When one thinks of the violin, viola, or cello, they think of JS Bach, Mozart, and Beethoven. It is almost always assumed that these instruments are merely for classical music. As time has gone on, there have been several strings players that have revolutionized strings playing and techniques.
With the emergence of country music and jazz in the early 20th century, the violin became a popular instrument.
Western swing became a popular dance music that originated in the south and west united States. It was a response to jazz music, and blended with rural, cowboy, polka, folk, and Dixieland styles. One prominent group during it’s peak was Bob Wills and the Texas Playboys. They gained major popularity in the 1940’s, where they had five major hits.
Old time fiddles such as Bill Hensley, and Asa Helton were not necessarily celebrities, but made their mark and carved a path for many generations of old time fiddlers and fiddling competitions.
From the swing era came the likes of jazz pioneers, Stephane Grappelli, Joe Venuti, and Stuff Smith
Towards the end of the century, we saw the rise of Irish music. Fiddlers Liz Caroll and Martin Hayes emerged.
Liz Carol, an American violinist and fiddler, shocked many when she won the All Ireland Senior Fiddle Champion in 1975. She started her career with classical training on violin, and then gradually moved to traditional Irish music. She learned from Phil Durkin, as well as learning some her father and grandfather.
And Martin Hayes, a County Clare native, has represented the region well with his lyrical style. Hayes learned learned everything from his father and others in County Clare, has been regarded as a brilliant folk artist by many. Hayes won the All-Ireland Senior Fiddle Championship six times before the age of 19.
Martin is best known for his collaborations with guitarist Dennis Cahill, with whom he has released many albums.
The 1980s saw a revolution of the string quartet. Groups such as the Turtle Island String quartet came about, stretching the limits of what a string quartet can do. Turtle Island was the first string quartet to achieved commercial success. They’ve blended several styles including jazz, bluegrass, funk, classical music, Latin American music, and Carnatic music.
The group was founded by David Balakrishnan and current Berklee professor Darol Anger.
Speaking of Darol Anger, he is the first musician that I will mention today. Not only was he a founder of Turtle Island, but of the David Grisman Quintet too.
Darol is known for his compositions and arrangements as well as his versatile playing, and chopping grooves. He has made major strides in linking styles as well as accompaniments and chord comping for stringed instruments.
For those of you who are unfamiliar with stringed instruments and techniques, the chop is a percussive sound made when the frog, or bottom, of the bow strikes a muted string. Heres what a chop sounds like.
He is one of a small number of strings players who has transitioned to the five string violin or viola. Which is almost always what he is seen performing with in his active career. He is currently performing with his band The Furies, he teaches at several workshops, including Mark O’Connor’s String Camps. He is also an associate professor at Berklee College of Music.
Next, we will talk about Kenji Bunch, a violist and composer who has emerged onto the scene in the late 1990s. He received his Bachelor and Master of Music Degrees from the Juilliard School, where he studied with Toby Appel on viola and composition with Robert Beaser.
Bunch has performed in a variety of settings; he was a founding member of the Flux Quartet, and Nextworks (a collaboration of musicians featuring works between composition and improvisation). He also fiddles and sings with the band Citigrass and plays in a viola-piano duet with his wife, Monica.
Kenji’s compositions are known for trying his love of vernacular American music with contemporary styles. He has composed several works for keyboard, wind ensembles, percussion, chamber ensembles, and of course, viola.
Here is one of my favorite tunes by him, the 3 G’s. It’s a crossed tuned piece that he wrote for the Mark O’Connor strings camp to show everyone what a viola can do.
It hasn’t only been the violin and viola making strides in the 21st century; there are several noteworthy cellists out there who have been re-defining their instruments as well.
Ben Sollee, a singer-songwriter cellist, emerged on the scene in the early 2000’s. Sollee brings a mix of classical music, bluegrass, jazz, contemporary, folk and r&b to his music. His technique on the cello has been described as unusual, he is known for playing with a finger-guitar style roll in a lot of his songs. He starts his song “It’s Not Impossible” with this style, doing a play on Bach’s 4th Cello suite.
Ben’s music frequently touches on social issues, such as environment and poverty. He is affiliated with Oxfam America, and the Commonwealth. For the past few years, Ben and his band have toured on their bicycles across country to gigs. They call it the “Ditch The Van tour.”
In 2009, he traveled 330 miles to the Bonnaroo festival with his supplies and cello strapped to his bicycle. He played the tour to support Oxfam. Ben, Kenji, and Darol are only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to modern day strings players. Other noteworthy names include, Casey Driessen, Tracy Silverman, Bruce Molsky, David Wallace, and Rushad Eggleston.
I'm Victoria Triola, thanks for listening!