Composing GRIME

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GRIME — for violin, viola, cello, and double bass — was written between March and May of 2013 for the Fresh Inc Festival. It was written for a subset of Fifth House Ensemble called the “Real String Quartet.”

Around this time, I was completing my Masters in Music in Composition at Bowling Green State University, and I was becoming more interested in electronic music and spectralism, and looking to incorporate these styles and techniques into my acoustic music. I had also been exploring the intersection of popular genres like Rock and Electronica in Classical music. Upon receiving this ensemble assignment for the festival, I immediately saw the possibilities for combining all of these elements into a spectral work.

Writing a spectral work for this real string quartet presented a lot of great possibilities. For one, it represents the full frequency range of orchestral strings, unlike the standard string quartet, and an equal distribution of those frequencies, unlike the string quintet, which still includes two violins. In addition, the timbre of a string chamber ensemble can range from blended, homogenous textures, to extremely colorful diversity between the instruments.

Drawing on models such as Gondwana by Tristan Murail and Partiels by Gerald Grisey, I sought to create a piece that would recreate the sound of a different instrument, in the case of GRIME, an electric guitar with heavy distortion. To begin this process, I analyzed the sound of an electric guitar with the audio program SPEAR by composer and programmer Michael Klingbeil. This program uses a process called Fast-Fourier Transform to create a graphical representation of all of the frequencies present in a sound. It can also perform spectral manipulations on the sound, such as time stretching, removal of frequencies, or adding in completely new ones.

The image below from this program represents all of the frequencies present in a recording of a guitarist playing an F-sharp at around 185 Hz with a distortion unit. The grayscale of the lines represents the amplitude of each frequency, the darker the line, the louder the frequency. In this representation, we can see that the standard overtone series is present — the octave, the fifth, the fourth, etc. — but we also see a number of inharmonic tones. In addition, the distortion unit is making the higher partials almost as loud as (and at times, louder than) the fundamental pitch.

F# Guitar

Next, I met with four string-playing friends, asking them to play various notes in the guitar spectrum with different bow techniques and at different volumes and recorded the results. At this point, the process could have devolved into several more months of research, analysis, and experimentation. But since I had neither the time nor interest in such a process, I basically created different mockups of all the recordings in different combinations and created the piece based on my favorite versions of these sounds.

A loud, sul ponticello played extremely close to the bridge yielded the best results. Like distortion, sul pont. emphasizes the higher inharmonic frequencies in a pitch. The image below of a double bass playing a low E sul pont. at forte illustrates this point. The E2 is barely visible in the spectrum, in fact, the most visible pitch is a D5. The resulting sound is harsh and metallic. The viola playing molto sul pont. makes for the most convincing electric guitar sound, a fact that I would later exploit in Jimi, a work for solo viola and electronics, which is based on Jimi Hendrix playing the National Anthem at Woodstock.

E Bass sul pont

The piece is also heavily influenced by Italian composer Giacinto Scelsi, and his works which often consisted of only a few pitches, and at times, just one. Formally, GRIME is an expansion from and a return to the pitch G3. G was the optimal pitch for me for several reasons. First, it is a note within the range of all four of these instruments, and each of them brings their own unique timbre to it. It also happens to be my favorite pitch on the violin. It is its lowest, and can only be played open on the lowest string. It is earthy and dark. G3 sits comfortably in the viola and cello, but in the bass, it is high, and is usually played with a harmonic, giving it a somewhat strained quality. So while this opening may appear static and homogenous, the combination of these timbres is incredibly complex and ever changing.


The next advantage of the pitch G is that it is the first letter of both the word “guitar”, and Giacinto Scelsi’s name, which leads to a discussion of the title, GRIME. This title was added toward the end of the composition process, in fact, the working title was GRIND, because of the harsh grinding sound that result from both the molto sul ponticello and bow overpressure used in the work. In the search for a title, I wanted a word that began with G, and also had an “edgy” feel to it, given the Rock inspiration. But I eventually decided against the word “grind,” as it held more Hip Hop and Rap connotations for me (“bump and grind,” “on my grind,” and “rise and grind”). While GRIME doesn’t hold any Rock connotations that I am aware of (in fact, Grime, is a form of popular music originating in the UK with roots in Hip Hop and Drum and Bass), the title seemed to be more suited to the work.

The letters of the title can also be found in the moveable do solfege syllables of the notes that appear after G3 in the beginning of the piece — A-flat, A, B-flat, and B — (d)i, re, me, and mi. Which is why the capitalization is actually a part of the title, not just a stylization for the sake of the printed score. In all honesty, GRIME is a title that I’ve never been 100% happy about, but it seems to suit the work. Often, when we think of the string quartet, we think of pristine and proper works by Haydn, Mozart, and Beethoven (though great performers can bring out the moments of drama, angst, and darkness in all these works. And we cannot forget about incredible works by Berg, Bartok, and Lutosławski, just to name a few), but my piece puts a layer of grime over that tradition, only removing it at the end, with a Philip Glass-like coda in g minor.

GRIME was a confluence of seemingly disparate inspirations, including Rock, spectralism, minimalism, and modernist techniques. Just as the work is a transformation from a single pitch to a complex spectra, the experience of writing it and having it performed at the Fresh Inc Festival was a transitive and transformational one for me. I was completing one degree, and starting another. I was also beginning new friendships and collaborations with other festival participants, including Milo Fultz. I am constantly in awe of the journey this piece started me on.

Reserve your tickets for Ashes into Light on Sunday, February 21st at 7:30 p.m. at The Old Church in Portland.

Evan Williams
Evan Williams is a composer and an aspiring conductor currently working on his DMA at the University of Cincinnati College-Conservatory of Music (CCM).