Music: It's cool to be highly strung

Synthesiser manufacturers beware. The epic sound of strings (yes, real strings) is making a comeback on the dancefloor.
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The Independent Culture
IF YOU have been out clubbing lately, you may have heard a sound that seems strangely familiar to you. As the repetitive beats of drum 'n' bass thunder somewhere around your midriff, glimmering above the top of your head is the cut-glass sound of an orchestra. No, it isn't the drugs: a new sound is emerging. Full-scale orchestras are making inroads into the dance music scene. Strings and brick-hard beats are leading a merry dance through clubland.

This is by no means a new phenomenon, though. According to the journalist and musician David Toop, strings have been an essential part of dance music since the Motown days of the Sixties: "If you look back at the propulsive dance music of `This Old Heart of Mine' by the Isley Brothers, the strings are attacking you, and coupled with a great song, you get a superb combination, which pushes all the right buttons."

You can follow this lineage through to disco, with its early beginnings at Philadelphia Records and its founder, Tom Bell. David Toop continues: "Tom Bell came from a very straight, middle-class background and grew up listening to classical music. In fact, he probably did not hear any thing else except classical until he was 14 years old. So, at Philadelphia, he employed a house band, MFSB to supply the shimmering sound of strings. This then mutated into Salsoul, which has successively influenced soul, house and then garage."

If you look at the works of people like Isaac Hayes, it is difficult to imagine him having even half the desired effect on your loved one without the addition of strings in the background. The hippopotamus of love himself, Barry White, knew the effect his voice and a soothingly placed violin had, so much so that he called his band The Love Unlimited Orchestra.

For a time in the Seventies, strings in pop music automatically meant romance and sex. No easy-listening album worth its salt was without a full orchestra abetting singers such as Englebert Humperdinck and Tony Christie. This is partly the reason that strings fell out of favour with the musicians of the Eighties, who took to synthesisers instead. The New Romantics preferred the alien noise of the Roland RX7 to a viola, and orchestras in pop became strictly the domain of popsters - such as Elton John - trying to impress blushing princesses.

In the late Nineties, however, it seems that no self-respecting producer will go into the studio without a sizeable string accompaniment. The Mercury prize-winner and respected junglist Roni Size has a double bass as an integral part of his live set. The proto-junglists 4 Hero have just completed a live tour with 18 musicians on stage with them. Recent albums by underground artists such as Outside, Dobie and D Note all feature lush string arrangements. Even hip hop has been getting in on the orchestral act, with string sounds forming an essential part of the hard-core outfit The Wu Tang Clan.

In a week that sees Talvin Singh release his 11-minute-long magnum opus Traveller - which is purely string-laden for at least six of those 11 minutes - it seems pertinent to ask why it is that strings have re-emerged in dance music. Is it a case of pomposity gone mad, or is it more a need to bring organic warmth to the music?

The British Asian artist Nitin Sawhney, who releases his third album in November, featuring strings as a key part of the soundscape, believes that "people are now bored with that computer-generated sound... they want to get back to warmth. I think we have gone as far as we can with synthesisers".

According to the rising star DJ Bobby Friction: "Strings are back because people have realised that it can mean the beautiful sounds of Bombay film orchestras - who do a lot of Bollywood film work - rather than the contemporary nonsense of the likes of Nigel Kennedy and Vanessa Mae."

The London club outfit Kahuna FC, whose last single, "Bright Morning White", had a string intro that was not dissimilar to The Verve's "Bitter Sweet Symphony", use strings, according to its founder member Daniel Kahuna, to get across "a cinematic feeling, a feeling of something other than straight-out dance tracks".

This is a view shared by Nitin Sawhney: "What it allows you to do is be epic, and to introduce epic concepts to music."

One of the best exponents of classical music in the breakbeat and jungle arenas is Instrumental, a six-piece classical orchestra that has lent strings to some of the most seminal dance records of the late Nineties. Led by Everton Nelson and Catherine Browning, Instrumental formed in 1994 after Everton grew disillusioned with the traditional classical format. "I got frustrated with the rigidity of classical styles, and I have always grown up with dance music, I have a natural affinity with it," he says.

This led to Everton and Catherine reworking the number "Little Fluffy Clouds" by the ambient pioneers The Orb. "We sent a tape of it to The Orb and they asked us to open for them at their next London Forum shows." Instrumental have now collaborated with various people, including 4 Hero. When playing live, Instrumental are a whirlwind to watch.

Their recent collaboration with junglists Mao sees them playing strings with beats crashing underneath them, without either form being diluted. Catherine sees this as being "bloody good fun", while Everton contemplates the reaction from classical music purists. "I think they have to realise that there is a new generation of classical players that are versatile, that have to do things like this, because cuts in funding mean we have to work in other arenas."

As dance music becomes increasingly sophisticated and more groups take to the stage, the addition of a string section can enliven any act. So instead of club acts being two blokes stood on stage shielded by vast banks of electronica, you can have many instruments and sound-clashes that enrich an otherwise fairly boring experience.

So what is the next move for the orchestras? Perhaps it would be wise for Chris Smith to give some of that much-needed lottery money to the club scene. So instead of the proposal for Shakespeare in night-clubs, we get Wagner a la drum 'n' bass instead.