact an honest appraisal  and you just can't do that on forums I have found out. You have to compromise and be nice and tell people what they want to hear - even if it's total bollocks. Most of these people can't actually play and can barely hold a knife and fork. The younger ones still think banks are to blame for them being born a fucking moron in the first place.   Wink

I keep it to  a minimum here out of respect to VSL. That's the only reason. No one wants to hear about individuals - I find it a little bit like being covered in projectile vomit actually. I have no interest most of the time in anyone's personal circumstances and therefore when you get remarks aimed at you about rudeness all I can say is the perpetrators need to get out more.

Carry on.

Posted on Wed, Dec 15 2010 13:11
by Steve555
Joined on Sat, Jul 05 2008, Posts 22
PaulR wrote:
 It was not rude but in fact an honest appraisal  and you just can't do that on forums I have found out.

I totally agree with what you're saying.I think part of the problem is that people don't get a true sense of your tone. Being a fellow Brit, I find a blunt, dry, appraisal quite funny, but understandably this can be mistaken for you just being an arse.

As the O.P., when you made an interesting comment about my question, I read a couple of your posts to see who you were.

The first thing I read was something like "trailer music liked by the  kind of morons who play video games". I thought, well there's no point getting in to a conversation with this guy. It appears I'm a moron. On both counts.

My first reaction was that you're probably a doddery old twat who couldn't be trusted to sit the right way round on a toilet. My second reaction after reading a couple more posts , is that you're witty and smart  (In a Gregory House kind of way, though maybe you're too high-brow to get the reference) and appear to know more about orchestration than I could ever hope to. And you like the word 'moron'.

My point being, is that over a pint in a pub, we could exchange our 'morons' and 'twats' in a good-humoured way and move past it in to a decent conversation. I'd be happy to play the moron if you tell me what to do with a viola (!), but  on internet forums I guess people think "This guy sounds like hard work."  BTW, don't forget, you're the moron on some subjects, but maybe you don't frequent those forums.

[ Edit: Dunno why my a-r-s-e got changed to ***. It let your swearing through... Not Fair! ;)  ]

Posted on Wed, Dec 15 2010 13:45
by mike connelly
Joined on Wed, Apr 28 2004, Posts 260
PaulR wrote:

I keep it to  a minimum here out of respect to VSL.

Wow, really.  Considering how often this forum resembles monkeys throwing feces, I can only imagine...

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