Sonus Quartet Tours With GRAMMY® Award Winning Gnarls Barkley

3/9/2007 [Strings]

Edgy classical quartet relies on Yamaha Silent Strings for its stadium-filling sound.

BUENA PARK, Calif. — Soul, dance, R&B, hip-hop, rock, funk and folk, Sonus Quartet plays it all.

Members of the Sonus Quartet
Caroline Campbell, Neel Hammond and Vanessa Freebairn-Smith of Sonus
And yes, they play classical music too.

Formed in 2003, the Los Angeles-based string quartet is forging a new path for the traditional classical string quartet, fueled in large part by their original arrangements. Though they've amassed impressive classical street cred – a debut at New York's Lincoln Center, training with the world-renowned Juilliard Quartet, performance alongside the Alexander Quartet, a chamber music residency at the Banff Center in Canada – Sonus has equal clout in L.A.'s competitive and eclectic popular music scene: "The Concert for Bangladesh Revisited" with Ringo Starr, Billy Preston and Dhani Harrison; the 2005 GRAMMY Awards with Alicia Keys, Jamie Foxx and Quincy Jones; opening performance for Sarah McLachlan and k.d. Lang at Yamaha's 2006 Winter NAMM Dealer VIP concert; live shows with Sting, Jewel, Beth Orton, Michael Bublé, Reba McEntire, Chris Botti, Paula Cole, Gladys Knight and others; working with producers Patrick Leonard, T-Bone Burnett, David Foster, Bob Ezrin, Bill Bottrell and "Danger Mouse," aka Brian Burton. They are members of the L.A.-based hip-hop orchestra daKAH and, individually, have contributed to projects by Prince, Stevie Wonder, Henry Mancini, Paul McCartney and other legendary musicians.

In 2006, when Sonus Quartet first began performing with Gnarls Barkley, the multiple-GRAMMY® nominated project headed up by DJ and producer Danger Mouse and rapper/singer Cee-Lo Green, they tried to use their acoustic instruments. But, as Sonus co-founder, cellist Vanessa Freebairn-Smith relates, after gigs at the Roxy in L.A. and the Coachella Valley Music & Arts Festival – not to mention concerns about inflicting the demands of a challenging traveling schedule on her 150-year old cello – she and two of the other members of Sonus Quartet, violinists Neel Hammond and Caroline Campbell, turned to Yamaha's Silent Series instruments.

The innovative Yamaha Silent Series offers musicians who play violin, viola, cello, bass or brass instruments unparalleled flexibility. Musicians use them to practice or perform, at any hour, in complete privacy and silence, a great advantage for artists on the road or those living in close quarters with others. This same Silent Mode technology also allows live performers to play through an amp and project warm, full-bodied tone, an advantage Sonus members found enormously appealing.

"Gradually, we just found our acoustic instruments were too precious, and we weren't able to get the volume we needed in large venue settings," says Freebairn-Smith. "Miking was a hassle and we were getting a lot of feedback. Using the Yamaha Silent String instruments really simplified things. And," she adds, "though the Silent Cello is just a fingerboard, that is, it doesn't have a full body like my acoustic instrument, it does have indicator sites, breaks for your knees and chest, so it feels like a normal instrument. We get the sound we need to play with a 12 or 13 piece band, a band with live drums, electric bass and guitar, keyboards and vocals. They're good little battleaxes on the road with Gnarls Barkley."

And that makes a tremendous difference when touring relentlessly all over the United States and performing in big stadiums, where Gnarls Barkley sometimes shares concert billing with equally audacious bands like The Red Hot Chili Peppers.

While not exactly the traditional career path of a cellist, it suits Freebairn-Smith and the other Sonus members perfectly. "We love our classical roots, but we listen to all types of music. Writing our own arrangements frees us up even more because we're not playing anyone else's musical ideas. We're not interested in leaving classical music behind; Brahmns, Shostokovich, Beethoven, they're always an element. We're not going to become a rock string quartet but there's no need to close any doors either."

Freebairn-Smith, 25, grew up in L.A. Her mother is a freelance violinist, her father a composer for film and TV. "I was trained classically but saw my mom coming home from playing with The Rolling Stones, so I knew I didn't necessarily have to go in the symphonic direction," she says. She began working when she was 17, and attended Colburn School of Performing Arts on weekends; her first non-classical foray was a music video for Diddy. She and the other Sonus members now share their similarly eclectic backgrounds with students in the L.A. public schools through workshops when they're not on the road or in the studio.

"We're having a great time playing with Gnarls Barkley," she admits. "There aren't many bands like theirs that want a string quartet with them all the time. Many might want a string player but using the full four string players all the time is very rare. But, they're so eclectic, it's part of what they want, both sound-wise and visually."

And the costumes? They're fun too, she says of Gnarls Barkely's decidedly outrageous stage presence and playful taste in apparel. Danger Mouse, Cee-Lo and their band dressed as chefs and wait staff for a cover of Duran Duran's "Hungry Like the Wolf;" donned caps & gowns or bathrobes for respective appearances on The Tonight Show with Jay Leno and Late Night with Conan O'Brien; and otherwise morphed into an airline flight crew, glam metal band, tennis champions (performing Queen's "We Are The Champions") and private school students (pounding out "Another Brick in the Wall, Part II" by Pink Floyd). The list is seemingly as endless as the creative spark that earned Gnarls Barkley six GRAMMY® nominations and a place onstage at the February 11, 2007 Awards ceremonies. The group took home awards for Best Alternative Music Album for St. Elsewhere and Best Urban/Alternative Performance for the song "Crazy." Not surprisingly, they've snatched up a slew of critics' citations for their album, St. Elsewhere and the tune "Crazy," named Song of the Year by Rolling Stone magazine.

"The costumes add a bit of mystery," says Freebairn-Smith. "At the MTV Video Music Awards last June, we dressed like the Imperial Guard in Star Wars, and our Silent instruments definitely looked weapon-like. Playing strings doesn't just mean classical music anymore."

For more information, write Yamaha Corporation of America, Band & Orchestral Division, P.O. Box 6600, Buena Park, Calif. 90622, telephone (714) 522-9011, or e-mail

Return to Top