Sting Planet Classical Crossover

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May 2005


Novi Novog's brilliant viola work ligths up a wide range of musical genres


For violist Novi Novog, crossing musical boundaries has never been an issue. Since childhood she has simultaneously worked on classical technique and composition while pursuing pop, rock and hard-to-classify experimental music genres on the side. She studied under Mehli Mehta (father of famed conductor Zubin Mehta) and attended the California Institute for the Arts, and later made a name for herself as a session musician in Los Angeles with contribution to such hit records as the Doobie Brothers’ “Black Water” and Prince’s “Raspberry Beret”, among many others.

Despite the success of her nonclassical musical ventures, however, Novog remains a classical devotee. She says that for her, the main difference between playing classical and playing pop is in the rhythms. Many crossover string players use less pressure, playing very lightly so they can move around the fingerboard more quickly. But not Novog. “I like to get a big sound,” she says. “I use the whole bow and use the fingers as heavy as I would if I were playing a Mozart quartet.

photo - Sherry Rayn Barnett

“ I still love classical music,” she adds. “I play it all the time. If I don’t practice it every day, I don’t feel like I can improvise as well. I’m so worried about getting my fingers down that I can’t be as free.”

Improvisation is a key element to Novog’s success onstage and in the studio. I fact, almost all of the viola parts on her latest recording, STRING PLANET, started out as improvisations. The project is yet another hard-to-define venture in Novog’s career, a duo with her husband Larry Tuttle. Novog plays viola and Tuttle plays Chapman Stick, an upright electric stringed instrument whose six bass strings are tapped with the left hand and six melody strings are plucked with the right hand.

The recently released recording, on the couple’s own Tone Science Records label, is a collection of 13 Tuttle originals in which Novog’s viola and Tuttle’s Chapman Stick interplay subtly to weave a rhythmic, modern tapestry that sometimes sounds like an entire chamber orchestra. Novog says that the key to their cohesive and compelling sound is years of playing together and her own desire to frequently leave the melody behind in favor of unexpected countermelodies and harmony lines.

“ I love to do the inner harmonies,” she says. “It’s like playing musical chairs.”
She and Tuttle enjoy performing and play lots of university and festival gigs, but Novog explains that it’s harder to get crossover music out to listeners these days than it was in the ‘70’s and ‘80’s, when she played with such experimental groups as Chunky, Novi and Ernie and (the still vital) Soulskin and Freeway Philharmonic.

“ Record labels in particular are so afraid to take chances nowadays,” she says. “They use to be so open. Freeway Philharmonic was on a small jazz label known for live-to-two-track recordings. Everything was done live, mistakes and all. You’d get two takes on a piece and take the best one. It was fun – it was exciting.”

Radio stations are also less open to experimental music than they used to be. “With Freeway Phil, we were lucky,” Novog explains. “The cool jazz stations were much more open in those days. STRING PLANET is just starting to get some radio play now. We go for the adult eclectic NPR stations.”

Novog finds that Canadians are less hung up on classifying musical acts by genre than are Americans, and she and Tuttle often play there. “We perform at a lot of music festivals, everything from jazz restivals to folk festivals, especially in Canada, because they’re not so category oriented,” she says. “We fall in between the cracks because we’re not true jazz and we’re not folk, but they don’t seem to mind.”

Aside from playing and composing, Novog is dedicated to teaching and making her string quartet arrangements available to chamber-music groups. “Larry and I do clinics for young string players, including the Henry Mancini Institute in the summer, which we’re done for many years now,” she says. “We perform and bring music for young violists to play. We’re done a lot of school shows and clinics with Freeway Philharmonic as well. We show how music can be used to perpetuate a theme or the mood in a story. I also write a lot of string-quartet music. That’s where my heart is.”

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