Pizzicato style is rarely analysed, but is so vital in modern repertory says the artist, who performed with the contemporary quartet for 20 years


Most of us learnt our instruments playing works written before the 20th century. However, composers of the last 50 years or so have developed expanded tonal palettes that require string players to use techniques that go far beyond the ability simply to play in tune with a beautiful sound in 4/4 metre. We have to strike, strum and drum the instrument stroke, tap and rap with the wood of the bow; play behind the bridge; use electronic devices and accompany computers - all while counting like mad.

When approaching contemporary music it is easy for the uninitiated to think 'this is loud and weird', but in fact you have been offered a toolbox containing more tools than ever before. Through the process of analysis you will find effectiveness and beauty. A classical background shouldn't scare you off - it can give you the best foundation, enabling you to listen with open ears and explore the sound world of your instrument.

During my years with Kronos, I was introduced to the vast diversity of sounds possible on our instruments. A common example of the extended techniques required in avant-garde music is pizzicato. Many cellists feel that pizzicato is simply plucking the string and they give little thought as to how to do so. Within the musical context however, there is a variety of reasons that pizzicato is used and therefore we need to find different ways to pluck. We have the ability to produce as many colours in pizzicato as we do when we use the bow.

One of the choices you have with pizzicato is where on the string you pluck. Most often we do this between the fingerboard and bridge, but there are other options, such as close to the bridge to get a tight, non-resonating sound or on the fingerboard for a softer more ringing tone. I've even played pizzicato in the pegbox and behind the bridge.

Next, consider how you will pluck: you can pull the string to one side or the other, lift up, or push down. Bass players use a lot of pizzicato and working with Kronos, recording jazz CDs with Eddie Gomez and Ron Carter, I learnt how to get their sound. The cello is so closely related to the bass that I have often tried within the string quartet to imitate their role - that of the rhythm section. To sound like a bass I learnt to pull the string to the right with the index or middle finger.

I realised that you can use your thumb, first, second, third or fourth fnrger to pluck as well as different parts of each. Flesh can be used to our advantage, but don't discount the nails. Penderecki's First String Quartet, though only six minutes long, is like a dictionary of extended techniques and uses a lot of nail pizzicato. Be careful - you can pull the nail off! Sometimes a paperclip or some sort of pick will be asked for but there is not always enough time to grab one. I remember that after much experimenting, Hank Dutt, Kronos's violist, used a credit card to pluck. Sometimes, if the composer realises the technique is physically impossible, they might find a solution like changing the notation to col legno battuto. Some players don't want to hit their bows on the strings, so pencils can be used instead.

Alternating two fingers on the right hand like a guitarist allows for much faster pizzicato. This can work especially well with string crossings. I practise the particular passage using only my right hand, but playing on the correct string with the finger pattern I have decided on. This simplification means I can concentrate on one problem at a time.

Hamza El Din, an Egyptian composer and oud player, wrote a piece called Escalay, which one of his students transcribed for the quartet. My part was mostly pizzicato, but I couldn't get the right effect - I wanted it to sound more like an oud. I tried all types of strumming, then decided on a mixture of left- and right-hand plucking. If you alternate between hands there seems to be more movement in the sound.

The American composer John Zorn wrote Cat o' Nine Tails on 26 index cards, each card containing a completely different type of music. One of these cards is a one-octave C major scale that was supposed to sound like someone stomping upstairs. In this case, I had to find a perfect place to pluck on the cello to make the music sound like someone pounding up steps: the pizzicato had to evoke an image. I went near the bridge for a tight, loud sound. In the same piece I had a Jack-in-the-box pizzicato, which was the doll bouncing out of the box. Here I used lots of vibrato. You have to rely on your ear to decide just how much vibrato - there are infinite variations.

Another technique we used a lot was tremolo pizzicato, which creates a shimmery sound. I practise moving my finger back and forth really fast while staying practically on one spot. The sound is very soft, but interesting because moving from right to left the nail hits the string.

Over the years I have developed many calluses from playing certain works. Worse were the blisters, especially when we rehearsed passages over and over while the others were playing with the bow. Before you know it your fingers are bleeding. I learnt a trick from an Italian army officer of taking a needle and thread and passing it through the blister leaving the  thread behind, which allows the blister to drain.

Finally, a word about amplification. Since Kronos's work with Steve Reich, which involved playing with pre-recorded tapes, the group always performs amplified, which can make being heard in pizzicato easier; however, this takes great care. Amsterdam's Concertgebouw, for example, doesn't require much projection from players, but we played in some real barns. For pizzicato to be heard by a thousand people we found we needed amplification and never travelled without our sound engineer.

This article was first published in The Strad's June 2004 issue. Subscribe to The Strad or download our digital edition as part of a 30-day free trial. To purchase single issues click here.