Wil Malone is a musician, producer and responsible for the string arrangements of Massive Attack’s ‘Unfinished Sympathy’ and The Verve’s ‘Bitter Sweet Symphony’ – two songs that featured on our playlist ‘Pop Meets the Classics’ (January 2011 post).
As a musician, Malone was a member of the psychedelic bands ‘Orange Bicycle’ and ‘Motherlight’ and classical instruments feature prominently on his solo album ‘Wil Malone’ and the soundtrack for the horror movie ‘Death Line’. Malone mentions Samuel Barber’s ‘Adagio for Strings’, Paul Buckmaster’s string arrangements for Elton John’s albums and David Bowie’s ‘Space Oddity’ as big inspirations for his own string arrangements.
In our previous post, Anne Dudley explained on how the string arrangements of ABC’s ‘Lexicon of Love’ orginated and here Wil Malone shares, the origins of the string arrangements of ‘Unfinished Sympathy’ and ‘Bitter Sweet Symphony’.
‘Unfinished Sympathy’
With ‘Unfinished Sympathy’ it was the band and the producer who asked me to do the string arrangements for the song. I remember, the track was originally eight minutes long and they let me hear many demos of the song; all sorts of constructions and different ways of doing it. I asked them what they had in mind for the string arrangements of the track and it was Massive’s producer Jonny Dollar – he was highly responsible for putting together the track – who said: “do what you feel like”.
The reason for inclusion of the string arrangements was to be supportive. In my view, in pop music, strings have to be supportive to the vocal, although they also have to give a boot and a sense of tension. If you have a rough track, it’s good to have the strings as a classical contrast sound so that you create a tension, a suspense going on all the time between the roughness of the track and the purity and classical feel. In pop music you’re usually working on a track with bass, drums, guitar, synthesizer, vocals and the strings have to blend with all that. My approach for ‘Unfinished Sympathy’ was that it’s a really open track: basically it’s just a groove – keyboards, and a great vocal by Sara Nelson – so you just let it drift, just let it chill.
With most string arrangements that I do, the strings are ‘put back’ in the mix. In other words they are so quiet you don’t really hear them, or they’re mixed up, so that you can just hear the top lines; but on ‘Unfinished Sympathy’, the strings are exposed. You can really hear them and I think that makes something different.
The string arrangements were played by 42 session players in EMI Abbey Road studio 1. I wanted to make the sound rich so that it vibrates in your chest and stomach, but to also keep it cool, so not so much vibrato – hit the bar lines very accurately. When you are writing, descriptively, in classical music there are emotions that you want the orchestra to have or play, but in pop music that isn’t true. There is no point in writing instructions like ‘dolce’ unless it really means something; basically it is a different way of writing for strings in pop music as you’re writing to a mix, you’re trying to blend your sound into the sound that is on the track.
‘Bitter Sweet Symphony’
Richard Ashcroft, the singer-songwriter of The Verve, asked me to write the arrangements for their track ‘History’ from their second album ‘A Northern Soul’. He liked what I had done and he asked me to write the strings for ‘The Drugs Don’t Work’ for their album ‘Urban Hymns’. And this track came up and they played me a riff [Malone hums the tune of ‘Bitter Sweet Symphony’] and they said that’s what we want. So I wrote it and but I wanted to have it a bit more bounce, jump if you like, and I added some bits and pieces. And it’s always on the same chord, quite Arabic – it doesn’t change.
Also in this song the strings are very pronounced and that’s why people talk about it, because you can hear them. Apart from Richard’s voice, they became the most important element of the song. The strings were basically performed by the same team of session musicians who did ‘Unfinished Sympathy’ but done by a smaller group of 24 people at Olympic Studio. My instructions to the musicians were to make the strings tough, determined, not pretty, not to make them poetic.
Emotional response
When people hear a string ensemble playing together, sometimes, they are emotionally moved by it. I have seen them cry on sessions when they hear it; but as the person who has written the string arrangement, I know what they’re going to sound like, so I’m not going to cry about them, I will just be happy when they sound great. In a certain sense all show business, film, music, etc is a form of manipulation. The benefit, thus, is for the person ‘receiving it’. That’s what you try to do: to put a bit of humour in it, or some wit, maybe a bit of elegance or create an unnerving effect. That’s what great string arrangements can do.
Interview conducted by Thierry Somers (03/2011)

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