Sting Planet Classical Crossover

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"String Planet's Orbit Swings
Into San Diego"
by Mike Alvarez

It would be completely understandable if the words “String Planet” made you think of a big ball of twine drifting through space. In reality it’s the name of an immensely talented husband and wife duo from Los Angeles who brought their brilliance to San Diego this past November 3. Larry Tuttle on Chapman Stick and Novi Novog on viola conjured their melodic magic for a delighted audience at Across The Street in University Heights. Both are seasoned veterans of the music business, each having an astonishing list of accomplishments to their credit. While much of their effort has gone toward taking other artists’ music to the next level, String Planet is their vehicle for expressing themselves through their own compositions as well as their interpretations of classic (and classical!) material.

According to Tuttle, String Planet’s sound can be described as “instrumental pop with a heavy classical influence. The classical influence is so intense with both of us. Our whole childhoods were spent in various orchestras. It‘s what we have most in common.“ Their first album, simply entitled “String Planet”, was “an effort to have a lot of ‘world music’ kinds of rhythms, but on the new one coming up that’s become less important. It’s more of a colorful and inventive pop music.” Having played an incredible variety of music throughout their careers, their tastes are understandably eclectic. While both are well-grounded in classical music and technique--he having started as an upright bassist--they are also skilled improvisers and composers in their own right. They both point to influences that span a wide spectrum of music, including jazz, pop and progressive rock.

Larry gets songwriting credit on the albums, but emphasizes that Novi brings “an incredible amount of color” to the bare bones chords, bass and melody, “weaving between inner voices, colorful rhythm parts, melody doubles, octave doubles, etc.” A composition major as well as a serious keyboardist, she brings a dizzying array of inventive ideas to the songs. “She won’t let anything dull or boring slip by. It all gets the full Novi treatment and comes out sounding like music on the other end.” For her part, Novi says that Larry’s songs “sound great already. They’re wonderfully creative, filled with great voicings and fabulous ideas. What I do is take his ideas and try to put a new spin on them. I love orchestrating and arranging our two instruments, kind of like a ‘budget orchestra’”. She continues by saying that they both enjoy giving the String Planet treatment to cover songs and classical pieces. “Since it’s been done so well by the original composer, it’s fun to twist them a bit. We’ll put our own spin on a tune…take it and make it our own.”

Don Schiff, the Stick maestro who also dazzled at Across The Street that same evening has a long history with Tuttle and Novog. He was Larry’s first Stick teacher who remembers him as being “extraordinarily talented, even when he stopped by for a lesson 15 (or so) years ago. (His) coming from a bass background as I do made it easy for me to convey what my approach to the Stick is. Larry opens up areas of the Stick both in arrangements and executions that are as unique as the instrument itself. It’s so new so he gets to create it as he goes. There‘s no greater gift than to be able to put yourself that much into an instrument.” Schiff is equally generous with his praise for Novi, calling her a “power house viola performer. Her style and tone exude such professionalism, vast experience and top artist quality that you’re floored at first bow stroke. I’m thrilled every time I hear her.” Schiff is not alone in his appreciation for her talents. Her resume is studded with a mind-bending array of star power. She played the fiddle solo on The Doobie Brothers’ hit single “Black Water” and was a part of the string ensemble on the Prince albums “Purple Rain”, “Around The World In A Day” and “Under The Cherry Moon”. She was pleasantly surprised to find that Prince was “such a nice man. And quite the workaholic!“ Such is the demand for her talents that she and her beloved instrument “Stinky” have graced recordings and stage performances of such artists as Michael Jackson, Madonna, Bonnie Raitt, Seal, Frank Zappa, Gordon Lightfoot, Willie Nelson, Stanley Clarke, Randy Newman, and her very own cousin Lauren Wood. And that’s just a small sample!

Acoustic guitar and drums complemented the Stick and viola lineup in their previous band Freeway Philharmonic. It was similar in sound but had a very important difference in approach. A long-term project which lasted through 4 albums and many gigs, Tuttle says it was a band that “focused on arrangements. The arrangements were tricky, elaborate and impressive, and by necessity we played the songs pretty much the same way every night. String Planet was built differently by design. The idea was to be more free--more room for improvisation, more freedom to be spontaneous.” He expands on this, saying that they wanted to “stretch out solos, expand on intros, have free dialogues between the Stick and viola. We also wanted to have more of a groove; simpler songs with compelling beats and a stripped-down minimal vibe.” Although no longer an active recording or performing entity, Larry regards Freeway Philharmonic with much fondness, summing up the experience simply: “Much fun was had!”

On record String Planet is free to augment their sound with percussion, synthesizer, string quartet and even an occasional a vocalist on a couple of tracks. Onstage it’s often just the two of them, although a percussionist will sometimes accompany them to add an extra rhythmic edge. Their website, features videos of them playing with Christo Pellanis on world percussion, showcasing the seamless integration of a third member into their lineup. However, at Across The Street they demonstrated that the duo is more than sufficient to cover all the bases. They wowed the crowd with an amazingly eclectic selection of tunes, starting with a spirited instrumental interpretation of the Beatles’ “Lady Madonna”. This was followed by their originals “Gorilla Walk”, “Boomerang” and “Goodbye Goodluck”. Their choice of covers was very interesting, including Kyu Sakamoto’s “Sukiyaki”, Prokofiev’s “Love For Three Oranges (March), and the finale of Saint Saens’ “Carnival Of The Animals”. Much of the material they played will be included on their new CD “Songs From The Home Planet” (see review in this issue).

Their stage presence is casual and friendly, notable for Larry’s witty banter and Novi‘s exuberant presence. When the music starts they’re all business. As one audience member was heard to comment, “They make it look so easy”. And indeed they do. They smile a lot and let themselves unselfconsciously move and sway to the beat. Their joy is pure and their passion is contagious. One noteworthy moment was an impromptu performance of their song “Big Pig Jig”, accompanied by percussionist Clive Alexander. It is a wonderfully energetic piece that was greatly enhanced by Alexander’s uncanny ability to instantly pick up a song’s vibe and create the perfect beat to drive it. After their rousing closing number, the finale of Saint-Saens’ “Carnival Of The Animals”, the fortunate San Diegans in attendance gave String Planet a well-deserved standing ovation.

String Planet is perhaps the most unique musical act to hit the scene in a very long time. Even when they play material composed by others, their sound is unmistakable. Says Larry, “We take a lot of liberties with the arrangements and try to put a seriously quirky spin on the material.” Their fluency in the language of music almost guarantees that other musicians will get what they‘re doing, but their hope is to build as broad an audience as possible. Their ability to write pleasing melodies and their selection of appealing cover songs are positive steps toward that end. Yes, they’re serious about what they’re doing, but it’s of great importance that the end result be enjoyable and fun. Thus far, their favorite gigs have been places like arts centers, colleges and community theatres where the music is the center of attention. They also have a lot of fun playing festivals, but as Larry puts it, “we’ve never been much for clubs”. This is understandable, given that their music is designed to be listened to and appreciated instead of merely serving as background music in a party atmosphere. Larry and Novi are also in the business of session work, composition, arrangement and music education, but nowadays they are scaling back these activities in favor of focusing on the band. As he puts it, “performing and promoting the new music is job one for now”.

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