Because I love music, a lot of musicians end up in my novels. In MARIACHI MURDER, Andy Veracruz is a band leader in Southern California… until he really gets into trouble!

Archive for December, 2013

Why I Love Mariachi: Brass versus Strings

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There isn’t one reason that I love mariachi. It would take a book to explain my feelings about this musical form (I’m working on it!) But I can give a short musical answer, which is good enough to start with. I love the crazy dialogue between the violin and the trumpet.

In most mariachi music, the melody lines travel among the violins, the trumpets, and the voice. Occasionally a rhythm instrument, particularly a harp, for more formal groups, gets a solo line. And naturally the voice gets most of the melody lines. But honestly, a dialogue between violins and trumpets? And I thought it was difficult to compare apples and oranges. But a brass instrument with a huge sound that can blow your ears out versus a stringed instrument that has strong but limited sound?

Let’s take things to a practical level. Lately most mariachi groups have had to downsize. This is bad since most of the music is written for three-part violin harmony and two-part trumpet harmony. (Highly professional groups will double the violin players to six to ensure better intonation and bigger sound.) Given that the rhythm consists of a guitarrón (like a string bass) and a vihuela at a minimum, a strong professional group should have at least ten players, and that’s if the group dispenses with a guitar and a harp.

Most of the gigs I’ve played over the last years have consisted of four or five players at the most. That means that most of the time, I’m a sole violin player fighting to get my line heard over the trumpet. Crazy, right? On the other hand, this arrangement gives me the chance to really focus on our crazy dialogue.

I wonder if it’s a coincidence that the first thing the dialogue reminds me of is a couple, one that has a lot to fight about. No matter which instrument starts a line, the other instrument often answers it. Lots of songs have an effect. “You played it first,” the trumpet might be suggesting, “but I played it louder.” This statement is hard to contest. I simply cannot compete with brass no matter how much pressure I put on the bow. (Yes, I go through bows fairly often, and no, in mariachi playing, violin players don’t spend much time going between “pp” and “ff.” Most of the time, I’m trying to play “fff” in self-defense.)

There are other passages where the two instruments play in harmony to one another, as if the instruments suddenly decided to like each other after all. These harmonies are often in soothing sixths, less often in thirds. Usually the violin line is on top, where the instrument can sing out a little more. These harmonies are lush and exciting.

But they don’t last. Soon enough the instruments are back to quarreling with one another, both trying for one-upmusicianship. Try as I might, I wouldn’t say I’m able to win any of the fights. The trumpet blows past me every time, and no matter how many times I tell J. to use his mute, he rarely listens. On the other hand, it might not be his fault. After years of practicing, his poor ears probably aren’t what they used to be!

In the meantime, we continue our ritual of fighting with one another, going along with one another, echoing one another, and then fighting again. But no matter how many songs we play, our intricate dialogue always sounds fresh and surprising. Each song is a new adventure in communication, one which I love sharing with every audience members.

 

To see how I worked this into a mystery, check out MARIACHI MURDER.

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