Roots Music at Berklee Branches Out

Kicking off the college's new American Roots Music Program, consummate American fiddler/composer Mark O'Connor brought his innovative style to a very receptive audience.
December 23, 2009

If Mark O'Connor has his way, the fiddle tune "Boil Them Cabbage Down" will be the new "Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star": a beginning point for violinists of all stripes. In his weeklong visit to Berklee, the violinist, fiddler, and composer shared his vision of a new American school of string playing, broad enough to encompass all folk and classical styles.

O'Connor's clinics, master classes, open rehearsals, and gala concert kicked off Berklee's American Roots Music Program, a focused center of study that builds on the college's rapidly growing folk music scene. Though Berklee created the acoustic string principal only three years ago, the college has some 70-odd students in that camp, said program director Matt Glaser. They include some of the acoustic music world's top prospects, including Presidential Scholar Sierra Hull.

The choice of O'Connor said a lot about what the American Roots Music Program will be: dedicated to learning from tradition but hungry to uncover the creative and complex ways that roots music styles can grow and interrelate. After all, a dyed-in-the-wool Canadian fiddler like student Kimberley Fraser—who performed the "Olympic Reel" with O'Connor—came to Berklee to branch out, she said.

A technical wunderkind after a comparatively late start on the fiddle, O'Connor quickly found a teacher who excelled at both pyrotechnic playing and composition. Benny Thomasson "would challenge me to make up my own variations" on tunes, O'Connor told the 30-person audience at a Cafe 939 open rehearsal. His other great teacher was gypsy jazz legend Stéphane Grappelli.

Years later O'Connor used those experiences to create his own violin instruction manuals, the second volume of which came out the week before the concert. (He also leads a summer fiddle camp; his former student Jakub Trasak now attends Berklee and performed with him at the concert.)

O'Connor's mature compositions take cross-pollination even further: For the last 20 or so years, he has focused on finding common ground between folk styles and classical, creating works for such luminaries as Yo-Yo Ma (Grammy-winning album Appalachian Journey) and Nadja Salerno-Sonnenberg.

Playing different styles "doesn't actually have to be as hard as it seems," he said, recounting his experience simultaneously recording a country album and writing a folk-accented classical concerto. When he listened to the violin tracks alone, without the backdrop of the other instruments, he realized they sounded deeply similar. "I think there's a way to learn and a way to play that would provide access to almost anything in American music," he said.

The goal is to move beyond crossover, he told students, where "there's two things and one has to make sacrifices to accommodate the other," into what he called "American classical music" (think Copland, not jazz). To illustrate his point, he played a development of the tune "Dill Pickle Rag" that introduced unusual harmonic colors while maintaining the characteristic ragtime rhythm.

Coming to Berklee was a perfect way to impart his philosophy to the younger generation, he said in an interview before the concert. "This is really a perfect training ground for this kind of experience. . . . Obviously, Berklee has developed a reputation for drawing the kind of students who want to be into this." Whereas in some of his many mini-residencies he has to start from the beginning, at Berklee he "looked at a lot of people's faces and it seemed to resonate with them."

He also credited the students' dedication and intensity: "They're thrown into a mix of people and music that put themselves out of their safety zone."

They certainly did. According to concerto soloist Sue Buzzard, the String Department buzzed about the visit all semester. "Everyone's heart was in it," she said. "So many people in the department look up to Mark as a hero."

Though some might view O'Connor's philosophy skeptically, the result "does sound like a musical blend," Buzzard said afterwards. "You hear this rich, beautiful orchestration . . . and these characteristic, I want to say, licks, in the melody."

With all that, the concert December 10 was an absolute knockout: almost two-and-a-half hours of stratospheric fiddling spanning genres and generations, both traditional tunes and O'Connor's compositions.

Featured artists included mandolinists Hull and Jacob Jolliff; bluegrass singer Eric Robertson; guitarist Julian Lage '08, Grammy-nominated for his recent jazz album; faculty member John McGann on octave mandolin; violinists Fraser, Julgi Kang, Ben Powell '09, and Duncan Wickel; plus the Berklee Jazz/World String Orchestra and the Berklee Contemporary Symphony Orchestra—to name a few.

For Buzzard's own turn in the spotlight, the slow second movement of the Double Violin Concerto, she had a slinky dress and even slinkier playing, following O'Connor's lead with languorous lines. Due to his kindness and lack of ego, and her own commitment to being a full partner in the violin duet, "I was able to put nervousness and tension aside," Buzzard said.

The pace rarely slowed the rest of the night, though. It's no insult to the spectacular students on stage that O'Connor mustered a sophistication in his phrasing that even the students' topmost pyrotechnics couldn't quite match.

As 20-some string players gathered for a jam onstage at the end of the night. It looked like they, and O'Connor, could go on forever. Good thing the American Roots Music Program is here to provide new resources—so these dedicated artists won't have to stop.