String Noise Amplifies Black Narratives on Genre-Crossing Alien Stories

As the hardships caused by the global pandemic and uprisings in protest of police brutality and systemic racism have become increasingly relevant, many have looked to musicians for works that engage these issues. Classical avant-punk duo String Noise (violinists Conrad Harris and Pauline Kim Harris) uses their latest album, Alien Stories, to respond to these events and draw connections between them. Released on March 26, 2021 on Infrequent Seams, Alien Stories features works from contemporary Black composers Jessie Cox, Lester St. Louis, Anaïs Maviel, Charles Overton, and Jonathan Finlayson that showcase a breadth of Black artistry, from new spins on traditional influences such as jazz and folk, to experimental avant-garde sounds that push the boundaries the listener’s imagination.

Opening with the titular piece, composer Jessie Cox connects the pandemic and the widespread calls for racial equity that have gained traction over the past year by focusing on the concept of “alienation.” While responding to the othering of Black people is a central aspect of the album as a whole, incorporating themes of alienation as it pertains to the current health crisis is a somewhat unexpected comparison. Even so, because the unfamiliarity—or alienness—of the COVID-19 pandemic is a large part of what has sowed widespread fear and unrest, there are similarities between how the concept of “alienation” functions in both situations. String Noise brings these similarities to life by employing a multitude of extended techniques such as artificial harmonics, snap pizzicato, and scratch notes that remove the instruments from their traditional context. These techniques, combined with the use of bells that ring quietly in the background, frame the concept of “alienation” musically by pushing the boundaries and perceptions of the sounds these instruments can make.

String Noise--Photo by Chris Bradley

String Noise–Photo by Chris Bradley

Lester St. LouisArchive[Absolute Recoil] follows in a seamless transition from the first piece. This work includes additional uses of the bow such as ponticello (playing over the bridge in order to get a nasal, metallic sound) and brushing the bow over the string to create a whisper-like sound. St. Louis allows the duo to incorporate their own interpretations and musical ideas, instructing them to “provide a non-mimetic, interactive performance in real time.” While String Noise seemingly draws inspiration from the first piece on the album with some of the experimental sounds they incorporate, they also exhibit their synergistic chemistry by building off of one another’s musical ideas as the piece progresses.

In a distinct aesthetic shift, Anaïs Maviel’s La Puyala Munta gives listeners the first hint of folk music influence on the album. The piece takes musical elements from the traditional French bourrée that is referenced often in Western European classical music and juxtaposes them with dissonances commonly found in contemporary music. Additionally, melodies in the latter half of the piece are interspersed with scratch notes. This crossover reiterates the recurring theme of “alienness” by putting traditional and contemporary sounds in conversation with each other, as they are not usually presented in the same context.

Anaïs Maviel--Photo by Dar Es Salaam Riser

Anaïs Maviel–Photo by Dar Es Salaam Riser

Charles Overton’s Only Time Will Tell speaks to the ways in which the album’s thematic elements manifest themselves in the current state of the world. The title itself implies uncertainty—that feelings of angst and ambiguity about what the future holds can only be alleviated by waiting for time to pass. This uneasiness is conveyed through long, quiet chords that ebb and flow in the beginning of the piece. During a more structured and rhythmic section, the violinists alternate between passing sporadic notes back and forth and playing in rhythmic unison with each other. Eventually, the piece returns to the drawn out drones it began with, tying it back to its cryptic title.

Alien Stories concludes with Jonathan Finlayson’s Yet to Be, which allows the ensemble to display their prowess as musicians that champion many genres. Finlayson incorporates harmonies from jazz and folk music into the composition, as well as techniques heard earlier on the album such as artificial harmonics and ponticello. Finlayson’s incorporation of the contemporary styles of the earliest works on the album with the folk influences from later works, as well as his own use of jazz elements is a motley presentation of the tapestry of Black musical artistry. 

Through Alien Stories, String Noise brings to life the varied musical voices of five Black composers. The duo’s versatility allows them to successfully convey musical ideas that are “alien” to each other and bridge the gap between them. As the events that inspired this theme of “alienness” continue to develop, the musical offerings of this album bring nuanced and timely perspectives to the forefront of the conversation.


I CARE IF YOU LISTEN is an editorially-independent program of the American Composers Forum, funded with generous donor and institutional support. Opinions expressed are solely those of the author and may not represent the views of ICIYL or ACF. 

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