Wednesday, March 4, 2009

Devolving doors

I seem to be slowly 'devolving' in how I derive joy from music as I get older. I don't know why.
When I was a schoolgirl, I played the 'cello in the school orchestra for about 6 years. I liked that I was playing music, but even back then I felt that much of the music we had to play sounded awfully fussy. All those movie theme medleys, Sousa marches stomping about, storm-at-sea symphonic excesses of every kind. It sounded to me like an endless series of fever pitch crescendos all strung together, and it made me tired. No one else seemed to feel that way. I thought maybe I was just odd...

I went through the usual teenage fervor of rock music, dutifully worshiping Jimi Hendrix, Jefferson Airplane, The Doors, The Stones, Joplin, etc. I think it was likely induced by raging hormone levels though.

Once in my twenties I settled back into gravitating towards vintage music. I explored many genres of music in my 20's and 30's, listening fiercely and absorbing subconscious things about music along the way that I would not be clearly aware of, even now. Medieval and Renaissance music, Indian ragas, Cajun, Chinese erhu, Japanese koto, Indonesian gamelan music, Puerto Rican folk music, Western Swing, Bluegrass, French and Tejano accordion, Carter Family, Gregorian chants, Buddhist chanting, bamboo flute, blues harmonica, Appalachian ballads.... they all whispered to me in tongues that I couldn't understand, but was strongly attracted to. On overload, my mind shifted into neutral and my ears took over, filtering the vast amounts of incoming listening data into some mysterious filing system of their own invention deep in my psyche somewhere. Most of this exploratory journey was unplanned and unorganized.
The one pattern I began to notice after about 20 years of this active listening, was that I seemed to be attracted strongly to the very oldest examples of each genre I became fond of. This told me something. As each genre advanced and evolved in it's own time line of existence, it became generally more elaborate as music- with more notes, more complex structure, more backup instrumentation, more chords, added instruments. My preference predictably drifted towards the simpler non-adorned earlier examples to be had. This trend continued on to my musical tastes today.

After playing several different instruments over the years (none very well), for the past 12 years or so I have settled upon the mountain dulcimer and the clawhammer/frailing style banjo as my two vehicles of musical expression. Interestingly, both these instruments make heavy use of open drone strings and open tunings. Though I didn't particularly plan it that way, it seems likely that this was no accident.

The drones are a profound attraction for me- they touch my very soul when I hear them, and if I play them myself, well all the better when they resonate through my bones! I then become the music in effect- my body literally becomes a resonating chamber, part of the whole instrument. There is something so primal and archaic about drones and old note intervals (my favorite pair being the 1-5 interval). I love that drones and intervals leave space for the soul to float in. They do not quite fill in the whole story of the tune for you like modern 1-3-5 chorded structure does so tidily. Instead, your spirit can float within the notes and drones and make it reflect your own mood- sad, happy, spooky, peaceful... each person can move and breathe within the music in their own expressive way, as though they were dancing freely in an empty room.

The very simplicity and openness of this traditional music structure is what sets me free. It sets me free from having to feel and hear and play a certain way, free from the stresses in my day, free from frustrations and limitations. I can move within the loosely woven melody and drones as I please, and take from them what I like or need, leave the rest a mystery. Simple traditional music both gives and forgives. It doesn't even ask to be played 'well' just asks to be played, nothing more. It is like a perfect love.


  1. Well put. I haven't been adventurous in my banjo playing, usually using standard tuning (gDGBD). But the one exception is using what Clarence Ashley called his "sawmill" tuning, or G modal (gDGCD). That archaic sound really resonates with me, and I use it to play Shady Grove, or the Cuckoo, or Sadie, or Red Rocking Chair,or Cluck Old Hen. But until now, I never understood what "modal" meant. I just knew I liked it, when I heard it from Clarence or Dock Boggs. So I really appreciate your blog and the comments I have seen on EverythingDulcimer that have opended up my understanding of modes and tunings.

    Ron Maness

  2. Drones are very ethereal and mysterious and in many forms of traditional music are the basis for the distinctiveness of cultural music worldwide. In my experience they capture something deep within the human spirit that expresses everything and at the same time reveals nothing but the emotional effect it has on the listener which can be so varied in it's effect it can often leave you wondering "what was that".

  3. Profound thoughts! Thanks for expressing this- I know just what you mean.

  4. Poetry, Lisa, pure poetry, and oh so true!

  5. I play medieval and renaissance music with a recorder ensemble and have always loved Appalachian music. Recently I started shapenote singing, and what you describe makes so much sense to me. Many people find the open fourths, fifths and octaves alien and primitive and just don't "get" it. Thank you for articulating this so beautifully.

  6. Express exactly what I sensed. Thank you.