The long, resonant vibration of strings has been a constant throughout the history of music and, therefore, has been integral to the creation of experimental, avant-garde works as well. Just like the piano, stringed instruments have been modified, repurposed, and co-opted to create a stunning variety of sounds — from the ancient harps and droning tamburas of Mesopotamia to the violins and cellos of Renaissance chamber music. Tapping into this rich tradition, the sustained, harmonically complex tones of stringed instruments provide a gorgeous palette for the modern underground musicians represented here.
01. Duane Pitre — “Section I” Feel Free [Important Records; 2012]
Layering plucked, struck, and bowed string sounds, Duane Pitre patiently explores the full harmonic range of the string instruments featured in this piece. Pitre, a professional skateboarder turned sound artist, has a great feel for both space and pace in his compositions. Feel Free, one of the standout albums of last year, deftly moves from small percussive sounds to great rivers of violin, contrabass, cello, dulcimer, harp, and guitar.
02. Phill Niblock — “Harm” Touch Three [Touch; 2006]
Emerging from the Pitre piece, this monolithic Niblock composition is a classic exploration of drone. As part of the experimental breeding ground of New York in the 1960s, Niblock focused on layering identically tuned traditional instruments on top of each other. The result is a subtly shifting sound that draws the listener into the microtones within the notes and the slight irregularities of the performances.
03. Date Palms — “Honey Devash” Honey Devash [Mexican Summer; 2011]
Maintaining a long, slowly evolving drone on the classical Indian tambura, this piece by Oakland, California’s Date Palms is one that has seldom left my turntable since its release two years ago. There’s something about the slow-burn bass playing and Eastern-tinged atmosphere of this side-long track that is instantly mesmerizing.
04. Portraits — “In D” Portraits [Important Records; 2012]
It wasn’t difficult to pair this piece with the one before it, as Gregg Kowalsky and Marielle Jakobsons of Date Palms play on it. A kind of underground, Bay Area supergroup, Portraits focuses in on the meditative drone of traditional Indian ragas. Like the work of Pandit Pran Nath, who inspired and taught experimental composers like La Monte Young and Terry Riley in the 1960s, the droning tambura serves as a pulsing launch pad for improvisations based on a fixed set of notes. Here, violin, Japanese koto, and guitar slide over rich tapestries of harmonium and shruti.
05. Sundrips — “Basejumping” Basejumping at Cliff Clavin [Fadeaway Tapes; 2010]
The only piece here that doesn’t explicitly feature stringed instruments, this brief Sundrips track captures the feeling and harmonics of a bow dragging across strings. The Montreal-based duo creates this brand of gorgeous dynamics with a bevy of classic synthesizers. Their small-run cassettes have featured some of the most interesting uses of synths that I’ve heard in the Korg-filled last few years.
06. Tony Conrad / Faust — “From the Side of the Machine” Outside the Dream Syndicate [Caroline; 1973]
From a spectacular Table of the Elements reissue comes this pairing of Tony Conrad’s beautiful, chaotic viola work and classic German krautrock band Faust. Along with La Monte Young, Marian Zazaeela, and John Cale, Conrad was an early member of the Theatre of Eternal Music, a group that extended classical Indian drones into marathon single-note performances. Here, we find Conrad’s minimalist viola playing evolving and transforming within the structure of Faust’s driving, machine-like rhythm section. Just as with the rest of the pieces here, this ancient, elemental string sound offers fertile ground for new musical connections and captivating experimentation.