Violins and Fiddles: Roots Music Reigns at Boston’s Conservatories
Roots can dig deep and spread wide, but first they need solid ground. Luckily, the old marshes of Boston – with their old English name, the fens – have been steadily filled in since the 1600s, so that only a relatively small ribbon of the old wetlands remains. The name survives most prominently in Fenway Park, what John Updike so beautifully calls that “lyric little bandbox of a ballpark,” the home of the Boston Red Sox. Yet in the old fenways, something else that’s just as American as baseball has been brewing apace in the past decade. From Lake Street Dive to Sarah Jarosz, members of the Stray Birds and Crooked Still, the Berklee College of Music and the New England Conservatory of Music have been helping to shape some of the best roots music artists in the country.
Founded in 2009, Berklee’s American Roots Music Program was born of the college’s string department and its students’ increasing interest in folk music, with the late bluegrass/jazz mandolinist John McGann at its heart. With McGann’s influence and Berklee string alumni like Chris Pandolfi, Casey Driessen, David Rawlings, and Susan Tedeschi among its ranks, it was only a matter of time before a roots music program formed. The program now encompasses the multitude of styles contained in American roots music: “blues, gospel, folk, early country music, bluegrass, old-time, Cajun, western swing, polka, and Tex-Mex, among others.” On its board are roots music giants like Darol Anger, Liz Carroll, Béla Fleck, Ted Gioia, Leo Kottke, Sean and Sara Watkins, Keb’ Mo’, Geoff Muldaur, Ricky Skaggs, Joe Walsh, and Jay Ungar.
Walsh – the mandolinist for the Gibson Brothers and Mr. Sun, who has also accompanied Emmylou Harris, Fleck, Skaggs, and many more – came to Berklee as a student in the early 2000s. He laughs at the recollection of his solitude then, remembering, “There were no mandolin teachers here when I applied. There was one guy playing the banjo – Chris [Pandolfi], the banjo guy – [and] I thought, ‘Well, if he can do it, why can’t I?’” Even as an outsider, instrument-wise, Walsh found the string department welcoming and helpful. He explains: “The Berklee approach to how you dissect music, to organize it,” was crucial to him as a student – and, now, as a teacher: “My goal was always to make people aware of the bedrock.”
For Walsh, that bedrock was bluegrass artists like Flatt & Scruggs and Bill Monroe. “In bluegrass,” he explains, “there are so many different styles – crosspicking on the guitar, banjo, mandolin, fiddle.” Despite the fact that bluegrass is often considered an unschooled craft, other students with classical training were becoming interested in that medley of styles when he was a student. The result was a slow-growing community of roots music collaborators. Indeed, Walsh says, “collaboration was a huge and valuable part of my Berklee experience – playing in a conversation without words.”
Today, he works closely with around 15 students; the roots music program has close to 50. One of his recent seminars had Walsh’s students working on a Darol Anger fiddle tune. Anger, who’s also on the Berklee faculty, was in the room, playing with the students. “One of the first records I ever heard had [Anger] on it,” says Walsh.
Anger remembers Walsh as a student, and gladly keeps company now with him as a fellow instructor and bandmate in Mr. Sun. Their band finds fertile soil in the Boston-area music scene. Indeed, says Anger, Boston was a perfect place for the American Roots Music Program to find roots itself: “[It] has always been such a great place for the roots scene – jug band people, everyone. And so many people from the earlier days are still here in the area; they come in to do programs.”
There’s always something to draw students toward American roots music. Anger believes that movies that have had a big cultural impact on the swell of rootsy music in recent years. “Bonnie and Clyde – and the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band – influenced me,” he says. “Then came Deliverance and O Brother, Where Art Thou? And then there’ll be another movie coming out … . No art exists without context. The history of, say, Western culture is a great conversation – it goes back to Socrates and Plato. … Our job is to provide context for raw musicians – it’s our sacred duty to a student.
“If you have a jazz piano player,” he explains, “you go back to Ravel, Debussy, to Chopin, as well as African-American melodic traditions. It just keeps being recombined.”
This recombination of musical styles and influence is what makes Berklee a draw for serious players. Its roots program is flexible and informal, with many ensembles and shifting lineups. How do you get into it, as a student? Anger laughs. “Just walk over to Glaser’s office and say, ‘What’s the next thing? Can I be in it?’ That sort of very informal air is one of the program’s real strengths.”
As a result, the roots music program, run by artistic director Matt Glaser, is full of students already gaining attention – and recording contracts – for their art. Walsh says to look out for one of his current students, mandolin player Jake Howard. “We’re in such a special position, where we see kids coming up,” he says. “Whatever [Jake] does, it’ll be worth listening to.” Anger mentions Celtic fiddle player Kathleen Parks, whose group Twisted Pine is making a name for themselves. He also names Isabella Burke, the daughter of two New England musicians who learned to play the fiddle at home and, at Berklee, is branching into jazz. Quinn Bachand, a Canadian-born roots musician who is only eighteen, set audiences at Folk Alliance alight with his guitar mastery last weekend. At Berklee, he’s already learned to supplement his own ear with a chord and can now read music for the guitar. Says Anger, “With students like Quinn, people who come in with a lot of talent – well, we want them to come out with this extra firepower and assurance.”
Many students coming out of Berklee can look forward to the same kind of success as other notable alumni, including the Stray Birds, of whom Walsh speaks proudly. Their self-titled debut was one of NPR’s Top 10 Folk/Americana Albums of 2012. Bassist Charlie Muench, fiddler and guitarist Oliver Craven, and multi-instrumentalist Maya de Vitry had their first big gigs together in 2012 in and around Boston and Cambridge. Further, four of the five young men in the Lonely Heartstring Band met at Berklee – the fifth, bassist Charles Clements, was at the New England Conservatory (NEC).
A Different Kind of Tradition
Tradition was what brought one of NEC’s most prominent graduates of the past two decades, Aoife O’Donovan, to the school. Steeped in roots music thanks to her Irish-American family and time with them in County Cork, as well as her own deep interest, O’Donovan says, “I wasn’t trying to study roots. I was lucky to learn more about non-roots styles I didn’t know as much about.” This was fortunate, for when she arrived, NEC, like Berklee in the same days, had no roots. In her Contemporary Improvisation course, O’Donovan sang what she was presented with and went gladly “out of my comfort zone,” she recalls.
“I knew Irish music, klezmer music, and I was having to sing jazz, someone’s new composition. Now, there’s roots [music classes]. Even fiddle teachers. I’m actually happy it wasn’t like that when I was there,” she says, laughing. “It was a really different time, just pre-O Brother, Where Art Thou,” the 2000 movie that brought roots music to many new ears, thanks to its Grammy-winning soundtrack. The 15 years since have been a watershed in terms of change in the music world, O’Donovan notes: “So much has changed with how people consume music and learn it. Young people are exposed to so much – there are fiddle camps, access to different genres, so many pieces to the quilt now.”
Composer, musician, and writer Hankus Netsky is the chair of Contemporary Improvisation at NEC. He’s also in the Jazz Studies department and directs the Jewish Music Ensemble. In his spare time, he directs the Klezmer Conservatory Band, which he founded in 1980. Netsky agrees with what O’Donovan said, that “roots music is really changing the face of music” today, but breadth, and not a focus on roots music specifically, is what NEC offers.
Instead, the conservatory teaches solid, technical, music fundamentals; the kind of creativity that innovates roots music, while fostered there, is a student’s own. “You need to have your roots somewhere, yes,” Netsky says, “but it’s not about developing as a ‘roots musician.’ … We don’t embrace the narrow track on anything. Musical training here, what we can give students, are skills and concepts. And then they take their music where they want to go. … You can’t teach the creativity. You can teach the concepts and skills.”
When it comes to prominent roots-musician graduates, Netsky, like O’Donovan, points to NEC’s diversity as crucial. “Roots music performers do not come out of a vacuum,” he says. “Our point is that everyone’s got a lot of voices … . The whole point in education has to be around that. If you can live your life in one music scene and be successful, then bless you. Our vision is very different.”
Reflecting on the history of NEC, where he was once a student himself, Netsky says: “We were fortunate enough 42 years ago to have a president, Gunther Schuller, who said we’re going to have a very different kind of music here. He’d noticed on the streets of New York in the 1950s that there was music brewing that the music schools knew nothing about. I mean, Thelonious Monk went to Julliard prep – but then where’d he go for further study?”
Schuller brought jazz to NEC as a degree-granting program, the first at a major classical conservatory, in 1969. He then hired Ran Blake to be the first chair of what was once called Third Stream (the stream created when classical and jazz flow together), and is now Contemporary Improvisation. “Ran Blake’s tradition,” which Netsky espouses and follows, “is not about patterns, it’s about knowing a song really well, about using repertoire, technique, along with life experience. We can’t teach creativity – we can teach technique.”
All the students in Contemporary Improvisation, now close to 50 in number, have two years of ear training. That’s non-negotiable. “That’s the point,” says Netsky. “You have to have models. You have to have mentors.” In an audition, for example, he’ll “listen to whatever the latest trend is and I hear some licks, chords, and patterns – but I’m not impressed. I’m impressed when I hear a musician who knows a lot of music. We emphasize repertoire. You can’t learn songwriting from a book. You learn it from knowing a lot of songs.” You can hear this play out in the music of the artists pouring out of the program: O’Donovan, Sarah Jarosz, Lake Street Dive.
Netsky finds any more narrow program, for college-level students, “a little bit of a cop-out. … Music is about collaboration, about extending boundaries. … The students come in as what they do – the indie rockers, the bluegrass kids – and then they get together and they’re like, huh. Well, this is what it’s really like in the world of music. You have an ensemble with an indie rocker, a bluegrass musician, a classical violinist … .” Ensembles at the conservatory today include groups that play Persian, African-American, contemporary gospel, Brazilian choro, and a host of other “roots musics.” At NEC, roots musicians come from China, Korea, Syria – not only America. Netsky points to Syrian oud player Kenan Adnawi as a student who came to the attention of composer and saxophonist John Zorn at NEC and ended up with a recording contract. “We’re preparing people for a career in a truly multicultural world,” Netsky says.
He laughs happily as he speaks of former student Jarosz. “She raves about the program because she could have been on the road, gone for it as someone pigeonholed as ‘the new bluegrass girl.’ Instead she was playing in free improv ensembles; she took a year off from working with me because she wanted to just totally reimagine what she could do on the mandolin.” Rachael Price – frontwoman of Lake Street Dive – came to NEC and its jazz program with a background in Southern gospel tradition, and little exposure, Netsky remembers, to other music: “When she handed in her first test, it was blank.”
The instructors at NEC shape students’ learning experiences, certainly, in a way that simply heading out on the road with one’s instrument cannot begin to do. “What [students] find when they get to NEC are faculty who are the real thing. They’re not famous because of a publicist. They’re not on NPR or on [TV] shows all the time. They’re people who really understand how to train a creative musician in our era, conceptually, with repertoire. There are so many aspects to the training. … What do you not want to learn? How can you not want to learn Bach, Lester Young, Louis Armstrong? I don’t care what kind of music you’re doing. You’re going to learn about music history.”
Netsky is palpably proud of students who have learned how to shape, and continue to refine and redefine, their individual music in the wake of their NEC training. “Aoife can really tear up a jazz ballad,” he notes. “And Sarah, Aoife, Rachael, Bridget [Kearney], John Medeski, Don Byron, they’re our best recruiters right now,” Netsky says. “All musics are serious,” and NEC wants its students exposed to as many forms of music as possible. What then? “Develop their own creative voice – and bring something to the world that the world doesn’t have.”
What the World Has Now
Having no barriers means creativity has to come from well-honed instinct, which is what Berklee and NEC now focus on. That, and collaboration. Price, Kearney, Mike Calabrese, and Mike Olson met as students at NEC and began performing together in 2004 under the name Lake Street Dive, chosen in honor of an arterial east-west street full of clubs and bars in Olson’s native Minneapolis. For the better part of a decade, they performed as a quartet and, individually, with other bands, but they hit mainstream success just a couple of years ago – thanks to YouTube, intense touring, and T Bone Burnett.
The collaborative spirit that Netsky, Walsh, and Anger extol is at the heart of groups like Lake Street Dive. Everyone writes the songs they record, and the songs themselves can become more altered, according to the band’s trumpeter Mike Olson, when they’re played live. “When we record a song, that’s just a snapshot of where it was at that moment. And it continues to grow as we perform it.” The intimacy and small, dark club feeling that the band’s name implies extends to their newest album, Bad Self Portraits. The self-portraits, or shifting snapshots, there show the many places the band’s coming from, with ballads and swing and soul all wrapped up in harmony. It seems likely that the melding of musical forms is just what Netsky and NEC’s instructors not only foster, but insist on, in the school’s unmatchable Contemporary Improv education.
A year ago, students in the Contemporary Improv program organized an evening that speaks directly to the depth and breadth of American music currently at NEC. For “Music: Truth to Power” in February 2014, students improvised on Bob Dylan’s “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall” and played the traditional hymn “Are You Washed in the Blood of the Lamb.” Compositions included reflections on war, an “original Irish Nationalist Ballad,” and pianist Alexandra Greenwald’s “An Empty Glass,” described as a “jug band tongue-in-cheek song.” In February 2015, NEC’s performance of medieval mystic Hildegarde von Bingen’s “Ordo Virtutum” featured an arrangement of Tom Waits’s “Heartattack and Vine,” American sacred harp music, and a Korean exorcism dance arranged by student Do Yeon Kim, who plays and composes for the gayageum. “That,” laughs Netsky, “is the way we got rid of the devil.”
This is certainly a far cry from the classical music that dominated these schools until fairly recently. But, as Netsky notes, not only faculty but alumni – like O’Donovan and members of Lake Street Dive – have changed the conversation in terms of musical study and performance. Courses at NEC now include Issues and Trends in American Music, Film Noir, and The Music of Billie Holiday.
Demand has increased supply at both Berklee and the New England Conservatory. Student interest in roots music, and its rise as a popular form that’s no longer confined to the back porch at sundown or a camp meeting, drives and feeds both the successful American Roots Music Program at Berklee and increasing numbers of young people working in the Contemporary Improvisation and Jazz S`tudies programs at NEC. Increasingly, students are given broad foundations in music, and then are encouraged to paint their masterpieces in a style of their own creation. Mandolins and banjos keep company, and make music with, cellos and violas. Now, in the halls of these musical conservatories, the question may well arise: Is it a fiddle, or a violin? And the answer just might likely be: both.
Photos, from top to bottom: Mr. Sun, Quinn Bachand, I’m With Her (publicity photos courtesy of the artists).