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Mark O'Connor on American Music

Amos 18 Aug 09 - 02:12 PM
Q (Frank Staplin) 18 Aug 09 - 03:10 PM
GUEST,TJ in San Diego 18 Aug 09 - 07:08 PM
Q (Frank Staplin) 18 Aug 09 - 07:27 PM
Fortunato 18 Aug 09 - 08:18 PM
Amos 18 Aug 09 - 08:25 PM
Gulliver 18 Aug 09 - 10:18 PM
Ernest 19 Aug 09 - 01:56 AM
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Subject: Mark O'Connor on American Music
From: Amos
Date: 18 Aug 09 - 02:12 PM

"For decades, physicists have hoped to develop a Grand Unification Theory, understanding how important physical forces might be fused into a single field. Perhaps they should consult Mark O'Connor. The esteemed fiddler and composer already has a Grand Unification Theory he applies to what American music can and should be: an artistic expression that draws much of its force from North American fiddling traditions.

As a teenager, O'Connor won so many fiddle championships that he finally had to step aside to give other young fiddlers a chance. As a young adult, O'Connor worked as a professional musician in the folk and popular worlds, perfecting his fiddle and guitar/mandolin technique and drawing inspiration from the likes of Stéphane Grappelli, Django Reinhardt, and his early mentor, Texas swing legend Benny Thomasson.

In the 1990s, O'Connor began infiltrating the classical world. Without really changing his style, he incorporated elements of various fiddling traditions into short, fully composed pieces—his breakout project was 1995's Appalachia Waltz album, with cellist Yo-Yo Ma and bassist Edgar Meyer. Before long, O'Connor was writing full-length concert works in his idiomatic American style, steadily building a catalog of concertos, symphonies, and string quartets.

All the while, O'Connor helped young string players and their teachers explore classical, jazz, folk, and world-music styles through his Mark O'Connor Fiddle Camps, and more recently a series of residencies and, as of this summer, string conferences on the East and West coasts.

Now O'Connor has begun issuing what eventually will be a 10-volume series of instructional books, the O'Connor Violin Method, written with educator Bob Phillips and published by Alfred Publishing's Highland/Etling Division. The Suzuki-inspired series will, from the very beginning, expose students to a variety of North American fiddle and violin styles, including such traditional tunes as "Soldier's Joy," "Arkansas Traveler," and "Fiddler's Dream," plus a number of O'Connor originals.

As disparate as all this activity may seem, O'Connor sees himself following a single, specific path. "It's an American music journey," he says. "What I'm doing for the first time is possibly covering most all of the bases. I think for there to be an established concept of what American music is, I have to provide examples not only in composition, developing the literature and the traditions, but also recording, teaching, doing the camps, and now trying this beginning pedagogy, which is so instrumental in getting things started for young musicians.

"The method is something I've been thinking about for 15 years, but I've been waiting, trying to distill what has come to me so intuitively as an artist over these years. As I mix in different circles—folk, jazz, classical circles—I'm able to sharpen the message I've been wanting to get across all these years."

That message, he says, is this: uniquely in the world, American music draws from a 400-year trove of fiddle pieces and folk song, an anti-establishment tradition that evolves from one generation to the next instead of remaining static.

"If you heard an Irish fiddler in 1600, most likely he would sound a lot like an Irish fiddler in 1920," O'Connor says. "That's not the American experience. In the process of settling America, with the mixture of the races and the struggles between the races, there was this pervasive energy of finding freedom, the plight of the individual, and the progress and the setbacks were recorded in our music. You talk to a Russian and there's nothing in his childhood or folk music that suggested that tomorrow is going to be a better day. Whereas in America, despite the horrible things that were taking place—including slavery and the genocide of Native Americans—the individual plight is the storyline of American music, and the music needed to develop as we became more free. We still don't have it right, but in America the individual feels like he can make a difference, and our folk music reflects this tradition of finding freedom and feeling optimism and hope for tomorrow. When you look at the languages of blues and jazz, and their freedom of expression, some of this stuff would have been outlawed in other parts of the world. Some of our music today would probably have been against the law in our own country 200 years ago.

"So even though I appreciate tradition, I'm not a traditionalist, I'm a progressive. I use traditional music to inform my creativity, and without it my creativity would not be what it is. I try to bring that history and depth in to what I'm doing.

"Crossover music or orchestral jazz, that's so empty—there's nothing behind it, it's a veneer, a misguided misunderstanding of what American music is. What I hope to do with my examples from Appalachia Waltz to the Americana Symphony is to explore the beauty and depth of our traditions and how they've developed in American music, and how this can inform a new American classical music and create a movement from it. We have great masterpieces by Copland and Gershwin and Ellington and Bernstein, but compared to 300 years of what's happened in Europe, that's just a smattering."

O'Connor is determined to break down all the barriers and divisions—not just between classical and traditional music, but among the categories of traditional music itself. "People don't understand there is a relationship between blues music and American fiddling, and without 200 years of African slave fiddlers we wouldn't have the hoedown," he says. "Because of the struggle of the races to come together through music, and because the individual always thought he or she could be free here, at least once slavery ended, we continue to play our music with whoever we want to. ..."

Full story in Strings magazine is of interest in looking at the strange flux of musical styles in which we live.

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Subject: RE: Mark O'Connor on American Music
From: Q (Frank Staplin)
Date: 18 Aug 09 - 03:10 PM

Mark O'Connor must be congratulated for his education efforts.

Many 'classical' composers have borrowed traditional tunes and dances and revised them into orchestral-choral arrangements, but O'Connor is tackling it in a way that should make more students aware of the folk roots of much American music.

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Subject: RE: Mark O'Connor on American Music
From: GUEST,TJ in San Diego
Date: 18 Aug 09 - 07:08 PM

Thanks for sharing that, Amos. Until recently, Mark O'Connor lived just north of us in San Diego County and did a lot of his composing here. He shared some of this approach with local popular audiences and with the local symphony and summer pops crowd as well. I think he may be onto something.

Preservation and fidelity to an original model are paramount to a lot of symphony and folk musicians and fans. Those are worthy goals. No one wants to lose musical history. But history is being written every waking moment. The great composers whose works we still hear today worked with folk themes from their times and locales. You can hear roots of Strauss waltzes in the rhythms and tempos of the "Oompah bands" of German beer halls, for example. He just tamed, manipulated and expanded a popular form in order to connect with a larger audience. There is a treasure trove of musical Americana waiting to be mined.

Two hundred years hence, if humans haven't all departed the scene, they may well be listening as raptly to O'Connor as previous generations did to Mozart.

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Subject: RE: Mark O'Connor on American Music
From: Q (Frank Staplin)
Date: 18 Aug 09 - 07:27 PM

Many people enjoy Monteverdi, Tallis, Bach, Guerrero, Josquin, Handel, Lully and other composers of 200-400 years ago. They will continue to do so 200-400 years from now.
Some of our modern composers are being added to that pantheon, and more will be added as time goes on. Even some of the popular music will survive.
Some composers will fall out of favor, but it is there to be rediscovered.
Folk is always a reservoir of ideas; it will not disappear.

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Subject: RE: Mark O'Connor on American Music
From: Fortunato
Date: 18 Aug 09 - 08:18 PM

Interesting Amos, I'll think about it and get back to you. Brilliant musician. Thanks for sharing. I do wonder, however, what his hat size is...

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Subject: RE: Mark O'Connor on American Music
From: Amos
Date: 18 Aug 09 - 08:25 PM


I wish you wuuld PM me your email addy or sompn. Its silly for us to be neighbors and not even talk or play once in a while.


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Subject: RE: Mark O'Connor on American Music
From: Gulliver
Date: 18 Aug 09 - 10:18 PM

Very interesting (though I may not agree with all of it) from a great musician. Thanks for sharing.

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Subject: RE: Mark O'Connor on American Music
From: Ernest
Date: 19 Aug 09 - 01:56 AM

Something to think about - good stuff!

Don, what are the parts you don`t agree with - is it the part about irish fiddlers from the 17th century sounding like those from around 1920? What would you consider the difference then? (I don`t want to say that I disagree with you there, I am just curious)


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