Every now and then, composers and performer-composers can use a tall glass of cultural reality check.
As these words are being written, we are approaching Mozart’s 250th birthday this Friday. It’s worth recognizing the degree of public popularity Mozart achieved over two centuries ago. One could hardly think that Mozart, as a composer or a performer, would deliberately avoid finding the broadest popular audience he could.
It need not be re-hashed here how “serious” composers had increasingly distanced themselves from the public ear and its immediate cultural environment over a good part of the late 20th century, including distancing themselves from song—meaning popular song. Would one think that Mozart would avoid the idioms in popular song if he were alive today? One could credibly conclude that he might take the attitude of rock violinist Bobby Yang.
A 27-year-old protégé of Paul Kantor (then at the University of Michigan), Yang followed his mentor to the Aspen Music Festival camp each summer for extended study but honed his rock chops playing at clubs five nights a week. After settling in Aspen for a while, Yang moved to Atlanta in 2003 in search of a larger market, creating original string tracks locally for acts like Avril Lavigne and Collective Soul. He has recently done the same for producer Ron Saint Germain at The Shed in New York.
In November of last year, and again this January 6, Yang came out from behind the studio to perform as a headliner at Eddie’s Attic in Decatur backed by his Unrivaled Players—Clay Cook (guitar), Rob Henson (bass), and Mark Cobb (drums). The repertoire: instrumental transformations of classic rock songs made famous by Led Zepplin, Smashing Pumpkins, Guns N’ Roses, Eddie Van Halen, Jimi Hendrix, et al. Yang’s “not exactly covers” deploy the full-on energy and fun of rock without the sheer volume of arena bands using only amplified acoustic instruments. Yang refuses to play an electric violin, amplifying his number one ax (made in the same year Mozart was born) with a mic strapped on with a No.3 rubber band. The performance and Yang’s energy thoroughly engaged the mixed-generation audience, which joined in a sing-along during Def Leppard’s “Pour Some Sugar on Me.”
What does this have to do with “serious” composing today? Everything, suggests Yang, who can play Mozart concerti or Paganini caprices with equal facility as he does rock and pop classics.
“So many times I hear people diss pop music as being just three chords. It really isn’t. It’s three chords that can rock 150,000 people at Wembley [Stadium]. I challenge [composers] to do that in their own way. It’s really not about the theories of music, it’s about the passion and the energy you put into it.”
In performance, Yang plays an amalgamation of lead guitar and vocal parts, but not slavishly—instead, with a good dose of improvisatory freedom. “I was taught a clean, pure sound,” says Yang. For rock, he found a different way. To do it, he starts conceptually from that “white canvas” of pure classical sound, which he describes as driving from three elements of bowing:
- 1) Bowing direction. For purest timbre, the bow remains perpendicular to the strings. “This requires the arm roll outward as the bow is pulled,” says Yang.
2) The amount of bow hair contacting the strings. “The frog is heavier than the tip, so the bow is rotated for less hair at the frog, more at the tip,” he says, to achieve evenness of volume.
3) The point where the bow contacts the string. “The middle of the string is where you get the most torque—too much. [The normal] contact point is about 1″ off the bridge, but the sweet spot varies about 1.5 centimeters [overall among] the different strings.”
“I think it’s a big mistake to work on vibrato until the bow is mastered,” says Yang of playing rock idioms. He jokes that the left hand is over rated, but is adamant about the importance of bowing to style. “If the bowing isn’t right, no amount of effects (like wide vibrato or slides) will cover for you.”
“The classical goal is to imitate a pure-voiced opera singer,” he says. “But to take it beyond that is where I come from. I actually hold back [on velocity] so I can sound like singers on the radio, who don’t sound like Cecilia Bartoli. I focus on intonation, on the ‘breath,’ and little idiosyncrasies. I’ve developed a personality in my bowing, like the little hiccup before Michael Jackson starts a phrase.”
“I’ve watched Ron Saint Germain mix, and you know what he’s listening for? The breath in a singer. He makes sure you can hear it. And that’s what makes his mixes [work for] all these huge, huge bands. There’s something subliminal there, subconscious, that makes them sound like they’re in the car with you.”
“From a composer’s standpoint, I would listen to libraries of popular groups today, find out what textures, what instruments I wouldn’t use,” he insists, avoiding some that are common in classical scoring. “Maybe more collaboration, maybe between someone like Bono and a contemporary composer would completely launch that [composer's] career.”
Surely Mozart would have liked the idea. After all, his three most successful Italian operas were the product of a close collaboration with librettist Lorenzo Da Ponte. Who knows? Had they written Don Giovanni today, the opera might well have included a song like “Pour Some Sugar on Me”—I mean “Versimi un Certo Zucchero.”
A native of Atlanta, Georgia, Mark Gresham is a composer, publisher, and freelance music journalist. He is a contributing writer for Atlanta’s alternative weekly newspaper, Creative Loafing, and was winner of an ASCAP-Deems Taylor Award for Music Journalism in 2003.