THOUGHTS OF THE DAY
July 3, 2006
OK, it's been more than just three weeks, but it takes a while after a long trip to readjust to the old routine (or lack thereof).
For some people, composing is an arduous process of coming up with a melody and refining it, then laboriously deciding on harmony and going through possible chords. In my case, tunes generally pop into my head, pretty much complete. I sometimes do a bit of tweaking, particularly if I wait too long to write them down. And if I should try to get them back from memory without checking my notes, they may change in unexpected ways. Usually the later incarnations are the ones which will stick. Sometimes a tune will pop into my head multiple times, each being some variation on the other, often with dramatically different rhythmic implications. Such was the case with Troll Road and Troll Ring, but I liked them both enough to keep them as separate tunes.
When a tune comes into my head, it is generally in an ethnic genre or occasionally a classical one. When I was young, I used to come up with a lot of tunes which could easily have been written by Chopin, but I rarely wrote them down. These days it is more likely to be in the style of Swedish spelsmanslag or an Old-Time fiddle tune. Sometimes I'll come up with the first three or four sections of a tune and have to compose the rest the old-fashioned way. This is particularly true of tunes in a Bulgarian style, but fortunately the nature of the style is for each new section to expand on the previous part, so these tunes generally compose themselves. Every once in a while, I'll realize that a tune I thought I composed is really just a variation on a traditional tune I already know or have heard a lot recently; other times it turns out to be a pastiche of pieces of different tunes put together in a new way. Then it's a judgment as to whether I can really consider it my own. Of course most folks never know the difference. Indeed the traditional repertoire is filled with these types of "borrowed" tunes.
May 11, 2006
Since I will be away for three weeks, I won't be writing anything here for a while. Constructing a concert set is always an interesting challenge. I like to have a cohesive theme and try to pace things so that I build to a climax. For the first set, the climax should come at the end and hopefully leaves the audience wanting more. For the second set, the climax should come a few songs before the end so that the audience has a chance to come down and re-center. I like to mix things up: instrumentals and vocals, solo songs and chorus opportunities, ballads and humorous songs. Sometimes a coherent theme will create its own flow, but more often it's a balancing act to keep things interesting but still not too disparate. For the coming concert, I think I will do several short themed mini-sets. Lately I have been thinking about my Balkan songs. Due to luggage considerations I won't be bringing my Bulgarian bagpipes, so I will play dulcimer in a way that imitates the Macedonian tambura. I will sing a number of thematically related songs concerning the Bulgarian resistance to the Ottoman occupation. In addition I will do a few groups of songs on the themes of the last few concerts I did in Texas: Songs of courtship and marriage, and songs of the sea. It gives me an opportunity to play some of the music which wasn't quite ready for those concerts and therefore got passed over at the time. Lastly I will do a group of songs which I would probably not have begun to perform had I not moved to Texas: material I perform with the Annoying Instrument Orchestra, and religious material which is so dear to the folks in the dulcimer world, but might be considered disingenuous in another setting... such as Amazing Grace played on the Bulgarian bagpipes. I would never have done that but for a very sincere request, and yet since I played it at Palestine I have had numerous requests for a repeat performance. Too bad the bagpipes will be staying at home.
May 4, 2006
A week in Mountain View, Arkansas playing dulcimer and communing with the glorious forest of the Ozarks. It always seems to take me a week or more to unwind from a trip. Now I have another even longer one to look forward to from Mother's Day week-end through the end of May.
I will be on staff at the New York Pinewoods Folk Music Club's spring week-end. I have always enjoyed Pinewoods week-ends. The folk are genuinely interested in traditional music in all its aspects, and I feel that there is as much an exchange of musical ideas as there is performance. To make this week-end particularly enjoyable, I discovered to my delight that John Roberts will also be on staff. John is my absolute favorite revival ballad singer and was the inspiration for me to take up English concertina some 35 years ago.
I will be giving three workshops at the Pinewoods week-end:
The Remarkable Mountain Dulcimer: Not just for wall hanging
A look at a wonderful adaptable instrument. Known for being able to be learned in just a few easy sessions, the mountain or lap dulcimer is adaptable to a huge variety of styles as well as truly virtuoso performance. With antecedents and relatives throughout Europe, the dulcimer can easily mimic dozens of different traditional ethnic instruments in both sound quality and repertoire. We will explore several of these styles as well as an overview of the history of the mountain dulcimer in the USA and traditional American dulcimer playing techniques.
In this workshop we will explore how one goes about putting together an accompaniment which supports the lyrics and sentiment of a song without overpowering it or turning it into an instrumental exercise. We will look at some basic ideas for arranging an accompaniment, listen to some examples and try to come up with general applications.
The Rhythms of Europe:
This session will present an interactive overview of the myriad rhythms and rhythmic patterns which appear in traditional European folk music with lots of musical examples. Emphasis will be on music of Scandinavia and southern Europe where the rhythms tend to be most diverse. We will also look at the remarkable diversity of both triple and pentuple meters.
April 16, 2006
I have always enjoyed word-play of various sorts. One of my favorite creations is a game I call "Addled Adages". One takes two famous old sayings, proverbs, aphorisms or some such similar phrases and combines them so that the result is true and poignant but unexpected. The first of these and the one which starts my collection is "A fool and his money is a friend indeed." Today with tax season coming to a close, it seems appropriate to mention another: "Where there's a will, there's death and taxes." Others will show up here in the future. Donations are gratefully excepted in the Guest Book :-)
April 13, 2006
Most people think of bagpipes as coming from Scotland and perhaps Ireland as well, but the truth of the matter is that one can find indigenous bagpipes in almost every country in Europe as well as north Africa and western Asia as far east as India. Some countries have as many as twenty or more different kinds of bagpipes. There are literally hundreds of different varieties of bagpipes in the world. They differ in scale, range, reed set-up, material of the reeds, single or double reeds, one to three drones or no drones, chords or no chords, single or multiple chanters, material of the chanters, chromatics, some have metal keys, material and size of the bag, bag covering or no covering and dozens of aesthetic considerations. I have about a dozen bagpipes in my collection, mostly from Bulgaria, with two from Macedonia (one of which is playable), two from Serbia and one from central France. Although I mostly play Bulgarian bagpipes, the Serbian pipes are great fun as well and have more personality than any of the other instruments. I acquired them on my first trip to the Balkans back in 1972, when armed with the addresses of a number of bagpipe makers, I went from village to village and really got to absorb the Balkan culture. The picture below is a gajda from Niš (pronounced Neesh), a city in east Serbia. It was made by Dušan Stoyanović, a master craftsman and musician. It has a double chanter and a low drone made from rubber hose with a snake's head carved at the terminus. In the snake's mouth is a wooden fish, all carved from a single piece. In the fish's mouth is a clip in which a dancer would put money so that the bagpiper would play a requested dance. The more money given to the piper, the longer he would play the requested tune. The traditional way of receiving the money would be to slap it on the piper's sweaty forehead. At the top of the chanter, Dušan has carved an excellent likeness of himself and the turn out of the sheepskin bag makes it look as though he is wearing the traditional hat of east Serbia. Of course, by the time I met him, his hair was white. The bell of the chanter is covered in leather suede and adorned with tiny plastic flowers. The various doodads hanging from the leather fringe at the bottom of the chanter are mostly the kind of cheap trinkets one would find in a bubble gum machine in the 1960's. I was always struck by the irony of such a magnificent piece of craftsmanship and the cheap decorations. Mixed in among the plastic toys is a miniature opanci (traditional Serbian shoe), a fake-ivory egg covered with rhinestones, and a small ivory hook which would be used to adjust the beeswax used for tuning the holes in the chanter. The sound of the instrument is very pretty and sweet and relatively quiet. Totally unlike the strident reedy sound of the Scottish war-pipe.
April 4, 2006
Yesterday I got home from the Palestine Old Time Music and Dulcimer Festival. It just doesn't get any better. With fewer headliners than in previous years, every one of them without exception was a superb musician and wonderful entertainer. The Old-Time music jams are wonderful and constant throughout the day, and the balance between workshops and concerts seems perfect. In addition the mini concertina fest adds variety and a pleasant interesting mix to the proceedings. This year the emphasis was on a small concertina band. We played the "Magnolia Waltz", an old-time waltz which was new to me, and the sacred harp hymn, "Evening Shade", a fuguing tune which was glorious with the 4 part concertina arrangement. I have played a fairly accurate transcription of "Windham" as a solo piece for many years now, and I will definitely be working on some more Sacred Harp tunes for solo concertina.
I taught workshops on Improvising Harmonies, Playing by Ear, Song Accompaniment, and I led a teaching tune swap and jam of tunes from other countries. We started with Frere Jacques as a round and went around the circle choosing tunes. There were a bunch of Irish and Scottish tunes, and I taught the simple French bourree, Bouree D'Olches and the Swedish walking tune, Visby. There was one other concertina player, Jim Bayliss who led the well-known Japanese tune, Sakura (Cherry Blossoms) and the German song, Fol-ler-ri, Fol-ler-ra. A few American requests were vetoed - Tennessee Waltz, for example :-) The response to all the workshops was very enthusiastic and many of the attendees came up to me afterwards to tell me how much they learned and enjoyed themselves. I will be writing out tab for the tunes I taught, and in future I think I will try to bring it to hand out to the dulcimer players - after they have learned the tunes by ear - as a reminder and memory aid.
The performers who stood out for me the most were Sheila Kay Adams, a wonderful North Carolina source singer of the old ballads (known locally as 'love songs') and story teller; Don Pedi, certainly the finest exponent of traditional style dulcimer playing whom I have ever heard; and Mac Traynham, a Virginia born banjo and fiddle player who has embraced his roots and his music and brings them across as convincingly as any one I have ever heard.
I'll certainly look forward to returning next year.