Change is difficult. All the more so for an old and timeless instrument like the violin.
But it does happen. And in the hands of five-string violinist Casey Driessen and jazz violinist Oriol Saña, the change sounds like an unexpected crunch. A scratch. A sliding of the bow on the string that rises in power to create a complex undercurrent of rhythm.
How to describe it? “Like a DJ strumming records,” Driessen said in an interview. “A little big,” Saña said.
This little revolution is known as “chop”, a percussion technique that opens up a new world of rhythm and groove for the bowed string player. The chop turns a violinist into a beatboxer. To play is to break the basic conventions of what most listeners expect from a typically soft melodic instrument.
For more than half a century, musicians from all over the world have contributed to different genres, including bluegrass and jazz, Celtic and funk, distant regional traditions and beyond. Composers like Kenji Bunch, Jessica Meyer, Daniel Bernard Roumain and Mimi Rabson have featured him in new works. With all this activity, he evolved into his own percussive language. This naturally raises the question: how is it written?
It’s been a long way to try to notice and code the chop. “It’s not that often that someone creates a whole new instrumental technique for the violin and it becomes widespread,” said Laura Risk, violinist and assistant professor of music and culture at the University of Toronto Scarborough. , who documented spreading the chop across the North Atlantic string communities. “With the chop, it’s so new and it’s so unusual that we can trace it back.”
In 1966, bluegrass fiddler Richard Greene invented the basic chop and used it as a solo centerpiece. It passed to violinist Darol Anger, who developed it as a safeguard tool in the Turtle Island Quartet, a jazz group that focuses on genres. The chop offered a way to mimic an entire rhythm section using only string players.
It was in this form that the technique took off – “dangerously,” Anger said. “I sometimes feel like I’m Oppenheimer. I released some kind of monster.
He remembers a defining moment at a music camp in the 1990s, when he offered “Darol’s Chop Shop” to a group of young virtuoso fiddlers eager to discover new sounds. Among them were Driessen and Saña, who have since made hashing a central part of their musical life. Driessen has extended the vocabulary of chop with new moves, even introducing the “triple chop,” which does a tsk-tsk-tsk triplet, as if calling out a stubborn cat; Saña brought it to string communities in Europe; and both conveyed it through performances, workshops and online instructional videos.
The spread of the chop has been raucous, organic, mostly learned from player to player; at first glance, inventing a written form for it may seem strange or sacrilegious. Scoring is a deliberate act of definition. It is a bet on standardization in exchange for diffusion. Written, a musical idea can be captured, preserved, studied and recreated.
Anger and the Turtle Island Quartet used a single “x” or slash in place of the standard notehead to mark different flavors of chop. When the group began to publish their own arrangements, these symbolic choices became quasi-codified, establishing a base notation. Two years ago Saña and Driessen started The Chop rating project, an effort to recognize the technique on the page and create a shared language. The project is a multimedia mixture of musical glossary, historical file and educational tool.
Of course, there is a tension in writing something. Is a notation a description of a particular musical personality? A set of instructions for someone to follow? “With a score, there is usually some room for interpretation,” Risk said. “This is where your own sense of musicianship, style and genre, this is where it all comes in.”
For Anger, writing at an earlier stage in the development of the chop, the simplicity of the symbols was crucial. In their arrangements, the Turtle Island Quartet has chosen to use as little information as possible to make room for the somatic experience of music: listening and feeling. They worried that too much detail could muddy the groove, leaving players “dreading their way through a thicket of scribbles,” Anger said.
Driessen and Saña debated how to express for players both the location and movement of the bow accurately, while keeping the symbols readable. For composers, software played an important role, with the pair opting for symbols readily available in popular composition programs like Sibelius. Elements of taste also shaped the way a sound was visually represented, often leaving them to compare which symbols felt “stronger”, “more intuitive” or “crispier”.
Since the chop was already widely used, Driessen and Saña also involved the music community, including Greene, Anger, and string teachers at Berklee College of Music in Boston. A major line of changes came from cellists like Natalie Haas and Mike Block, who emphasized aspects of notation that they thought were too violin-centric. Driessen and Saña felt things really kicked in when a coworker told them “it sounds like it sounds, which is exactly the way the scoring should be. “
The duet notation features a language of compound symbols. Different note heads mark the quality of the percussion sound, including variable-sized slashes for hard and soft chops, and an “x” for the subtle melodic touch of phantom notes. Signifiers indicating where to cut the instrument (relative to the player’s body, in the middle or beyond the bridge of the instrument) combine with instructions on how to move the bow vertically.
Other modern chopping movements have been given their own written forms, taking inspiration from the corresponding sound and movement. For example, parallel scratches (which often make a drag sound with no height) use a headless stroke with a modified arrow indicating their duration and the direction of the attack. Circular arc scratches (which look like a large disc scratch) look like an altered “c” to indicate whether the rotation should be clockwise or counterclockwise .
Will the writing stretch the chop more? The Chop Notation project has already found its way into the Berklee Contemporary Music Notation manual and has been shared with students at gatherings like the Barcelona Fiddle Congress and online. Other chop scoring systems also continue to circulate, making different choices about the exact information entered in writing and left with the player.
Chop is first and foremost a “living and evolving auditory language,” Driessen said, but he and Saña believe standard scoring will help find new exponents for his ever-transgressive joys.
“I teach chops to four-year-olds,” Saña said. “The first time you teach it, they say, ‘I can do this with my violin? “