Musical Ruminations, August 2005

An invitation to appear on Matt Null's House Mountain Radio program was the occasion to write out for myself a lot of thoughts on what I've been doing with music. Most of what follows flowed out of the pen in the very early mornings of the last few days, while we were guests at Scott and Judy Strang's house, deep in the woods of Amherst county. The exercise was largely a matter of the how can I know what I think until I see what I say that drives a lot of my writing, but I'm also trying to articulate just what it is I might say on the program. I decided to transcribe the scribblings to the Web to make them accessible to a wider audience. Other related pages include a more detailed but not recently updated musical autobiography, and a set of notes I wrote to accompany a tape I made in 1999 of jams with Daniel Hekalo.

I've been a collector all my life, and over the last 45+ years, music has been one of my chief manias. It's taken the forms of

Each of those *s is a separate saga, and none of them is finished or even very orderly. Each has output functions and input functions that wax and wane, but music has always been there in my life, as a constant with varying intensities in the details.

I started as a musician when I was in high school, with borrowed guitars and a few chords. I bought my first guitar at 16 --the Biltmore Ritz, a truly funky f-hole archtop of no particular distinction (probably made in the Kay factory in the late 1940s), but now a real charmer.

And why guitar and why then? What did I think I was doing? The usual ignoble motives, I'm sorry to say: impress girls. Can't say that it ever worked, but how many pimpled adolescents have invested that hope into guitars? A really hormonal thing, teenage guitar.

I was 16 just before the "folk boom" that really took off in the early 1960s. I was already aware of a lot of kinds of music, and had my ears cocked for more. I had loved Armenian and Greek music from encounters on AM radio when I was 6 (my brother David gave me a radio as a birthday present, and early Sunday mornings at the far left end of the dial there were Armenian and Greek programs)

When I was 15-16 I spent school vacation times hanging out around San Francisco, and frequented Berkeley record stores and bookstores and espresso bars --at the tail end of the Beatnik era in the Bay area. I bought a bunch of very odd records: Japanese koto, Greek folksongs, German student songs, bellydance music, Andres Segovia classical guitar. I had important musical influences who exposed me to a lot of musical variety --my brother John, from whom I learned a collection of ballads and other non-standard songs (I wrote them down... still have the notebook...), several teachers at my school who had eclectic tastes, and other family members who had collections.

Accounting for my interests in "other people's music" requires facing my taste for the exotic, which goes back a very long way, and reflects a pride in knowing things other people don't know. I'd really like to know its roots, which probably include being the much-indulged child of agd parents (the "agd p" factor?) and the youngest-by-far in a remarkably intelligent sibling set. Brother John somehow contributed substantially to my tastes and proclivities, despite not being in the household during most of my residence with my parents. I don't know when he first went away to school, but I'm guessing that I was about 5 and he was about 14; David was 21 when I was 5, and probably newly or nearly married, so he wasn't a resident factor as far as I remember. And Alice was married and gone before I was 3 (but in loco parentis for me during summers from age 5 to age 11 or so).

My parents had LPs from quite early in the development of the medium --mostly baroque and classical, but there were also some oddities contributed by my brothers and others. Tom Lehrer was an important example (we had the original pre-release issue of his first record, recorded at the studio where brother David was an engineer), but probably the most significant for me was a record by a Boston guitarist-singer-psychiatrist named Shep Ginandes, a neighbor of one of my mother's colleagues. There were also transcriptions from the TransRadio studio, some of them pretty odd, and a few forbidden to my tender ears. Hah.

I never did anything formal with music: no childhood lessons (though I did mess with clarinet in 6th and 7th grade, but never really learned to play it), and no music theory until I audited a class about 25 years ago. Up to that time it was all "by ear", and written music was a mystery to me. On the guitar, music was the shapes of chords, and patterns established by repetition. Lots of repetition. I did pick up the idea, quite early on, that the fingers of the right hand should move independently, so I quickly escaped the tyrrany of strumming and developed as a "fingerpicker". I didn't know that the rippling patterns were called arpeggios, but I knew how to do them. And gradually the left hand was liberated from the frozen chord shapes, and headed in the direction of scale patterns.

I certainly picked up elements of skills from various people who showed me things --new chords, how to do things like hammering on-- but a lot of my development as a guitar player was entirely due to my own self-study.

Scales and Modes: I have always been drawn to sounds at the fringes of the conventional and the 'popular', so distinctive approaches and unconventional instruments appealed to me from a very early age. I had an ear for non-equal-tempered scales (as in Middle Eastern music) and for what I later learned was modal music.

The essence of a mode is that it's a rule for what notes can occur in a scale, and upon which note the scale begins. It's easy to visualize on a fretted instrument, as a pattern of dots on the fingerboard, upon which patterns are worked out.

There are lots of modes, and different musics have different collections of them, and use them differently in constructing music. The seven "standard" modes of Western European tradition (actually 6 --the Locrian is basically theoretical and unused) are pretty much the core of what we call "folk music", and probably 95% of that is Ionian, Dorian, Myxolydian or Aeolian mode. The Phrygian and Lydian modes are pretty odd-sounding to normal Western ears).

These "church modes" have the basic rule that notes in the scale are are separated by 1 or 2, but not 3, notes. If you relax that rule, you get a whole family of what my friend Bob McCarthy calls "non-Goyische" intervals. Thus, a scale like 1312131 has lots of possibilities for expressive tension that just aren't in the more familar modes.

The Appalachian dulcimer is a modal machine: the frets are spaced such that any of the "church modes" can be played, just by starting the scale in one of the spaces.

Any "tune" is basically an application or an instance of RULES and variants. Generally there are notes that "can" occur, which belong to a scale or mode. There are ways to depart from the rules, to put in notes that don't belong to a scale, but "to do this you got to know how". Many kinds of music aren't very forgiving when it comes down to the rules. Bluegrass is like that: it's a CLASSICAL form, there are expectations for HOW a particular tune is to be played, and you depart from those at your peril. If you're really good, you get to inject your own ideas into your breaks, and you develop a unique voice ...but Bluegrass is ensemble music, not an easy venue for innovators and experimenters. Playing a tune as Bill Monroe or Earl Scruggs or Lester Flatt did is a pretty big challenge in itself. Adding a unique flavor of your own, as Sam Bush or Bela Fleck or Tony Rice did, means (a) being thoroughly grounded in "how it's done" in the canon and (b) having real mastery of your instrument. It's not all that hard to learn the chords of a Bluegrass or Old Time tune: they're pretty simple, mostly, but a distinctive voice requires great sensitivity to what the others in a group are playing. A study of the guitar innovations of Clarence White would make this clear.

Instruments: Each instrument has its own unique sound and specific playing characteristics and possibilities. Two guitars of the same make and model probably have similarities, but microvariations of setup and materials will be readily discernable to a player. One gets to know the personality of an instrument by playing it, and the mystique says that an instrument changes as it is played. There are too many variables in this equation for anything to be easy or obvious or predictable, and one moiety of musicians is happiest when expanding the number and range of instruments. Another moiety is loyal to a single instrument at a time, and strives to develop the unique properties and character of that one instrument.

I am of the polygamous persuasion in the matter of instruments, and I'm especially interested in uniquenesses of tone and timbre. There's really no vocabulary for the microvariations of sound and feel, nor is it clear where those qualities come from in the wood and metal. This is what inspires the builder: how to create a matrix of materials that produces a particular sound, and then how to tweak the construction to optimize particular aspects of sound and feel.

I've been buying "more instruments" for 45 years, and occasionally passing them on to other people. I don't think I've ever sold one. I started building after my 1979-1980 sabbatical, and a few of my creations have been "successful" in that they have unique and interesting voices. I'm forever imagining construction details and sonic possibilities, and scheming instruments that I may build someday.

One category of sound that I've been especially interested in is that produced by pairs of strings, and particularly by the tremolo, usually achieved with a plectrum of some sort. This interest is integral to the "mando madness" that I've experienced since 1979, when I was given a mandobanjo by Nick Apollonio, though I had already explored 12-string guitar (via a purchase in Sarawak in 1965) and had a laud built by Nick Apollonio in the mid 1970s.

I played that mandobanjo a lot during the 1979-1980 sabbatical, and in spring 1980 I bought a 1925 Gibson A1 Snakehead mandolin, while passing through Lansing MI (at Elderly Instruments). That was soon followed by a 1924 H1 mandola from George Gruhn in Nashville, and a couple of years later I found a 1918 K1 mandocello at the Music Emporium in Cambridge. Meanwhile, I built an octave mandolin (my first project), a cittern (which now belongs to Daniel Hekalo), an oud, and a buzuk. Other instruments followed, purchased as they crossed my path: bouzouki, saz, a fine Turkish oud, a cmbs, an Ovation mandocello, the mandocello and a 12-string guitar from Dell'Arte, 3 years ago the gift of a truly magnificent 1920 K4 mandocello from my wife, a Glissentar, a fretless bass... and of course there are conventional guitars, and a hurdy-gurdy and a dulcimer and... But NOW I have enough, right?

Musical genres: Before the 1979-1980 sabbatical I was intent on exploring the spectrum of North American acoustic guitar wizards, but in the late 1970s I began to investigate Celtic music, more or less at the beginning of the revival that saw the Bothy Band and Planxty come to prominence. During the sabbatical I added Klezmer and Hungarian revivals to the palette, and by the time I returned to Nova Scotia in spring 1980 I was busily transcribing tunes from those and other idioms, using a simple form of tablature, and Ron Brunton and I were working on playing the transcribed tunes, mostly in mando unison, though with some excursions into guitar-mando duets.

Rounder Records and Down Home Music and John Storm Roberts' mail order operation were my primary sources for records in the 1970s and 1980s, and each catalog led to another box at Canada Customs, and many hours of listening to the merchandise. I made several trips to Boston every year, and always returned with a haul of new disks, from Briggs & Briggs in Cambridge, and Tower Records in Boston. Sometime in the early 1980s I started to buy CDs, and gradually vinyl became less available. How many? Can't possibly say, and it's the wrong question.

The decision to use my musical resources to teach was part of the post-sabbatical reorganization of my academic life at Acadia in 1980, and came about because Fred Chipman mentioned to me that he had sat in on Bob McCarthy's Introduction to Music Theory. I did the same for the 1980-1981 academic year, and then proposed to Bob that he and I should teach a course together. Cross-Cultural Studies in Music first saw the light of day in 1982-1983, and was offered 7 times at Acadia, each iteration incorporating more new musical examples, almost entirely drawn from my burgeoning collection. Rob Kehler took Bob's place one year, and collaborated in various ways across all of the years. The course was very successful in its own terms, as an Interdisciplinary offering, and certainly developed an interested following among Acadia students and adult auditors. It was anathema to the School of Music, who refused to give Bob credit for teaching the course.

I've been following a very wide range of different musics for many years, and it's hard to know how to label the whole enterprise, without resorting to academic formalisms like "ethnomusicology". "Folk Music" and "World Music" are such clumsy labels for a vast florescence of musics. 'Folk' does encode the notion that people make music and work in musical traditions that are passed from one peson to the next, and one generation to the next... but it fits very uncomfortably as a label with the fact that a lot of that passing is commercialized now. And 'folk' sort of implies "traditional" --but it's remarkable how much the 'traditions' are somebody else's. So labels are a real problem in the worlds of musical variety, and what I seem to have is an ear cocked for novelties --for musics I haven't encountered, and for stuff that's particularly expressive.

In the Winter term of this year I had the opportunity to offer a 21st century version of Cross-Cultural Studies in Music as a University Scholars course (see the course Web pages), and thus was able to start exploring some of the issues and possibilities of digital music. My sense is that I've barely scratched the surface, and I look forward to opportunities to continue that adventure.

About the mandocello: it's easy to decribe it as "a giant mandolin", and that's pretty accurate but doesn't really convey much about the ways in which the mandocello is its own unique voice. But let's start with the mandolin: physically it's a plucked violin (same tuning and size), but with doubled steel strings, usually played with a plectrum.

violin, viola, cello, bass
mandolin, mandola, mandocello, mandobass
...they come in families
Mandolins appear in European music in the late 18th century, as successors to other plucked-string instruments like citterns and lauds and bandurrias ...which are all ultimately traceable back to the oud, a pan-Islamic lute and the ancestor of the European lute family.

Traditionally, mandolins were bowl-backed and flat-topped (and the classical mandolin family still is), but in the 1890s Orville Gibson started experimenting with flat-backed and carved-back instruments with double strings. He also carved the tops, at least in part to provide support for higher tension strings and in search of greater volume. Gibson and other manufacturers built the whole family of mandolins, and by 1900 or so there were mandolin orchestras all over North America, playing from sheet music... An industry that bloomed along with the very earliest recorded music.

So the mandocello was built and sold to take a particular voice --call it baritone-- in a plectral choir. I know of no famous early mandocellists, though there were certainly famous virtuoso mandolinists.

The mandocello is a real handful. The scale length is about that of the guitar, but it's really not much of a chordal instrument --too much stretch for a lot of chords, since it's tuned in 5ths. The guitar is in 4ths and a 3rd in its standard tuning --not so far to reach to make chords with full voices of 5-6 notes).

Mandocello was really a curiosity once the craze for mandolin orchestras faded. Very few were made by Gibson and Lyon & Healy and Martin after the mid-1920s, and they only resurfaced in the 1970s and 1980s, with (especially) the Celtic revival --but they are rare enough that there was plenty of niche space for innovation, and builders have explored bouzouki and cittern and other long-necked inventions and adaptations.

The 60s and 70s in North America produced a whole new generation of musicians, many of them steeped in traditions they recovered from old recordings ...and many of them good enough to become professional musicians. One of the things professional musicians do is COLLECT INSTRUMENTS... so there got to be an active market for vintage instruments of various sorts, and for repair technicians and for luthiers who made copies of vintage instruments and experimented with new ideas in sound and design.

So if you're a virtuoso mandolinist, a David Grisman or Sam Bush or Mike Marshall or Chris Thiele, you own a LOT of mandolins, and you get interested in the whole family. So there got to be a market for even mandocellos, and they're pretty scarce.

So prices rose.

25 years ago you could buy a really fine Gibson mandocello for around $1000. Now that same one would be $6000-$8000 or more, depending on its details ...and a custom mandocello from the "best" maker was $16,000 ten years ago, and is now over $20,000. This is crazy, but it's true.

Entry-level mandocellos are now over $1000, but there are a bunch of builders and some superb instruments being made. Most of the custom builders are mandolin and guitar makers who make the occasional mandocello. The instrument is a curiosity, and has no clearly defined function in any musical tradition. It's up for grabs, in that sense, and innovators are doing lots of creative things.

The Gibson approach to the mandocello was to enlarge the mandolin, but stay with its conventions of shape and basic construction: carved back and top. Another approach has been to put an 8-string neck on a guitar body, and one occasionally finds those --Santa Cruz Guitar Company now has such a model (at about $4000), Gibson made one (the K5) in very small numbers in the 1920s, Ovation makes one with space-age materials and electronics, and my Dell'Arte is based on a French jazz guitar design. The engineering challenge is in the tension that 8 fat strings require, and most guitar-body mandocellos have tailpieces and floating bridges, so the string tension presses DOWN on the top, instead of pulling UP as a conventional guitar pin bridge does. This means that the top needs to be shaped (a carved top is the conventional answer, its curve conveying the tension of the strings to the SIDES of the soundbox) or else it needs pretty heavy bracing, to keep the top from being pushed down by the string tension. Either "solution" changes the sound quite significantly --a mandocello really doesn't sound much like a guitar.

There are other details of body shape and materials and bracing that are interesting to luthiers. My Dell'Arte mandocello makes a nice example of a different approach to construction than that taken by Orville Gibson: it's built with a version of the Selmer guitar associated with "Gypsy jazz" and especially with Django Reinhardt. The whole construction is much lighter than the Gibson, and it has a flat top and back --and uses strings of the same type as the Gypsy guitar, wound on a copper core. I can't get the largest gauge of strings for the Dell'Arte, so I'm using strings from guitar sets, and tuning the instrument higher. The canonical tuning of the mandocello is CGDA --the low C is an .074 for the Gibson, a really fat string. I've tuned the Dell'Arte Eb Bb F C (a minor 3rd above the standard mandocello tuning). I can capo at the 4th fret to make it GDAE, the octave mandolin tuning. But since I mostly play it as a solo instrument, I'm happy with the Eb Bb F C tuning.

My approach to playing mandocello is basically scalar, across and along the whole neck, with a lot of sliding to notes, and 2- and 3-string chords. This is developed out of experiments, not from any approved method, so it's not "how to play mandocello", and it's not really scaled-up mandolin playing either. It's the outcome of 20+ years of explorations, and I'm always discovering new possibilities that I could have known about earlier...

Case in point is the IV chord in a standard blues progression in G on standard tuning or Bb on the Dell'Arte mandocello. There's a wonderful voicing that just works perfectly --it's "there" on the mandolin, but not easily reached (short neck, close frets), and the highest and lowest strings can either be left open OR they can be fretted to make a very jazzy chord. But I only discovered that chord about 3 years ago, and I'm still working out what to do with it.

My own music: I reflect that I've have never wanted to be a performer. The music I play is mostly solitary and for myself, though I really enjoy playing with other people so long as I don't have to set the agenda. In many settings, I can find what to play behind somebody else, and I'm happy to have them define the tune, and keep to it.

My collaborations with Daniel Hekalo are an exception to that 'set the agenda' clause. Our jams may trade the lead, if there is a per-se lead, and often rely upon Daniel's amazing skills to find spaces in whatever I'm playing. In any case, our excursions are only loosely tied to "a tune".

As a mostly solitary musician, I don't have to fit into existing patterns of how-it's-done. If I want to build a variation of a well-known tune, nobody is going to object or be confused, so I probably play a lot of stuff "wrong" --because it comes out of my memory and repetition. What I do is largely an oral/aural process, not written for the most part, though I do write down tablature sketches of things I discover or invent or catch by ear from recordings, and sometimes I can read my own tablature later. But what I really do is repeat patterns that please me, and sometimes they are recognizable tunes, or variations on tunes. They reside primarily in my head and my fingers.

I play my own versions of a lot of named tunes, though the array of current tunes shifts quite a bit from season to season. I've recently been resurrecting some of the Celtic ones: The Black Nag, Halting March, Galbally Farmer, Dominick's Favourite, Lanigan's Ball. What do those have in common? There's a minory something, and a rhythmic complexity or drive that I enjoy. In general they're not tunes that one hears a lot, which is perhaps the exotic at work again. It's noteworthy that I don't improvise on them --play them pretty much straight, as I learned them, but with no thought to the words for those that have words. So there are some tunes that I settle upon as somehow compelling, and the same habit leaks over into other genres. In the realm of sort-f ragtime, Alabama Jubilee is another that I play pretty much straight, and Black Bottom Strut too. Both seem such mandocello naturals, but that's probably because I have played them so many thousands of times.

In the last month it's been Dallas Rag/Moving Day, which I wrote down from hazy memory on 11 July while waiting for the moving van. I've been surprised that sometimes I can't remember how it starts --I don't have an effective mnemonic for its tricky first phrase, but I've developed a bunch of voicing variants for its backbone, and sometimes I have to work through those to get it going. It'll be interesting to get the original Dallas Rag out and learn how far from the original my reconstruction is. I haven't done that sort of thing with all that many tunes (i.e., without listening to the original), though the habit of working over a tune hundreds of times is pretty well established as modus operandi.

The improv side of things is really quite different I think. It often starts with a figure or a specific scale, and builds outward. There are plenty of repeating patterns or motifs, but in general the exercise is scalar: there's some mode that I move in and out of, generally without paying much attention to what it is, what the notes are. The fingers seem to know where the next notes are, but that may be just long-running habits, and I may not realize how repetitious what I think of as "free improv" actually is. Most of what emerges might be halves of what I'd play with Daniel, though I'm not aware of it as named tunes (indeed, naming of our improv pieces is something that comes along long after they're recorded and played back lots of times, and is generally joking reference to something that happened as the improv unfolded).

When doing improv with other people, the challenge is to LISTEN and figure out what's COMPLEMENTARY. With the solitary it's a matter of pleasing yourself with sound and sequence, developing patterns that stretch out over time and voice what you want to say. Neither approach is rule-bound, and both are continually challenging the player to make it INTERESTING. And both are ephemeral: you aren't trying to play the same thing over and over again, and in fact what's really satisfying is when you play something differently, in some surprising way that you may or may not be able to repeat.

Clytemnestra's Wobble is one of those golden moments that just happened, and just happened to get recorded. Could it be played again? I doubt it. That's what's so wonderful about it, and the moment was captured because Daniel started the tape.

The piece uses a saz-like looooong-neck instrument I built:

Pogo 1997

and the K1 mandocello, strung in octaves and played with a metal slide. The first cup of coffee was on the table and I happened to strike a chord on the far edge of consonance on the saz, which was in a very odd tuning. Daniel picked up the mandocello and slide and answered it. I said, "let's turn on the recorder..." and we just started to play. About 10 minutes later we stopped. How many hundreds of hours like that weren't recorded?

Then there are some tunes that are really mine, though they may be derived from something or include parts that quote other tunes. There's one that quotes Jamie McMenemy's Rabbit tune in its B part, but the A part follows what seems like the logic of the mandocello's neck, descending major and minor 3rds. Another is the core of the tune that I call Appalachia, a pattern or riff in the Skip James D minor guitar tuning that anchors what seem at this point to be obvious figures, dictated by the possibilities of the fretboard --though that's nonsense,because ALL the notes are there and I'm just choosing a few that happen to be consonant with particular patterns.

The freedom of being a closet musician, and not a public performer, is that I don't have to keep to one thing if I think of something else. I'm trying to please or interest nobody but myself, and what it's really all about is the further development of my own skills. I suppose that someday I'll be physically not able to play things I can play now, but my sense is that I'm still learning, still "getting better", still in the mode of active discovery that I've been following for 45+ years. I'll never outrun the capacities of my instruments --they're good enough that they certainly don't limit what I can do, and I continue to discover new things to do with them. Many of those disappear into the slipstream, even if I do write them down (it's difficult to recover complexities from sketchy/skeletal notes) and I'm not sure if I'll be able to contrive the means to record and then manage sound snippets effectively ...but I do in fact have the requisite technologies at hand, if I just start thinking about using them. That's worth working on.