I started playing violin when I was in the third grade. My elementary school gave everyone a hearing discrimination test at the end of second grade and those who got above a certain score were offered in-school violin lessons in third grade. In fourth grade, everyone else could take an instrument and those who’d started on violin had the option of switching to something else. But I loved the violin. It was what I’d wanted to play anyway, mainly because I loved listening to my parents’ recording of J. S. Bach’s Brandenburg Concerti by an obscure European orchestra featuring a then-unknown young flutist by the name of Jean-Pierre Rampal.
I studied classical music exclusively, with an emphasis on baroque-style playing, until I got to grad school when I started to experiment with other styles. I quickly fell in love with Irish fiddle and spent a lot of time in Chicago-area Irish bars playing seisiuns — semi-organized gatherings of musicians who want to play traiditional tunes for free beer. I found though, that Irish wasn’t just fun to play. It helped loosen up my baroque playing by freeing me from the printed page and teaching me to listen better and understand how ornaments worked and what they did rather than just reading the ornaments off the page or following teacher instructions. Learning by ear taught me to take greater control over my interpretation and helped me get out of a rut of playing notes and start playing music.
My latest stylistic interest is bluegrass and one of the bands I’ve been enjoying a lot is The Punch Brothers. Here they are playing “Rye Whisky.” The instruments you are seeing, in case you’re unfamiliar, are fiddle, acoustic guitar, mandolin, banjo and double bass, and of course the voice. Note that the bass is mostly playing pizzicato (plucking the strings rather than using the bow), as is traditional for bluegrass (he does actually pick up the bow before he starts to play, but he doesn’t seem to use it). The mandolin, guitar and banjo play during the vocals. The fiddle sometimes drones during the vocals, but doesn’t play out except when the singing cuts out. This is actually analogous to the way instruments were used during the baroque era. It was practical — winds and bowed instruments covered up the voices in the days before amplification. Plucked instruments like lutes and harps played with keyboards like harpsichords (where the strings are also plucked) and portative organs (much smaller and quieter than church organs) and bass instruments like theorbos and archlutes and viols (bowed).
Here’s an example: the Prologo (“Dal mio promesso”) from Monteverdi’s 1607 opera Orfeo. This is not my favorite recording of the piece, but you can hear when the string section cuts in and out around the voice. The big instrument in front is, I believe, a theorbo, although without being up close and personal, I wouldn’t swear it wasn’t an archlute. They look quite similar.
Recently, The Punch Brothers’ banjoist Noam Pikelny won the first annual Steve Martin prize for Excellence in Banjo and Bluegrass. Here he is playing “Duelling Banjos” with Steve Martin on the David Letterman Show (actual playing begins around 3:40.)
Since I mostly listen to the Punch Brothers on a bluegrass station, I was unfamiliar with their forays into baroque music until a friend posted this incredible arrangement of the Allegro third movement of Bach’s Brandenburg Concerto #3. First, here is the traditional version, as played by the Freiburg Baroque Orchestra:
And here is the Punch Brothers, the same band playing Rye Whisky above with one additional violinist, the arranger of the piece Rob Moose. Note that this version includes an opening transitional section that is not part of the Freiburg recording but is part of the original piece.
I really love how the mandolin is suddenly sounding like a lute to my ears, just because of context. I love the lightness that the change in ratio of plucked to bowed strings adds. And I find I’m not thinking of it at all as a bluegrass band. It’s very idiomatic. I think Bach would be pleased with the performance. Most of all, though, I love the way I’m suddenly hearing a little baroque in the bluegrass and a little bluegrass in baroque. As an ethnomusicologist, I am unlikely to ever suggest that all music is music. That’s not how I think about it at all. As a scholar, I’m interested in the connections between the styles, connections that come from shared interests and instruments and contextual demands. As a violinist and teacher, I love working with multiple styles as a way to develop technique, skill, and playfulness that can’t help but improve musicality and a love of what you do.