Monday, October 1, 2007

Men In Helicopters String Quartet

men in helicopters string quartet
volume 1 number 12

as with last week's download the string arrangement for men in helicopters was first conceived in my head. I could hear the parts I wanted just as I can hear harmony parts I want to sing. but putting the proper notes on paper requires the help of a trained musician. with big blue sun it was Al Jewer who helped me; with men in helicopters it was the viola player Kristin Wilkinson.

Kristin and I sat at the piano. while I played out the lines I heard in my "head arrangement" she wrote the notes down. being a "trained" string player she was able to inform me of the ranges of the instruments, and certain little helpful details. for example, would this part sound best played on the low end of the violin or the high end of the viola? she took the parts home with her to write them out correctly and even made a little home demo for me to hear.
the recording session was quick. all I needed to do was to set the tempo. the players were easily able to play the parts correctly and within a few passes we were satisfied.

when I worked with frank zappa in 1977 I asked whether or not I should now learn to read music. frank said I already knew it my own way, I just didn't know the terminology. he said it was perhaps even helpful for me not to know the rules. at any rate he recommended not to bother, saying the time it would take would not be worth it for someone at my stage of development.

for the last few years I've been listening intently to my 10-year old daughter Ava
as she practices her piano lessons in the living room on Howard the piano,
reading the notes from books.
(we moved Howard upstairs to the living room for exactly that purpose.)
it seems like she's reading out loud to me.
I can observe her thought processes.
I am more and more amazed as she gets better and better.

frank was correct in saying in effect it was too late for me to start,
but with all the available resources nowadays,
I highly recommend proper training.

first violin: david davidson

second violin: david angell
viola: kristin wilkinson
cello: john catchings
string arrangement by kristin wilkinson and adrian
engineer: ken latchney
recorded at StudioBelew in Mt. Juliet, TN.
on April 17, 1997
length: 3:22


  1. Adrian,
    I think you have been reading my mind.I have been singing ( and driving and doing yoga :) ) to this beautiful song all last week ! I echo ALL of your sentiments in it completely, and the beautiful lofty sounding string section truly makes it take flight!
    I am so sad no yahoo downloads , what's up with that?
    Thanks again for the joy.

  2. Hi Adrian,

    Havin' some trouble at the BelewStore renewing my paypal card, so I bought the tune at i-tunes (string quartet with vocals). Beatlesque. Very nice

    I have an ambivalent relationship to reading notes; while I'm only an amateur musician, I'm busy learning to read in my mid forties; for me the hardest part is not the notes, but the rhythms.

    It seems to me that horn players tend to be readers while guitarists are more the play-by-ear types. (the joke is, how do you get a guitarist to stop playing? put a piece of music in front of him, yuk yuk)

    I think my best music making is sans written notes, but man, sometimes it's a handy shortcut, or a good way to keep track of a musical idea if you don't have the tech to "tape" every idea. Even if i notate the rhythms wrong it is good shorthand.

    Maybe Frank was wrong?

  3. Hey Adrian,
    My music teacher in high school had the theory its better to teach kids how to read (not to mention certain techniques) while they're young, because they soak it up like a sponge. Considering how hard it was even at the begining of high school to learn to read, and remebering that I could read for the recorder in elementry, I really see his point. Luckly my high school had a couple guitar chorses or I doubt Id ever figure out how to read properly (or arrange as well).

  4. I think for you Frank was probably right. Too many rules may interfere with your musical instincts. Computers can now 'hear' and 'notate' music - but they can't create and fill organized sound with emotion and passion and cleverness and humor. The human element is that thing you possess and have developed to a degree that training would probably ruin you.

    I can read a bit and understand musical theory but I never touched a piano until twenty years - at that point I was way too far behind to try for a music degree. I knew a wonderful cellist who took and passed all the university classes for a degree, but never could pass the piano proficiency test and never earned a degree.

    My two young sons ages 6 & 9 take piano lessons. They both read pretty well have two hand independence and will certainly surpass me in musical training/skill. Fripp calls it 'craft'. It can only take you so far.

  5. I think never is late to learn something.
    Is very important achieve a good reading of music but when a poet has good reading of words, not always it means he has the ability to express all he's really feeling.
    Imagine that I want to write on a staff an improvisation... wow!!! It can take years for me, but sometimes I need write some phrases for not forget that.

    At the music school some teachers said to me "you got to read any key: G,F or C in every line, you need read and transpose on first view for example E flat saxophones, or any other instrument with other root key". Well I think:
    "I have a software that does it for me... but this software will never never never compose a song for me".
    But anyway I think Is very important have a good reading, a quickly writeing and an easy tranposition ability
    Maybe 5 months ago i wrote a reduction for krimson's "Level Five" for a string quartet... it sounds crap in a midi software but I hope It sounds great with a real string players, When I record it I'll show you Ok?.

  6. Wait a second ... Ava is TEN? My god, I'm getting old.

    Seriously, I really appreciate the abilities you have, even though a more snobbish musician would say that you lack "proper, formal" training. In my youth, I read music as a sax player. After a 17-year hiatus, I took up guitar. But I couldn't read any more. I decided to move forward without that skill.

    I would love to sit and pick your brain re: your approach to soloing. Like a billion other guiarists, my foundation is the blues. But I've always admired your ability to "let go." That is, to step outside of the rulebook to find your sounds. I still have it in my mind that there is such a thing as the "wrong" note. I don't think you do. And that's a GREAT thing.

    Are you able to shed any light on what goes through your mind when you have to come up with a solo like "Elephant Talk," "Oyster Soup," or "Larks IV?" I just don't see you staring at a pentatonic scale, saying, "I have to conform to this."

    I am your humble student ...

  7. Hey AB,

    Thanks for spending so much time on the blog. It's very entertaining.

    I'm listening to "Here" and thinking "he gets a good drum sound in that basement room!"

    How big is that room? What mics/setup do you use for capturing cymbal sounds? I can see what you've got on the *drums* in the CD insert photo.

    I'm trying to record vDrums with a real snare, hihat and ride (just can't stand the way the pretend versions of those feel/sound) and I get a great-snare-in-a-crappy-room sound bleeding through to my overhead condensers.

    OK, feel free to ignore this--I know this isn't the "ask adrian" website :)

    ps--visit Minnesota next time you tour!

  8. eggmaster:
    actually Here was recorded in the basement of my home in Williams Bay, Wis. and with a different engineer (noah evens) so I don't know how we did it!
    for the last 15 years I've made records here at my studio in Mt. Juliet, TN.
    mostly for the drum mics I prefer Shure KSM-32, a versatile inexpensive vintage-style mic. for the overheads I use my ever-faithful AKG C-24, the "why Cleveland" mic.
    to me V-Drums are not meant to replace acoustic drums but to add another dimension to them. for certain sounds I run them through a little distortion box called 'Comptortion" which makes them sound more like an old jazz record. it's the sound of the V-Drums on "Beat Box Guitar".


  9. Thanks Adrian,

    Yeah, I was going to ask you about vDrums in that other comment, but I was already going on at length.

    I feel the same way about my vDrums. They're a great instrument, but they're not drums.

    Having said that, I bought mine so that a) I could practice/record at 1:00 AM and not wake up my kids, b) I wouldn't have to tweak a mixer for an hour before recording a track for a demo (I record with musicians via the Internets), c) I could still fit in my basement office/studio with the kit set up, and d) my room sounds terrible and the missus doesn't want a recording studio in the living room (go figure).

    I've found that, even for hobbyist recording, I can't stand to listen to the same ride cymbal sound on every hit, or a "snare" that makes only 5 (or 10 or whatever *finite* number) of sounds. It just hurts my ear holes, man.

    I've been a musician my whole life but I'm very much a beginner at recording. Thanks for the feedback and info!

    And here's a plug for linux and free DAW software! Free software, free society!

    Good day,

  10. Heh, I can't shut up.

    An observation related to the original post:

    My 8-year-old daughter reads music (granted, not Mozart sonatas or something) like she's reading the phone book. It blows my mind, too.

    What I really envy is her little 8-y.o. brain...I'm trying to learn guitar at 38, and even though I can read music, I just don't have the plasticity in my neurons that she's got.

    Some people think "formal training" cramps your style, but you should hear her improvise. She's a monster!

    It depends mostly on the person...some people are more inventive than others with whatever size toolkit they've got. As for myself, I often wish I'd learned drums "from the bottom up" via lessons because there are times when I imagine a sound that I know I could make if I had deeper chops. But it's still fun and satisfying. And I never had the discipline to practice for a teacher when I was younger :)

  11. It's certainly a foundation for understanding. That said, I've never learned. At 20, or so, a girlfriend who was attending the AI 'o Chicago advised me not to study art because it would only teach me to paint like everyone else.

    Everyone chooses a path. You'd probably be the band leader of the Tonight Show (>_<) had you learnt to read.
    Who knows?
    tuo hcterts.

  12. Exhibit A

  13. Tell us another story Uncle Adrian. :-)

  14. To compliment the hilarity of Exhibit A, I would like to present, on a slightly less droll note, this example of 16th century vihuela tablature as Exhibit B. Please note, that guitarist have now been not reading music for nearly 500 years.