Electric violins and chamber strings

An interview with Steve Bingham

After more than 30 years of highly successful summer music schools, the New London Music Society is coming to Leeds College of Music. Its String Quartet course in April 2014 offers individual string players the chance to play in group quartets and pre-formed string quartets.  Course participants will have the opportunity to be coached by the highly experienced members of the Bingham String Quartet. 
 
Formed at the Royal Academy of Music almost 30 years ago, the Bingham String Quartet is known for its innovative programming and its experience with both classical and contemporary repertoire. The quartet is led by eclectic violinist Steve Bingham, known for his groundbreaking approach with both the traditional and electric violin. We spoke with him about combining looping with solo violin playing, unpacking chamber music as a group and playing while wearing thimbles.  

HI: As part of your quartet and as an individual musician you seem to move between styles and genres often. What are the advantages of that?

I’ve always felt, especially over the last 10 or 15 years, that it’s very important not to just stick with one style of music. I think any musician is improved by playing in a variety of styles. When you approach different sorts of music, its good for your all round development as a musician.
 
Something that’s key for us as a quartet is not just doing standard classical repertoire. I think there are quartets that have a niche of playing specifically very contemporary things, and there are other quartets that have a niche playing classical repertoire, and I’ve always felt its nice to do a bit of everything. I would miss playing Beethoven in the same way that I would miss playing contemporary pieces if I just had to perform one type of music.

HI: You use the electric violin in some really interesting ways - for example - using the bridge as percussion for the piece being played. Can you tell us more how you use the electric violin in innovative ways? 

Sometimes there’s the mistaken idea that the electric violin is just an amplified violin. One of the nice things about a dedicated electrical instrument is that it responds differently, and one of the things as a musician you can try and do is find ways to use those possibilities, and apply a range of these to your playing.
 
The same way that a good composer writing for classical music will sometimes use really extended techniques, there are some weird and wonderful things that you can do with instruments, and I think it’s a thinking-outside-of-the-box approach that is good generally for a musician, rather than just the standard way of playing things.
 
For example, American composer George Crumb wrote a piece called ‘Black Angels’ in the 70s, and in that he managed to do a lot of things that you just wouldn’t think to do – various knocking and tapping actions with the bow, sliding with the fingers, playing on the strings wearing thimbles, hitting the strings with a glass rod, or playing it almost like a guitar, using the glass rod as a capo, where you place it across the strings to create different chords.
 
Using those sorts of techniques you find ways of making a sound out of an instrument that is very, very different – like using the bow to press hard to get a note which is an octave lower than the note you’re actually playing.

HI: Is there a particular performance in your career that’s stood out for you?

I guess one that would stick in my mind would be the first concert I did with the band No-Man – being on stage with an electric violin in the context of a rock band was a very different experience for me. It’s a world away from sitting on a stage with a string quartet. Also the first time I did a completely solo concert with an electric violin and a normal violin - because of the challenge of sustaining a whole evening’s show on your own!

HI: You visited Leeds College of Music back in 2013 to give an electric string workshop, where you also showcased some effect pedals and did some experimental looping. What’s your journey with looping?

I got into looping in the late nineties, up to then I was really just playing classical things, some contemporary, but I hadn’t really done any electronic stuff. It’s been a gradual change in perspective - in the first few years I was finding my way, whereas in the last four or five years, I’ve done more and more electronic music and looping.
 
With looping you can do a lot on your own and that’s really nice because it gives me a new challenge of trying to find pieces that work and testing what I can do. It also gives you the possibility of working with rock groups, with folk groups, with different sorts of musicians away from classical. So I’ve been enjoying exploring all that side of things as well, and now it’s just a matter of trying to find the time to do all the things that I’d like to do!

HI: Can you tell us a bit more about the New London Music Society course? 

My quartet has been approached because we’ve got a long-standing history of doing these sorts of courses. The idea is for us to be able to work with a quartet of any age or ability, and get them to not only improve their technical playing, but also their interpretation of quartet repertoire and chamber music. Playing chamber music isn’t just about how well you play your instrument - it’s about how well you interact with the other players in the group and how well you can understand the way all of your parts work together.
 
A course like this is great for students and amateur players alike, for just trying to get under the surface of the repertoire a little bit more. The repertoire is large and varied, which gives a lot of great choices. It’s aimed at a wide range of players, you don’t have to be a high standard to take part, it’s a chance to improve your quartet/chamber music playing.

 

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Playing chamber music isn’t just about how well you play your instrument - it’s about how well you interact with the other players in the group.

Steve Bingham

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