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Nat Shilkret: In Araby with You

April 15, 2010

Nat Shilkret and the Victor Orchestra
In Araby with You

Recorded in 1926

We might expect Nat Shilkret, with his nearly infallible taste and his exuberant creativity, to come up with a clever approach to “oriental” atmosphere, and he doesn’t disappoint us. But his approach is so far off the wall that it’s completely unique, as far as I know.

Shilkret gives us a few bars of “oriental” rhythm in the introduction, but after that it’s straightforward two-beat dance music. Instead of relying on the standard bag of tricks, he states the melody on an instrument that is at once unusual and so common that you could find it lying around in any 1920s recording studio.

Listen to the melody in the first chorus. It’s played on a viola, but a viola with an oddly tinny and hollow sound, which comes through perfectly in this excellent Victor electrical recording. It has to be one of these:

Stroh violin by Christophe Monié, original photograph. Click on the picture to enlarge it.

See the licensing information for the photograph above.

Stroh violins, violas, and so forth were clever machines that could be played like a Stradivarius but produced a loud, strong tone that was easy for acoustical recording horns to pick up. Every recording studio used them; Victor must have had dozens. As soon as the electrical process came along, they were useless: microphones could pick up the subtle nuances of a real instrument perfectly. But were acoustical recordings really extinct? Other record companies were still making them. The electrical process was only a year old. Better keep the Strohs around just in case. After all, they were expensive.

So Nat Shilkret hit on the idea of using one of those old Stroh violas to give this melody a scent of the mysterious East. The genius of Shilkret is that he uses a trick that, as far as I know, no one else has ever used—a Stroh viola for oriental atmosphere—and yet it immediately registers with ordinary listeners in exactly the way he wants it to register. Right away we hear that melody as mysterious and oriental. Shilkret has succeeded in creating a one-off cliché, which is an amazing and paradoxical accomplishment.


From → Hot Dance

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