How Do You Write Down a Scratching, Crunching Violin ‘Chop’?

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Change is hard. All the more so for an old, set-in-its-ways instrument like the violin.

But it happens. And in the hands of the five-string fiddler Casey Driessen and the jazz violinist Oriol Saña, change sounds like an unexpected crunch. A scratch. A drag of the bow on the string that ramps up to build an intricate undercurrent of rhythm.

How to describe it? “Like a DJ who scratches records,” Driessen offered in an interview. “A little chunky,” Saña said.

This small revolution is known as “the chop,” a percussive 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 it is to break basic conventions of what most listeners expect from a typically sweet, melodic instrument.

For over half a century, musicians around the world have brought the chop to different genres, including bluegrass and jazz, Celtic and funk, far-flung regional traditions and beyond. Composers like Kenji Bunch, Jessica Meyer, Daniel Bernard Roumain and Mimi Rabson have featured it in new works. With all this activity, it has evolved into its own percussive language. This naturally raises the question: how does it get written down?

It’s been a long path to trying to notate and codify the chop. “It’s not that often that somebody creates a whole new instrumental technique for the violin and that it actually becomes widespread,” said Laura Risk, a fiddler and assistant professor of music and culture at the University of Toronto Scarborough, who has documented the chop’s diffusion across North Atlantic string communities. “With the chop, it’s so recent and it’s so unusual that we can trace it.”

In 1966, the bluegrass fiddler Richard Greene invented the basic chop and put it to work as a showpiece while soloing. It passed to the violinist Darol Anger, who developed it as a tool for backup in the Turtle Island Quartet, a genre-bending jazz group. The chop offered a way to mimic a full rhythm section using only string players.

It’s in this form that the technique took off — “dangerously,” Anger has said. “I feel like Oppenheimer sometimes. I’ve released some kind of monster.”

He recalls a watershed moment at a music camp in the 1990s, when he offered “Darol’s Chop Shop” to a group of virtuosic young fiddlers eager to discover new sounds. Among them were Driessen and Saña, who have since made chopping central to their musical lives. Driessen has extended the chop’s vocabulary through new moves, even introducing the “triple chop,” which makes a tsk-tsk-tsk triplet, as if calling to a stubborn cat; Saña has brought it to string communities in Europe; and both have passed it on through performance, workshops and online instructional videos.

The chop’s spread has been raucous, organic, primarily learned player-to-player; at first glance, inventing a written form for it might seem strange or sacrilegious. Notation is a deliberate act of definition. It’s a bet on standardization in exchange for dissemination. Written down, a musical idea can be captured, preserved, studied and recreated.

Anger and the Turtle Island Quartet used a simple “x” or a slash in place of the standard notehead to mark different flavors of chop. When the group started publishing their own arrangements, those symbolic choices became quasi-codified, establishing a baseline notation. Two years ago, Saña and Driessen started The Chop Notation 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 record and pedagogical tool.

Of course, there is a tension in writing something down. Is a notation a description of a particular musical personality? A set of instructions for someone to follow? “With a score, there is usually leeway for interpretation,” Risk said. “That’s where your own sense of musicality, the style and genre, that’s where all of that comes in.”

For Anger, writing at an earlier point in the chop’s development, the simplicity of the symbols was crucial. In its arrangements, the Turtle Island Quartet opted to use the minimal amount of information possible to make space for the somatic experience of the music: listening and feeling. They worried too much detail would muddle the groove, leaving players “dreading their way through a thicket of squiggles,” said Anger.

Driessen and Saña debated how to express for players both the location and movement of the bow with precision, while still having the symbols be legible. For composers, software loomed large, with the two men choosing to favor readily available symbols in popular typesetting programs like Sibelius. Elements of taste also shaped how to visually represent a sound, often leaving them comparing which symbols felt “stronger,” “more intuitive” or “crunchier.”

Given that the chop was already in widespread use, Driessen and Saña involved the musical community, too, including Greene, Anger and string faculty members at the Berklee College of Music in Boston. One important line of edits came from cellists like Natalie Haas and Mike Block, who pointed out aspects of the notation that they thought were too violin-centric. Driessen and Saña felt things had truly clicked when a colleague told them “it looks like it sounds, which is exactly the way notation should be.”

The duo’s notation features a language of compound symbols. Different noteheads mark the quality of the percussive sound, including slashes of varying size for hard and soft chops, and an “x” for the subtle melodic hint of ghost notes. Signifiers for where to chop on the instrument (relative to the player’s body, at the midpoint or beyond the instrument’s bridge) combine with directions for how to move the bow vertically.

Other modern chopping moves received their own written forms, taking cues from their corresponding sound and motion. For example, parallel scrapes (which often make a pitchless drag noise) use a headless stroke with a modified arrow indicating their duration and direction of attack. Circular bow scrapes (which sound like a chunky record scratch) resemble an altered “c” to show whether the rotation should be clockwise or counterclockwise.

Will writing further spread the chop? The Chop Notation Project has already ended up in the textbook Berklee Contemporary Music Notation, and has been shared with students at gatherings like the Barcelona Fiddle Congress and online. Other chop notation systems continue to circulate, too, which make different choices about the exact information captured in writing and left up to the player.

The chop is primarily a “living and evolving aural language,” said Driessen, but both he and Saña believe a standard notation will help find new exponents for its still-transgressive joys.

“I teach chops with students who are four years old,” Saña said. “The first time when you teach it, they say, ‘I can do that with my fiddle?’”

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