Wednesday, April 11, 2007

Ethel--a band not a string quartet

The four virtuosic string players who conceived the ensemble Ethel, named their band in such a way that it would never be confused with a traditional string quartet, even though the ensemble's instrumentation is exactly that--two violins, viola, and cello. This is not your mother's Haydn Quartet, this is not your father's string chamber ensemble.

On a recent visit to Lexington, Kentucky on their nascent "Truck Stop" tour, Ethel wallowed in the delights of traditional Kentucky musical culture, singing and playing along with the Appalachian Association of Sacred Harp Singers, a group of old time musicians that meets weekly on Thursday evenings to share tales and tunes under the blue moon of Kentucky, the Red State Ramblers, and other groups including Rowan County's Clack Mountain and bluegrass musicians, including Dean Osborn and Tim Lake.

The joys of this collaboration and conspiracy were lived in the vivid musical encounters--sharing the linear open harmonies of venerable shape note hymnody with singers in the Gallery of the John Jacob Niles Center for American Music, or sharing fiddle tunes, moonlight and moonshine, and exuberant conversations late into the early hours on a farm in the Kentucky River palisades. There was a simply magical moment after a hard-driving dance tune--it might have been "Indian Ate the Woodchuck"--cellist Dorothy Lawson gently slid into a meditative Bach unacompanied cello suite movement that created a reverie, a moment of absolute transcendent peace. Fiddle and Violin were at one in harmony.

The collaborative musical experiences culminated in several public events, including a "Best of the Bluegrass" concert at Lexington's Opera House on April 11, 2007--but this was more opry than opera with the rarified string quartet instrumentation of Ethel metamorphicized into a virtuosic rollicking stringband to complement the old time and bluegrass musicians swirling about them.

Kentucky has long displayed a schizophrenic relationship to its traditional cultural heritage. The Commonwealth fears being saddled with the sterotypes associated with "hillbilly" heritage, and yet it longs to be recognized for its remarkable mountain heritage of traditional and bluegrass music. Sometimes it takes a group from New York to make us realize what "Best of the Bluegrass" really means. Sometimes it takes innovative partners like Ethel, to refashion our tarnished old wedding band into a gem sparkling in a new platinum setting.

Welcome back to your new Old Kentucky Home anytime, Ethel....

Saturday, April 07, 2007

My Old Kentucky Home

The sun shines bright on my old Kentucky home.....The musicology doctoral seminar on Stephen Foster, left Lexington, KY on a balmy beautiful spring day. The air was soft as silk, the red bud trees exploded in magenta hues, the crabapples and pears displayed pristine white pyrotechnics. We were headed for the quaint hamlet of Bardstown and our destination was the Stephen Foster State Shrine--My Old Kentucky Home State Park. As we parked, the siren song of the chimes was like sonic incense wafting about. The melodic essence of Foster's well-beloved melodies were an incorporeal presence that guided us to the statue of Foster--an action pose with his flute and his music, as though he were caught in the act of receiving the melody for My Old Kentucky Home from a divine muse.

Originally uploaded by Ron Pen.

The house, Federal Hill, the Rowan House, the "My Old Kentucky Home" house beckoned at the crest of the hill. The day was scented with floral delights and a constant lacy fall of blossoms gently fell like warm snow. At the door of the house, two hoop skirted women guided us into the newly refurbished home. Among the first words were: "We believe Stephen Foster visited here at least one time." The tour of the home was accompanied by our companion and colleague, Professor Deane Root, the curator of Foster Hall in Pittsburgh, the editor of the complete Foster Collection, and the director of the Music Department at the University of Pittsburgh. This was a return to his old Kentucky home, since Deane had graduated from Lafayette High School in Lexington and had visited the Foster Shrine at age 17 before setting forth in the world. We were in the presence of one who knew Foster as no one else does today.

A lazy amble through the grounds and several photographs later, we left to go our several ways with the strains of the carillon gently ushering us on our way....So myth and history and fact and fancy come together. This home, this state park, this shrine, all conspire effectively to create the illusion of a time that never was and an historical event that never took place. Foster never visited the site, but that is merely a small historical infelicity. He SHOULD have visited and he SHOULD have written the song based on this lovely home. The "little cabin floor" COULD have been the slave cabins behind Federal Hill that no longer exist.

Sometimes the force of myth creates more truth than the truth itself. The Foster legend, the story of the South, of olde Kentucky is encoded in our commonwelath's commemorative quarter--it features My Old Kentucky Home and a horse. The state song, My Old Kentucky Home is sung annually at the Kentucky Derby--another symbol of a past that never was but that should have been. Kentucky, conveniently, redefined itself as a Southern state following the Civil War.

This is not just ancient history, the power of Foster's music can still affect us. Debates are currently taking place about another Foster state song--Old Folks at Home. In Florida, the Foster Shrine, the Swanee River are an endangered species as the Governor refused to have the state song played at his inauguration and the legislature is considering eliminating it as the state song. Music is clearly not just entertainment--it is a living symbol, it is a forum for the negotiation of ideas, and it is a political statement. Foster may have died in 1864, but his words and his melodies, and his conception of America are still very much contemporary companions even today in 2007.

And so now, my Old Kentucky Home, Good night.

Sunday, May 01, 2005

May Day and Ancient Customs

It is the first Day of May. A day endowed with ancient customs, such as the fertility ritual of the May Pole Dance.

Although the revels were hijacked by the Communist governments and transformed into parades exhibiting military might, the older spring festival customs continued to linger. As a child growing up in downtown Chicago, we would decorate sheets of construction paper with colorful designs, roll them into a cone, affix a ribbon as a handle, fill them with wildflowers and a few candies, and hang the "may baskets" from the doorknobs of the neighbors. A gentle little bit of amusement and strangely dissonant with urban life, but that just demonstrates the resilience of the ancient Spring rites and rituals.

Wednesday, April 27, 2005

Homer Ledford--6,000 dulcimers

Born September 27, 1927 at Ivyton, TN, Homer has dedicated his life to creating both music and musical instruments that brilliantly reflect his Appalachian cultural heritage. Homer has succeeded in making the traditional arts glow vibrantly at a time when the clamor of popular music-as-commodity has threatened to drown out the sweet strains of traditional indigenous music. In his humble and generous fashion, Homer has helped save a culture from extinction but, more importantly, he has passed that cultural expression on to future generations through the legacy of his extraordinary instruments, and through his musical performance.

Ledford is the very model of a traditional craftsman. He learned his trade through oral tradition and informal apprenticeship, at his community in the Tennessee hill country, at the John C. Campbell School, and at Berea College. I have heard him say in only a half-comedic way “this here’s my shop” while pointing to his ancient pocketknife. Although he uses a vast array of tools to fashion his instruments, a large percentage of the work is still accomplished with just his pocketknife and his adept carving skills.

Homer has continued to perfect the dulcimer by ameliorating the inaccuracies of scale, increasing the dimensions of the sound box, improving the endpin construction, and polishing the style of the scroll headstock. A dulcimer constructed by Homer Ledford is recognizable as kith and kin to the earliest known Eastern Kentucky instruments, and yet a Homer Ledford dulcimer is vastly superior in tone, tuning, function, and appearance. These are instruments that will continue to live and sing for generations long after their creator is no longer with us.

Scholars have frequently puzzled over that curious uncharted region lying between tradition and innovation, between past and present, and between craft and art. Certainly, it is precisely the negotiation of these equivocal areas that makes Homer Ledford such a splendid artisan and artist. Homer has maintained the integrity of Appalachian dulcimer design in the Cumberland highlands lineage of “Uncle” Ed Thomas and Jethro Amburgy. After an astounding 5,9010 dulcimers, the classic hand-carved lines of the heart shaped sound holes, the overhanging sides, and the proportions of the hourglass body have been carefully sustained and refined.

However, Homer is also an innovative craftsman who expanded the boundaries of his traditional heritage by adopting new techniques and creating entirely new instruments. He is, simply, an Edison. Homer is always thinking, dreaming, and working out ways to make things sound better, work better, and look more interesting. He constantly seeks to improve his art and craft. In the process, he has created a series of original instruments (some of which are contained in the Smithsonian Institution’s permanent collection) such as a “dulcitar,” a “dulcijo,” and a “dulcibro” that marry complementary aspects of several different traditional instruments.

Recently, Homer completed dulcimer number 6,000--a very specially designed one that was made for Bill Johnson of Lexington KY. For more information on Homer, see the University Press of Kentucky book Dulcimer Maker: The Craft of Homer Ledford by R. Gerald Alvey.

Monday, April 25, 2005

Dogwood Blossoms

How do you identify a dogwood tree?
By its bark, of course....

Monday, April 18, 2005

Joy of the Professorship

I have the honor and privilege of serving as a professor of music. There is always a job hidden in the work, even in work that is wonderful, joyous, and fulfilling. Certainly, there is the drudgery of red tape, there are forms, surveys, endless rounds of meetings, and reports to complete, BUT, there is the daily joy of sharing the joys of music with students. I can scarcely imagine a more wondrous way to spend my days. Today in music history, we will be looking at West Side Story, Leonard Bernstein's felicitous marriage of musical theatre and opera narrated in a peculiarly American vernacular voice. The remarkable quintet of "Tonight" creates a contrapuntal fabric in which Tony and Maria sing a love duet, Anita contributes her sexy aria, and the Sharks and Jets engage in interjections like a sonic gang rumble. The tension of all these voices and ideas woven together builds towards the remarkable resolution of inner city life and death.

Bernstein at a kibbutz on Schvuat, Israel, 1950. Photograph source: Behr photography, Tel Aviv. (Music Division)

It is just a plain, old classroom--but the magic of West Side Story has the power to transfigure our lives for the 50 minutes that I am privileged to teach this today.

Tuesday, April 12, 2005

Weeping Lachrymosa

The pictoral or sonic "weeping" gesture symbolizes the bittersweet act of the lament; the descent of tears. Spring, a time of joyous rebirth would hardly seem to be the setting for such pathos, and yet some of the most beautiful blossoms to be found in Lexington, Kentucky couple the beauty of life and the pathos of death. A stroll through the gorgeous Lexington Cemetery reveals an arbor of gossamer pastel weeping cherry blooms, a meander to the pond displays a cloud of petals suspended over the tranquil shimmering surface. There is a delicious dichotomy between spring's life being found symbolically amid the cemetery's morbidity. Musically, the joyous pathos might sound like John Dowland's "Flow My Tears."