Now that we have Audiobro’s LASS, EastWest’s Hollywood Strings, the Vienna Symphonic Library, and the soon-to-be-released Miroslav Vitous String Ensembles, we’ve arrived at the place in music technology where the composer really must know string bowings and how to plan them.

Previously, we really didn’t have this option. At best, we had available a sustained (sometimes called a long) that let you do legato lines and pads (pop talk for sustained harmony), half-step/whole-step trill, tremolo, and some kind of short bowing like a staccato or marcato.

And lo! Much TV music and demos were written!

But now that’s changed. Look at this screenshot of the Vienna Instrument’s Pro Player.

It looks intimidating. Fortunately there are presets! But if you click the graphic you’ll see on the right a list of “articulations” for the brass. But the same principle applies to the strings. The little cells you see are where you can insert an individual bowing, thereby, laying the foundation for how you want to “bow” the piece. You can do this for Violins 1 through Basses.

As for piano skills, you actually don’t need them, because you can step time in all the parts and edit from there. But having excellent keyboard skills is certainly a help.

Now we come to Hollywood Strings. Check out the chart below and you’ll see the list of bowings commonly found in orchestration textbooks staring you in the face. Hello, now you really need to know them beyond homework assignments.

LASS, an acronym for L.A. Scoring Strings, is the only library organized and recorded to let you write divisi, or to create smaller ensembles as you need them all the way down to a string quintet. You don’t have the broad depth of bowing selections you have in Vienna and Hollywood Strings, but you have more than enough including excellent spiccatos, legatos, staccatos, marcatos, and portamentos galore to get the job done.

The new Miroslav Vitous String Ensembles hasn’t been released yet. I’ve been doing some pre-reviews on them. So there’s not too much I can say right now. But like Hollywood Strings and LASS, you have more than the old average number of bowings to choose from.

Learning these libraries is always a challenge as now you have to put a tech day or two into your schedule to understand how the players are working and then experiment to first learn each library and what it can before you go trying to blend them into your template.

But the change for the composer is that now you’re really doing the planning work that a concertmaster does before performing your work. It’s time consuming before the parts are passed out, and it’s time consuming for you as well doing the planning before sequencing.

Now when you ask the question, “Hmmm, how do I want this phrase bowed?” you can go a long way to answer it since by your choices you can hear how the phrase changes its impact on the listener based on how you bowed the line.

It’s now no longer good enough to know the definition of a particular bowing. The new libraries require a depth of knowledge from the composer I don’t think the developers themselves really grasp. For example, just how loud can strings really play spiccato vs. staccato?

This isn’t a trick question.

In a fast passage that could be bowed either way, the dynamics make the decision. And now you have to really know that, because once you’ve turned in the recording demo of your work, even a car mechanic will be able to tell if you know your salt from your salt substitute.

In short, where does each bowing rank on a scale of loudness?

This requires an amazing level of ear training (aka focused listening) on your part to find out. One must listen with even greater focus, possibly to several recordings of the same work that has bowings similar to what you’re trying to accomplish. Finding different performances of the same work on YouTube can be helpful especially if the work is bowed differently. The second movement of Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony comes to mind. Felix Weingartner suggested one approach which Von Karajan promptly ignored. Then there’s Carlos Kleiber.

Three different approaches, three different expressions.

In a world where fast isn’t fast enough, for the composer, at least for me, it boils down to expression which some call art. And that’s more time consuming then just slapping something together from your template. It’s bringing up something from down deep. Something maybe you didn’t even know was there until you probed around and decided to let “it” out.

Not only is that more time consuming, it’s also more demanding.

The deal here is, “What am I trying to say?”

For my Writing For Strings Course, which I expanded this summer because of all this bowing newness, I created a short piece based on a Kurt Wallender detective story. Called The Dogs of Riga, it’s a simple little piece in Dorian running about 47 seconds. I created several different versions and as part of the final project, the student has to mark the bowings and then record it for the “imaginary” producer.

Confronted with my own brilliance, I had to answer the same question, “What am I trying to say?”

Each different bowing created a different “feel” or statement. Some approaches were clearly more emotional than others for capturing Kurt Wallender’s complex emotional involvement with his would-be lover, Baiba Leipa.

Right here is the difference between scoring a scene (called a cue) vs. scoring a programmatic piece like Berlioz’ Symphony Fantastique.

You can nuance the bowing for the scene. But in a programmatic work, it must stand on its own with each listener’s imagination entirely creating the scene. Below is YouTube clip of Bernstein conducting Reveries, the first movement of Symphony Fantastique. Listen to how the bowings reflect Berlioz’ breathing and sighs as he contemplates the actress Harriet Smithson with whom he’s fallen in love with from afar.

Before now, this would have been extraordinarily difficult to realize electronically. But today, there are a sufficient number of bowings available to bring out the depths within of what you want to say.

As you attempt this, you recognize quickly how much more about instrumentation you really do need to know, and that the only way to gain this knowledge is through focused listening, score study, and experimentation.

That’s the only way. Because what you’re striving for is the relentless pursuit of, as perfectly as possible, clearly communicating what’s within your heart.

You Should Also Check Out This Post:

More Active Posts: