july 2009

Where History And Heart Abide

by David McGee

'I came to realize that by crafting violins I had learned to give voice to a part of myself for which I had no language, no voice.' —Bob Childs

Childsplay Records



thumbnailSTRING QUARTETS NO.'S 2 & 3
Mark O'Connor

Spirited, ruminative, daring, challenging, beautiful—all these adjectives and more apply to the exhilarating new albums from the musical collective Childsplay and Mark O'Connor's dazzling string quartet. More to the point, history resonates in both works, history both American and, in the cases of Bob Childs and Mark O'Connor, deeply personal. It begins on foreign shores—in Cape Bretton, in Ireland, in Scotland, in Holland—and is filtered through the artists' American experience to arrive as something both redolent with qualities endemic to its source and robust with the spirit of our land. Listen to Childsplay's alternately exuberant and introspective fiddle-rich excursions without the aid of the liner notes, only your imagination, and it will conjur visions of the Appalachians' grandeur, of the rich, fruited plains beyond, and of the beckoning wide open spaces of the west, where lies a blank slate upon which to build a new world, a new national character. You will hear the spirits of Copland, Grofé, Henry Cowell. Immerse yourself in O'Connor's beautifully realized, bluegrass-centered string quartets and you hear the aural evocation of enterprise, of undaunted courage, of can-do determination tempered but slightly by a spiritual introspection, pioneers praying for safe passage over daunting, unmapped terrain. You will hear Bernstein (Elmer and Leonard), Tommy Jarrell, Bill Monroe, and feel what the great Hudson River Valley school of painters—Thomas Cole, Frederic Edwin Church, John Frederick Kensette, et al.—felt when they first laid eyes upon the pastoral landscapes of upper New York state and were humbled by the presence of God in their midst, in Nature's majesty.

Childsplay is an unusual proposition. Its founder, Bob Childs, has been building custom violins for 35 years; the fiddle players who assemble periodically to form Childsplay come from Europe and America, and play Childs's handcrafted instruments, as they do on this, the group's fifth album since its 1986 debut. Childs's own liner notes, however, reveal the deeper purpose of this exercise. A child of foster homes, he recounts a dream he had in his 30s, after completing his luthier training and opening his own shop: "I am trying to enter a country in Europe. Border guards tell me that I must stop at the customs house. Once inside, I am led through a series of rooms and I come to one that is totally dark except for a single light shining on a table. The guard points to a violin lying on the table and motions for me to pick it up. I do as I'm asked, and when I turn the violin over, I see, inlaid in its back, an image of a small boy, crying."

Childs adds: "It is often said that when played soulfully, the violin, of all musical instruments, sounds the most like the human voice. Through my dreams, I came to realize that by crafting violins I had learned to give voice to a part of myself for which I had no language, no voice."

Waiting for Dawn, then, which is the first Childsplay album to feature vocals—in the form of the haunting, whispered musings of Crooked Still's Aoife O'Donovan—is seen by Childs not only as the maturing of the Childsplay sound, but also as evidence of "my own developing capacity for expression."

This iteration of Childsplay lists no less than 21 participating musicians, most playing fiddles, but also viola, cello, bass, flute, accordion, guitar, banjo, piano, and harp (in addition to O'Donovan's vocals and three harmony vocalists, two of whom are also among the instrumenalists). But even as Bob Childs is no mere luthier and Childsplay no mere academic inquiry into the relationship between violin and voice, so are the musicians engaged in a defining mission of their own. As Hanneke Cassel writes in her liner notes, "Childsplay is about community. It's about the art that is created when people from all different musical and social backgrounds come together and spend time getting to know each other." She goes on to recount not only the bonding arising from hours spent in rehearsal, but from communal living, in effect—eating meals together, debating the issues of the day together, laughing at each other's jokes, retreating "into another world" to become "one CRAZY-LY joyful voice."

So it is. The baker's dozen tunes form a patchwork quilt of roots music emanating from Ireland, Cape Bretton, Scotland and the States, sometimes all at once when tunes of disparate cultures are joined together in a seamless medley. So Cape Bretton piano legend Maybelle Chisholm's sturdy, march-like "Compliments to Cameron Chisholm" segues neatly into the driving, jittery album title track penned by Hanneke Cassel, its multiple violins rising and falling in an exuberant, breathless chase that slows down—figuratively speaking—only briefly for a flittering flute solo courtesy Shannon Heaton. Or consider "SamSam Samidon/Good Morning To Your Nightcap," breaking out of the gate with "SamSam" composer Keith Murphy's insistent, sprinting piano chording ahead of the fiddles' soaring, dramatic strains and Heaton's whistle darts hummingbird-like above it all before Murphy restates the opening theme, Heaton's whistle engages him in a strutting dialogue and they're into the celebratory workout that is "Good Morning To Your Nightcap," a traditional tune some 80 years old.

True to the communal nature of Childsplay, as Cassel describes it, O'Donovan's voice adds telling context to the collective's statement, by the simple act of verbalizing the intensely personal feelings the music evokes. They take U2's "Mothers of the Disappeared," a song composed in response to the Argentine Guerra Sucia (Dirty War), the reign of state-sponsored terrorism carried out against the country's citizens between 1976 and 1983 in which thousands of ordinary citizens were "disappeared," and pair it with Cassel's poignant "The Evenstar" to create a mournful, but nonetheless hopeful, hymn that O'Donovan handles with affecting tenderness, sometimes singing softly over a single fiddle and lone acoustic guitar before multiple fiddles raise plaintive voices in support. The theme of social justice is enhanced a few songs later when the group reprises Steve Earle's "Christmas in Washington," a song as timely and provocative now, when the Republican party is doing its best to be an obstacle to recovery as it was in 1998 when a Democratic President found his agenda mired in the quicksand of partisan obstruction. Childsplay keeps the fireworks at bay here, backing O'Donovan's emotional but subdued reading with Lisa Schneckenburger's harmony vocal, Steve Hickman's lonesome fiddle and John Gawler's rustic wooden banjo—an impressively restrained and moving performance, arguably the most powerful on the record. For a group of musicians who roamed far from their homes to help realize this project, the jubilant rendition of "Sweet Sunny South" and O'Donovan's matter-of-fact approach to the lyrics' remembrance of old friends and familiar places in the heart achieves a singular, piercing quality, tears amidst the reverie. And what a brilliant stroke to close with a haunting, pop-styled rendition of "Love Me Tender," O'Donovan caressing the lyrics with heart-tugging feeling as Molly Gawler shadows her in harmony, and the strings, in an arrangement as lush as it is tastefully deployed for heightened emotional subtext—Nelson Riddle could hardly have done better—add a patina of grandeur the performance deserves. Here, though, in a song obviously made immortal by Elvis Presley but based on the Civil War song "Aura Lee," the past and the present are dramatically, and majestically, fused in a fitting coda to a journey in which two worlds merge into one—the world we know and one we know only from what's been handed down to us through the ages. Thus Waiting For the Dawn, a most engaging guide to new vistas of imaginative vitality.

Mark O'Connor: 'I wanted to further discover what this American musical art form means to string playing, what it means to this quartet, and ultimately what my own past means to me today.'

Mark O'Connor's evocative String Quartets No.'s 2 & 3 comprises two pieces, "Bluegrass" (String Quartet No. 2) and "Old-Time" (No. 3) of about an hour's duration, composed on commission by, respectively, the Santa Fe and La Jolla Chamber Music Festivals and by the Hudson River Quadricentennial Music Project. For O'Connor, this is the continuation of his long standing expedition of personal discovery, which this year alone has yielded the bounty of his Americana Symphony and now, these string quartets. In all of these artistic endeavors, he's attempting not only to explore certain compositional terrain in his ongoing pursuit of a new American classical music vocabulary, but also to explore his own family's American roots. A descendant of some of the earliest Dutch settlers on these shores, and of their cohabitation with Native American Mohawks, O'Connor has for years been studying the land his forebears helped pioneer as well as its culture, and especially its music. All of this history informs the wordless narrative of his compositions, which paint portraits in sound of the mountains, the valleys, the parched deserts and the lush forests his family traversed en route westward. This impressionistic rendering of a journey ages old might be recondite to many were it not for O'Connor being among the most diligent of artists in penning smart liner notes explaining what we're hearing and the techniques he employs to bring his stories to life sans lyrics. The "Bluegrass" portion of this effort is going to have traditionalists scratching their heads, or maybe cursing him, because it's not about either the high lonesome or standard hard driving approaches. Rather, as he writes, "this is not a classical interpretation of roots music, rather, it is a modern interpretation of modern interpreted bluegrass music. Or put in a different way, it is my own version of my own version!" What we hear, then, is a breathtaking, spirited dialogue between O'Connor's violin, literally playing second fiddle to 1st violinist Ida Kafavian, with the quartet rounded out by Paul Neubauer on viola and Matt Haimovitz on cello—some of the most justifiably celebrated musicians in the classical world. The precision and passion they bring to their parts here indicate the scope of their virtuosity, just as the familial feel of the whole affair underscores the kinship they have struck with O'Connor's compositional demands. The energy of their intertwining dialogues is exhilarating and intense—seeing these pieces performed live is as sweat inducing as a run in Central Park and you start to wonder if O'Connor didn't put his mates through a physical fitness regimen before embarking on this odyssey. Oh, once in awhile, in the down home languor that marks Part III of "Bluegrass," you not only can take a breath, but also feel the warmth of the sun on a lazy southern day and luxuriate in the keening, nostalgic melody O'Connor crafts over his mates' swaying rhythm. O'Connor may be on his way to redefining American classical music for our age, but he's also in the vanguard of a new progressive bluegrass movement beholden to classical composition techniques and folk flavorings—see Chris Thile and the Punch Brothers for another exciting (and O'Connor-influenced) example of what's going on in this realm.

thumbnailThat said, the extra-musical subtext of O'Connor's compositions lends this work added heft. The "Old Time" quartet was commissioned to coincide with the 400th anniversary of the first European settlements in America, and means to evoke "the natural habitat and beauty" of the Hudson River country. In this his own family history and America's evolution became one. So the "Old Time" chapters seek an impressionistic portrait of the Hudson River Valley country that so inspired the aforementioned painters and was the scene of countless struggles between settlers and native inhabitants—brutal violence and unrelenting threat commingling with some of the most spectacular natural scenery on the planet. This is "Old Time," with shifting tempi, subtly changing textures between O'Connor's and Kafavian's fleet, airy bowing and the deeper rumblings from Neubauer and Haimovitz; rapid flights of instrumental frenzy and calmer, reflective, sundown passages. Through it all, O'Connor's voice prevails—if you've followed him through Appalachian Waltz, Poets & Prophets and Americana Symphony, you can hear him singing, figuratively, in his bowing, be it inward and contemplative (the lovely, meditative early section of Part VI in "Old Time") or rousing and enthusiastic (a good part of the time, to be honest). All sorts of technical things are going on in the work in terms of harmony, re-harmonization, theme and development and canonic applications, and those who listen for these will find riches herein. But with Mark O'Connor it's never as simple, or as vain, as virtuosity for show. It's the human heart beating, the living pulse of his art, that keeps a listener coming back and hearing more than he heard the time before, because it's all there and it's deep. Of his aim, he says it best in his notes to "Bluegrass," to wit: "...I wanted to dive down deep in to the strains of this music. I wanted to further discover what this American musical art form means to string playing, what it means to this quartet, and ultimately what my own past means to me today."

You really want to go along for this ride.

Founder/Publisher/Editor: David McGee
Contributing Editors: Billy Altman, Laura Fissinger, Christopher Hill, Derk Richardson
Logo Design: John Mendelsohn (www.johnmendelsohn.com)
Website Design: Kieran McGee (www.kieranmcgee.com)
Staff Photographers: Audrey Harrod (Louisville, KY; www.flickr.com/audreyharrod), Alicia Zappier (New York)
E-mail: thebluegrassspecial@gmail.com
Mailing Address: David McGee, 201 W. 85 St.—5B, New York, NY 10024