Composer Darryl Kubian has embedded a hidden agenda in his new concerto, "3-2-1 for Electric and Acoustic Violin and Orchestra." The New Jersey Symphony Orchestra (NJSO) premieres the piece in a batch of concerts that begins in Trenton’s War Memorial on Friday, March 28, and includes New Brunswick’s State Theater on Sunday, March 30. The soloist is NJSO concertmaster Eric Wyrick, who plays both acoustic and electric violins. Music director Neeme Jarvi conducts. The program also includes Johannes Brahms’ Symphony No. 3 and Franz Joseph Haydn’s Symphony No. 98.
"Originally, the concerto was all electric violin," Kubian says in a telephone interview from his Ridgewood, NJ, studio. "Then I added acoustic violin. From a musical point of view, I wanted a complete change of color. The added benefit is that the violinist is on more familiar ground with an acoustic violin, and the audience is, too. The entire first movement is electric; the second movement is acoustic. In the third movement it’s electric again; the orchestra subsumes the electric violin, which emerges from the chaos and brings order back to the piece."
A member of the NJSO first violin section since 1992, composer Kubian’s concerto was inspired by a 1999 article in "Scientific American" entitled "The Fate of the Universe." "Obviously we really don’t know what’s going to happen," Kubian says. "Since the Big Bang everything has been spreading out farther and farther and heading toward a situation known as `the deep freeze.’ The question is whether the universe will expand infinitely, or whether it will crunch together. In my piece, the deep freeze leads to another universe.
"One of the reasons I called it `3-2-1,’" continues Kubian, "is because the piece is a countdown to something. All the material of the piece appears in the first minute. There are three motives, each three notes long. Then the piece goes in many different directions. The musical material regenerates at the end of the piece; it’s not a repeat of earlier material. The form of the piece is classical. But the concerto begins in the key of A, and ends in the key of B, unlike classical pieces, which begin and end in the same key."
Kubian’s hidden agenda in the composition is the attempt to persuade players of acoustic violins that electric violins are not alien instruments. "Acoustic violinists are fascinated by the electric violin," Kubian says, "but the equipment needed for electric violin is sometimes a barrier. I wanted to show that you can go to a store, buy an electric violin and a processor, and head home and play the piece. The score includes a CD with the electronic settings for the processor.
"I made the concerto simple, and enjoy the thought that the amount of equipment needed is minimal," Kubian says. "I normally use a five-string electric violin. It took me a while to get used to it. The advantage of a five-string instrument is that it can play as low as a viola. The concerto uses a four-string electric violin. It’s still tricky, even with four strings. It’s fascinating to talk to Eric [Wyrick] because he’s experiencing things that I learned a long time ago. I keep thinking, `Oh, I remember when I had to work on that.’
"I’m using a Zeta JV24 for the concerto because it sounds very electric," Kubian continues. "The Zeta JV24 has a zing to it. There’s no mistaking it for an acoustic violin." Zeta is the name of the manufacturer. JV stands for jazz violin and refers to the shape of the instrument’s body. The number 2 refers to the electronic pickup system, and the number 4 means that the instrument has four strings.
The 1737 Guarneri del Gesu violin that Wyrick normally plays for the NJSO and the Zeta JV24 are equal stars in Kubian’s concerto. "The strength of each is highlighted," Kubian says. "You can always tell that it’s a violin playing. I haven’t dumbed down the violin technique needed to play this piece."
The main difference between acoustic and electric violin, Kubian explains, lies in how they produce sound. "The acoustic violin’s hollow body and sound-post amplify the sound of the strings. The electric fiddle has a solid body and will not amplify sound; therefore, you need an external processor." The software device used to amplify sound for an electric violin is called a digital signal processor (D.S.P.).
"An acoustic violinist is used to making the sound come out of the instrument directly," Kubian says. "With an electric violin you have to learn how to play the D.S.P., as well as the instrument. They’re separate components. It’s something like an organ, where the keyboard and the stops are separate. Learning the D.S.P. is an interesting thing. You’re still trying to make music, but getting the D.S.P. to respond to the instrument requires a knowledge of the software."
Using the D.S.P. offers the electric violinist the chance to incorporate special effects into his playing. The performer can select from among chosen distortions of sound, pre-set repetitions, the voicing of multiple pitches when a single pitch is played, controlled feedback, and added resonance, among others.
Merely placing a microphone on the bridge of a violin does not turn a fiddle into an electric violin. "With a mike on the bridge you get an acoustic sound, but rounder than when it’s unmiked," Kubian says. "Processing the sound with an external box gives a cleaner signal." To make quick changes of sound an electric violinist uses a pedal board activated by foot switches. Eight pedals are standard.
Kubian was born into a musical family in Denver, CO, in 1966. His father played trumpet. His mother, a pianist and singer, was a choral teacher at the time. She now lives in Paterson and teaches choir in Ridgewood. Kubian lives with his wife, clarinetist Naomi Freshwater, in Ridgewood. Freshwater teaches band in Spring Valley, New York.
Kubian started piano at age four and a half with his mother. "It was probably a mistake," he says, because of their family relationship. "Watching Sesame Street I saw a little guy with a tuba and a big guy with a violin, and I said I wanted to play that little instrument."
At about age five and a half Kubian began his violin studies with Isabelle Wegmann of West Paterson. "She had a large studio, and many professional musicians emerged," Kubian says. "I stayed with her until college."
In high school Kubian wanted to be a computer programmer. "I thought I would do programming as a career, and make music an avocation," he says. He started as an undergraduate at Rutgers with a double major. "When I realized that I wouldn’t be writing video games from the beginning of my career as a computer programmer, I switched to music," he says.
Eventually, Kubian earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees in violin performance from Rutgers’ Mason Gross School of the Arts, having studied violin with Arnold Steinhardt, Hiroko Yajima, and Benjamin Hudson, and composition with Charles Wuorinen. At the time the music department had a Synclavier, the cutting-edge device of the time, dedicated for the use of graduate students. Kubian talked the powers-that-be into letting him use the apparatus.
"It was a bulky device, the precursor to everything we’re using now," Kubian says. "It used a computer to synthesize sound, generate notation, and record sound digitally. It could combine live and synthesized sounds. That was quite an achievement in 1985. It cost $50,000, which was very expensive at the time." By 2002 the Synclavier was becoming obsolete and Kubian acquired it for $400.
In 1988 Kubian started with electric violin. "I plunked down real money for the system," he says. "$3,500."
In 2004 Kubian’s CD "String Theory" was released. Knowingly evoking cutting-edge physics by its name, the disc’s liner notes refer to cosmological theories that sound waves in the form of the overtone series were responsible for breaking up super hot plasma after the Big Bang. Demonstrating the continuity of past and present, the disc consists of a group of baroque compositions played on old instruments followed by a group of 21st century compositions played on electric instruments. All of the 21st century compositions are by Kubian, often with Jonathan Dinklage, whose career has taken him to Broadway and Hollywood. "All of the pieces are built on a ground bass," Kubian says. A ground bass is a repeated melodic figure played by a bass instrument. "Styles change and technology changes," Kubian says, "but musically, it’s the same basic underpinnings."
One of the performers on the CD is Wyrick, soloist in Kubian’s new concerto. Colleagues at the NJSO, Kubian and Wyrick have collaborated to prepare the electric violin portions of the concerto. "After I outlined the piece," Kubian says, "I met with Wyrick and worked with him in developing his electric violin chops. This is the most extensive electric violin piece that Wyrick has played. In the beginning he was trying to play it like an acoustic violin. That doesn’t work. The electric violin is more sensitive than the acoustic violin. Just putting a finger down or sliding it creates sounds on the electric violin. We spent hours together. He’s picked it up very fast. He’s smart."
Wyrick,who joined the NJSO as concertmaster in 1999, expresses in an E-mail interview his growing ease with the electric instrument. "I am finding that playing the electric violin is more intuitive than I would have imagined" he says. "It’s become quite easy to change from one to the other. Essentially, the difference between acoustic and electric violin is in the electronic distortion of sound.
"I guess that because playing the violin is as natural to me as speaking, the only thing limiting my expression on the electric violin is my sound pallet, and that is expanding with each hour of playing the electric violin. The difference between the two instruments compares to the difference between speaking normally in your living room and speaking into a mike in a cathedral. You need to know how to alter your voice, diction, etc., to be understood. Speaking in front of a fan is another example. You would need still different techniques to project your ideas to your listeners."
The real kicker of mastering electric violin was a surprise to Wyrick. "I have found that my approach to acoustic violin is changing, and that is an unexpected bonus from this project. We are taught to sing with our instrument. There should be no extraneous noises: scratches, whistles, etc. On the electric violin these sounds become part of your voice. They are not just ok but they’re expected. If I transfer that sensibility to acoustic violin – with intent – I can achieve interesting, different interpretations of color." Wyrick is not likely to overdose with exotic effects on acoustic violin. "This must be done carefully so as not to evoke a pig playing on the violin!" he adds.
Kubian seems to have achieved the goal of his ulterior motive in writing the concerto. Indeed, he seems to have outdistanced his original aim.
Jarvi Conducts Brahms, Friday, March 28, 8 p.m. New Jersey Symphony Orchestra, Patriots Theater, War Memorial, Trenton, and Sunday, March 30, 3 p.m., State Theater, New Brunswick. Eric Wyrick solos in the world premiere of Darryl Kubian’s "3-2-1 for Electric and Acoustic Violin and Orchestra." Neeme Jarvi conducts. The program also includes Johannes Brahms’ Symphony No. 3 and Franz Joseph Haydn’s Symphony No. 98. $20 to $75. 800-ALLEGRO.