Mark O’Connor – String ties
In 1992, Mark O’Connor was the most successful fiddler in country music. But it wasn’t enough.
The Seattle native, then 31 years old, had just won the Best Country Instrumental Grammy Award for The New Nashville Cats, an all-instrumental album with such friends as Bela Fleck, Sam Bush, Jerry Douglas, Vince Gill, Ricky Skaggs, Russ Barenberg and Edgar Meyer. That same year, he won his second consecutive Country Music Association Award for Musician of the Year, a belated recognition of all the session work he had done in Nashville with those same friends from 1985 through 1990.
In the wake of those triumphs, O’Connor began attracting large crowds to his solo shows. He cut quite a striking figure — long and lanky in loose-fitting tailored suits. His creased gray fedora tilted over his eyes, and his bushy brown mustache tilted over the instrument beneath his chin. Standing alone onstage, he would go from old-time fiddle tunes to newgrass adventures, from pop-country melodies to jazzy improvisations, holding it all together with fluidity of his phrasing, the lusciousness of his tone and the propulsion of his rhythm.
By 1992, however, even this flourishing solo career was not enough to keep him satisfied. If there’s one thread that ties O’Connor’s career together, from his teenage years as an old-time fiddle champion to his recent collaborations with Yo-Yo Ma, Wynton Marsalis and Chris Thile, it’s his willingness to risk a hard-won success for the opportunity to realize the sounds inside his head. And in 1992, those sounds included his instrument accompanied by a symphony orchestra. So he took time off from his busy newgrass career to compose a piece that could make it happen. He called it a Fiddle Concerto.
It was a jarring but quite deliberate juxtaposition of words. For centuries, people have played jigs on the fiddle and concertos on the violin, but never the other way around. Even though “fiddle” and “violin” refer to the same wooden box with a narrow waist and four strings, the words have always meant very different things. It’s not just a matter of semantics; the words stand for something — long traditions with different repertoires, different audiences and different styles of playing. So when anyone asks O’Connor, “Do you play fiddle or violin?”, it’s more than just a joke; it echoes the central challenge of his career.
“I get asked that question a lot,” he admits. “My old teacher Benny Thomasson used to answer by saying, ‘I just play an old gourd.’ Because that’s all the instrument was in the beginning — some gut strings across a hollow gourd. Nowadays I’ll answer by saying, ‘I play an old Gourdivarius.’ I have to say something, because I don’t want to be pinned down as just a fiddler or a violinist.”
O’Connor is no easier to pin down than spilt milk, as his most recent projects attest. In January 2003, he released a jazz album, In Full Swing, with his Django Reinhardt-inspired Hot Swing Trio and with special guests Wynton Marsalis and Jane Monheit. In November 2003, he released Thirty-Year Retrospective, a two-disc live re-recording of his earlier material with a string-band that included himself, Chris Thile, Byron House and Bryan Sutton. And he recently recorded his Double Violin Concerto with classical violinist Nadja Salerno-Sonnenberg and the Colorado Symphony Orchestra for release in 2004.
It would be easy for O’Connor to leave the “fiddler” label behind, because these days he spends most of his time in the classical and jazz worlds. But he refuses to do so, for the quality that gives his playing in those spheres such a distinctive personality is his background in old-time, bluegrass and country fiddling. He doesn’t want to “graduate” from fiddle to violin; he wants to invent a new way of playing the old gourd.
“This might sound a little grandiose,” he allows, “but in the back of my mind, I’ve always wanted to be part of an American school of string playing. I had always read about the European tradition of violin playing from Russia, Germany and France. But as I got further into classical music, I noticed there was no school of American violin playing. The styles that are taught here in conservatories are European.
“Any school of music is the result of centuries of evolving practice, but even though this country is not very old, we have several centuries of an American culture behind us. When you hear me play, you hear that culture — the blues phrasing, the Hispanic polkas, the ragtime, the Irish jigs, the jazz, the American Songbook, the Texas swing, the rock ‘n’ roll, the bluegrass. A lot of it has to do with the African-American influence. When people hear me, they can hear those aspects in my playing. That’s something you would not find in other places.”
Three elements are required for what O’Connor calls an “American school of string playing.” First, you need composers who will create complex, ambitious pieces out of these distinctively American materials. Second, you need musicians who are familiar enough with those materials and skilled enough in complexity to perform those compositions. And, third, you need an audience that will come out to hear the music. O’Connor himself personifies all three roles.
“I love listening to musicians like Chris Thile and Bryan Sutton,” he says. “Now that they’re coming along and taking over, it means that I haven’t been working in a vacuum. It means that I wasn’t just an oddball fiddler who played in a jazzy style and wrote classical pieces. It means that there is a whole movement of people who will continue on after me. It means that other people will be around to play the music I’m writing.”
Perhaps the best example of that writing is “The American Seasons”, a fiddle concerto O’Connor recorded in 2001 with the 21-piece Metamorphosen Chamber Orchestra. “I get to be pretty free stylistically in that piece because I’m describing the experience of growing up in this country and the different things one might be challenged with,” he explains. “I delve into the jazz and blues elements in the second movement, because I wanted to reflect how most people as young adults are heavily influenced by dance music, from ragtime to swing to rock ‘n’ roll to now rap. What all those things have in common are heavily swung rhythms, which are unique to this nation. That’s what makes it American music.”
The concerto’s “Summer” movement, which corresponds to young adulthood, kicks off with “The Happy-Go-Lucky Blues”, a lazily swinging blues that radiates the carefree optimism of a 22-year-old between school and career. The tune is announced by the solo fiddle, then harmonized by the orchestral strings, and finally taken over by those strings. As O’Connor puts his melody through endless variations, he asks the basses to play walking jazz lines and the violins to play jaunty syncopation that they never learned in the conservatory.
“To play that piece, you have to know American music. The string players in Metamorphosen are young enough and impressionable enough to realize that something is out there beyond the classical world that’s valuable. I want them to meet me halfway, to add some of my style to their classical training. But I don’t want them to meet me all the way, because I’m the soloist; I want to stick out. My style is so American-based that if they’ll meet me halfway, we begin to create an American-based string music. Carol Cook, a violist, was one of those people, and now she’s a member of my Appalachia Trio.”