The String Contingent
by D L Lewis. Published in Music Forum magazine, Vol 19 Issue 3 (May 2013)
One of the great things that modern communications has brought us is how much quicker ideas meld and change and grow. While this may be overwhelming in close view, the recent spate of bands and performers who are able to seamlessly mix musical styles effectively is both heartening and exciting.
It wasn’t that long ago that music travelled through the trade routes, slowly developing and evolving until it was picked up by the academy, which standardised and formalised it. Now, with the internet, things develop faster and often more interestingly. The String Contingent, out of New South Wales but with a strong dollop of Scotland in there, follows in the footsteps of bands like Punch Brothers and Bela Fleck and the Flecktones in bringing folk, classical, jazz and contemporary pop together to make a satisfying and significant musical statement.
This is not to say that they are clones, though, or inferior copies. The music they play is … Labels become meaningless in trying to describe the String Contingent, so let’s stick with ‘acoustic’ for now. A rich double bass intermingles with a complex yet supportive guitar supporting a vibrant and skilled fiddle. Like so many great ensembles, three’s company. A sense of humour is prominent; but the music is serious – it’s complex, yet listenable. Arty, yet commercially viable and crowd pleasing. Studio friendly, but they are, at the time of writing, down Wagga Wagga way, on a fairly extensive tour of Australia. They’re world class tourers – I’m told they travelled 72,000 kms last year. They’re an Australian band, but with a Scottish member. Or perhaps they’re a Scottish band with two Australian members. Contradictions wrap round imponderables, but in the end it all comes down to the music. Isn’t it all about the music?
The members have a diverse background. Chris Stone, the violinist, started playing Scottish fiddle music. Chris’s father taught and played jazz, and the house he grew up in was filled with classical music. Nothing really clicked for him, until he discovered Scottish music. He attacked it with a passion, and eventually was able to go one of Alistair Fraser’s Scottish music camps in the US. Here he was awed by great musicians – particularly the musical chops and leadership of Darol Anger. It was time to get serious, and in Australia, he felt the best way to improve his own technique was a degree in classical performance.
Classical music, though he loves it, and still plays it, wasn’t enough. With long-term partner Holly Downes, who plays double bass, they looked at the progressive bluegrass movement for inspiration. Holly had trained at ANU, graduating in 2006 with a Bachelor of Music in Performance. Needing a third member, they soon settled on Graham McLeod, a Scottish guitarist, who agreed to come out and see what happened. Graham had been a metal guitarist and of course, since Deep Purple, heavy metal has relied on classical techniques and theory. The three of them created a unique and pleasing noise, and a formidable musical force was born.
That was three and a half years ago. Since then, there have been three albums and a live EP. The String Contingent takes the various backgrounds, and melds them. Chris is ecstatic that he’s able to live the dream of composing and performing his music, though at the end of this tour, they’re taking a well-earned break, to recharge, to study, and to regroup. They’ve all found the String Contingent so rewarding that the uncertainty of potential new musical experiments is not so much daunting as running a risk of disappointment – could anything be as satisfying and rewarding?
Their versatility, given that there aren’t many instruments, is notable. Textures and tones meld and jump and mix around. If music can be compared to cooking, they’ve found a recipe which is unique yet satisfying. I asked Chris why this movement (let’s find a label – let’s call it progressive bluegrass) has become popular. He thought it was because you have specialists at one end who are way ahead of everyone else in terms of technique and ability. With the very few leading the way at the very edges, the rest have to find their sound by combining, stirring and experimenting until the sound is right. The Americans do this very well, of course: apart from the already mentioned Punch Brothers and Flecktones, there is a plethora of acts including Sam Bush, David Grisman, Edgar Meyer – Chris’s musical hero, as it happens - Tony Rice and others pushing the edges of collaborations. Chris is aware that this approach can devolve into cliché and superficiality. The String Contingent avoid both with aplomb and skill. I suspect the enjoyment the trio have playing with each other sparks them to create.
The three albums are worth listening to, and relistening to. Live, they are sublime, if the EP is any indication. I’m hoping to catch up with them at the National Folk Festival at Easter – otherwise, there’s a gig in Sydney I’ll be aiming for. The music of the String Contingent – let me say it again: labels are meaningless, and in a piece designed to describe and analyse them, become confusing and imprecise. It’s all done with a light touch – no portentous playing – just skilled and tasty and technically brilliant. With a busy touring schedule and a new album (Talk) eminently worth adding to their CV, I’m hoping that the bright future that seems assured is realised.
David Lewis lectures in academic studies at the Australian Institute of Music. His lecturing interests are popular music, roots music and popular culture. He is also a mandolinist, guitarist and bassist in various bands with a musical experience spreading over 20 years.