Old World or New, Sacred or Profane

Saturday, January 27, 2007

The Kitchen Musicians

For, I guess, nearing 20 years now, Sara and Maynard Johnson have published books and recordings, and performed at re-enactments and historically themed events. They perform and publish music of the Renaissance through to the American Civil War. They also publish articles on the music and customs of those periods.

Sara plays various hammer dulcimers, harpischord, spinet, piano, cittern, and pocket fiddle (also called a kit or pochette). Maynard plays recorders and flageolets (aka whistles) of various types, cittern, and English guitar. Together with a variety of others, depending upon the venue, they make up the group Rogue's Consort.

Their web site, www.kitchenmusician.net, has long been a source for others who play that kind of music, especially for the hammer dulcimer community.

A few weeks ago I was alerted, through a hammer dulcimer friend, who learned about it through a hammer dulcimer web list, that the Kitchen Musician site has a new CD, Oceans So Green, with cello on it.

Well, this was something new. None of their other recordings had cello, but sure enough, Maynard played cello on this new CD. The music they perform is what we do, so to keep abreast of the field, I ordered that CD along with their previous one, Pass'd Times. I've heard them now, and: Well done, Maynard! While I wasn't around back then, it seems to me this CD shows very well what role cello would play in this genre during that period.

About half the tracks of Oceans So Green have cello to one degree or another; on some it's hardly noticeable. Two of the tracks, Carolan's Receipt and The Night Before Larry Was Stretched, have very prominent pizzicato cello melody. Their website contains a sample of The Night Before Larry Was Stretched.

Now, Maynard is clearly not a conservatory-trained cellist practicing the great classical concertos 6 hours a day. He's a relative beginner playing in a physical manner that departs from modern orthodox cello technique. But then, the real people that played this music those centuries ago had hard lives with hard labor day jobs, limited education opportunities, and very limited spare time. That's the true HIPP!

I've been in contact with Maynard, and I'd like to conclude with his own words:

"I started playing cello before we recorded the Pass'd Times Album, just didn't use it on the album.

"We have been going to the Jink & Diddle School of Scottish Fiddling for 15 years or so. Since I don't play fiddle, I had tried playing accompaniment on guitar or ten string cittern, but wasn't happy with that. A lot of the music published by 18th century fiddlers includes a bass line, often described as for violincello, harpschord or pianoforte. The great 18th century Scottish Fiddler, Niel Gow, often played with his brother Donald accompanying him on cello. There's a painting of them which also appears on Highland Games T-shirts. Donald is the one playing cello in a kilt, with baroque grip (no end pin) and underhand viol grip on the bow.

"I've also seen other pictures of 18th century cellist playing in the same position. It's not surprising, since the bass viola da gamba is about dead on the size of a cello, and had no end pin. Neither did the cello until maybe about 1800. Some of the old descriptions refer to the cello as the "bass". In an age when your primary method of transport was your feet, a cello is about as big as anyone could handle.

"Since we perform in a variety of historic settings for that time period, I wanted to stick with the period style as much as possible. We often perform as a trio, with Sara on hammered dulcimer, Michael Thompson (or John, or Carmen) on fiddle, and me on cello. Paul Gifford's book on the history of the hammered dulcimer says that a typical performance ensemble for dulcimer in the 1700s was dulcimer, fiddle and cello.

"As a practical matter, when the cello is in a viol or baroque position, underhand bow grip makes a lot of sense. With a baroque grip, the strings are almost straight up and down, and with a modern overhand bow grip, gravity is NOT your friend; the bow wants to slide down to the floor. A practical advantage of my archaic playing style is that I take up a lot less floor space than a cellist with an end pin. When you are playing for gambols in Colonial Williamsburg's Chowning's Tavern, having a small footprint is essential. An end pin would be a safety hazard.

"Some of my backup style comes from instinct, and years of playing and teaching backup guitar for dances and instrumental folk music in the 80s and 90s. And some of it comes from the bass lines written in the music from the 1700s. On the Oceans so Green CD, on those tunes identified as Bunting's arrangement, the cello backup is from Bunting's bass line. On So Merrily Dance the Quaker, the cello line comes from Henry Beck's copybook. Both Bunting and Beck has some bass line ideas that I had not thought of on my own.

"One of the things I love about cello in this setting is that it is much lower in pitch than typical folk backup instruments, such as guitar. It thus almost never doubles with or overlaps the melody notes of the dulcimer or fiddle, and it gives the combined performance a much fuller tonal range. And unlike a guitar, the cello can do pizzacato bassline, detache bowed notes, or long bow slurred notes, or a bowed ground, which makes it more flexible.

"Sometimes I do have to remind myself that I am not the lead instrument. "Remember, you're not Pablo Casals or Yo-Yo Ma; or even James Oswald; you're Donald Gow and you are playing bass accompaniment." And when, like Donald Gow, I play wearing a kilt, I have to remind myself about how to sit down and how to stand up and where the cello should be at which times.

"My cello is a late 19th century Mittenwald instrument, and has pretty good projection and tone, so I can play bass under or behind several fiddles and still hear myself and be heard. My bow is a snakewood bass gamba bow from Shar. My case is a beat up and sprung fiberglass monster that is waiting for Shar to have another sale on cello cases.

I've been hoping that some junior high and high school history teachers will find out about the album and use it as we approach St. Patrick's Day."


PinkFluffySlippers said...

Sounds like some great inspiration for you, and more evidence that cello has a proper place in folk music. Do you know if any of the sheet music is available?

Gottagopractice said...

This is fascinating. Thanks for the recommendation, and the great interview.