Just think about the fiddle. It is the preacher’s daughter of instruments. It’s elegant and conservative by nature but nurtured to rebel and don a much more revealing ensemble and an attitude, especially if given free-reign or a night out downtown. Of course it has experienced physical ramifications and stylistic changes that distinguish it from its twin, but the fiddle remains a stand-alone sound and musical character. That being said, its identity is unmistakable—you know when the fiddle is playing, and too often, you can’t distinguish one audible example from another. Thankfully there are bands like 10 String Symphony, a taste-making duo invented by Rachel Baiman and Christian Sedelmyer, two beautifully eccentric and musically intelligent five-string fiddle players and singers (though these are modest titles) who have completely innovated a sound, sans musical blueprint. And you’ll know it’s them when you hear it.
On a dreary evening I drove to 31 West to see and listen to Rachel and Christian record some of their anticipated 2015 album with very little knowledge as to what I was going to hear and experience. Greeted by excited energy into an obviously lived-in studio, I was immediately in the presence of completely honest dialogue and was promptly offered a strawberry margarita in celebration of Rachel’s birthday the following day. “One of us could sing in a log cabin and one of us in a cathedral,” joked Christian as they entered the booths to track vocals with a window to separate them. They sung effortlessly but with intention, though Christian’s diction was often too impeccable for the takes while Rachel filled the waiting periods with rap lyrics and dance moves. When they came out of the booth to listen, they were deliberate and earnest, searching for any minor glitch in the sound wave they could fix. Mark Sloan, the producer for 10 String Symphony’s forthcoming album, offered direct responses and tailored advice, fitting for their current state as defined by Christian: “this is the first record for a band that now knows it’s a band.”
Though they met years ago at the 5 Spot bluegrass jam sessions on Wednesday nights and busked on lower Broadway, Christian and Rachel didn’t consider their collaboration a band until the first album was said and done in 2012. “We actively tried not to make it a band,” said Christian, but their final product had different intentions. “There’s a reason it’s not normal,” explained Rachel about the dual fiddle and voice collective. “It takes a lot of compromised technique.” You can imagine the physical obstacles of singing with a wooden instrument prodding your neck. And beyond the obvious obstruction, neither began as a singer. “Singing came out of necessity,” said Christian. “Collectively, we have close to 40 years of playing violin, so we are really focusing on voice,” Rachel added. “It’s pushed us really hard, to be pushed to the center and to come up with the content and carry the lead-singer energy,” she continued. That frontman presence is the glue of their performance, amplifying the two-piece to an engaging act, and with the singular presence being made up of two different energies and voices, it is the strongest characteristic of their music.
“Our default arrangement technique is to always start with fiddles. We want to make that work first,” explained Christian, even though they’ve occasionally incorporated the banjo and resonator mandolin. After watching them record and piece together elements of this album, it was apparent to me that they approach their band and their writing with total confidence in the magnitude of song and the capability of their instruments. “It’s getting this across even though there is no context for it. So we are creating the context,” Christian noted. It’s hard to shuffle 10 String Symphony into the outdated but still revered genre system, for fundamentally it is folk. “It’s always going to sound like two voices and two fiddles, but we’ve realized that there aren’t as many boundaries.” The production is more raw and less shiny, allowing the more personal material to lock into the texture of the music, and the overall sound rests outside the confines of a label. “Anything goes is our approach to arrangement,” stated Rachel. “Whatever we like is our sound.”
With their restless instruments and able voices and a good bit of new material, 10 String Symphony will be making their Station Inn debut tomorrow night at 9pm with The Farewell Drifters. Stay tuned for a new album from the limitless duo. But trust me–you’ll hear them coming.