Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Twang Darkly -- One of 10 Hot Groups in Shreveport

According to Shreveport's The Forum, Twang Darkly is one of 10 Must-See Acts That Will Make Your Summer Sizzle!

The article quotes me briefly -- here are my full answers about Appalachian music and the dulcimer from which the quotations were pulled:

  1. Twang Darkly's music, while not old-fashioned itself, seems to have old-fashioned roots. What led you to an appreciation for this type of folk music?

    My appreciation of Appalachian folk music developed somewhat indirectly through an affinity for 1970s English folk-rock groups (Jethro Tull, Pentangle, Gryphon, etc.) who were drawing upon medieval and Renaissance era folk music from England and Scotland. Such music stirred and intrigued me -- all the more so to the degree that it mixed less modern sounding approaches with its rock. Appalachian music (not the relatively recent offshoot Bluegrass, but the more "primitive" modal repertoire for fiddle, dulcimer, and voice) is actually evolved from the same source material (and a few others) for reasons of immigration. Given the relative isolation of Appalachian culture in America through the early to mid 20th century, Appalachian music is a bit like peering into the past, as a lot of the older song structures have been preserved, if through a glass darkly.

    Since I'd grown up in North Carolina and had been encountering mysterious hints of early music every summer vacation in Appalachia for most of my life, all these musical interests coalesced around the mountain dulcimer that I purchased around the time I went to college. Coincidentally, my parents also moved to the mountains around that time, so summers for me became quests to find (or invent) knowledge about the dulcimer and how I could use it to make music like the stuff that I wanted to hear. Not coincidentally, I joined a troupe of roving musicians in a Renaissance dinner theater in this same period and began to use my mountain dulcimer in that context, writing original music with an early music feel.

    More broadly, I have a fascination with lost art and knowledge as the hidden roots of creative influence. With the blues, for instance, if you get beyond strictly contemporary "12-bar" stuff and start to dig, you readily start to uncover shared roots with much older African musics, especially so with the kind of stuff you can hear in Mali and other north/west African locations. Some folks don't realize that the banjo, for instance, is evolved from African instruments and that this somewhat secret history of the banjo and its sounds is intriguingly tied up with the development of blues and jazz. These kinds of connections dwell deep in the roots of things and such lore can be a powerful source of inspiration and curiosity.

  2. Why is the dulcimer your instrument of choice?

    The Appalachian dulcimer (or "mountain dulcimer") has a hypnotic magic to it that greatly influences how I play guitar, banjo, and other instruments, as well as how I compose. Because the dulcimer has a diatonic fretboard (like a guitar missing some frets), it's ideally suited to playing modal music (music that is focused upon utilizing particular scale patterns beyond the typical do-re-mi..., often with a strong identity maintained around the root note through drones, pedal points, or recurring motifs -- Miles Davis's "So What" is a famous example). In fact, the "traditional" approach to playing dulcimer utilizes two strings as drones against which a modal melody moves on the remaining string. I don't feel limited to this use of the instrument, but, even so, I also don't try to escape this "mode and drone" orientation. It works almost like choosing the ground rules for poetry -- if you decide to write a sonnet, for instance, it's going to have a distinctive feel to it versus a villanelle or free verse. Such constraints actually foster altered states of creativity. Because you can retune a dulcimer, or use a capo to actually select from different modes, it's essentially designed to let you toggle between different creative spaces.

    It turns out you can apply this same kind of thinking to other instruments as well, especially if you make use of alternative tunings that allow for interesting drones, etc. So, in a sense, even when I play guitar, I'm often channeling my dulcimer-imagination and it's influenced everything I do musically.

Friday, June 15, 2012

live Twang: Bright Angel Canyon

see also: studio recording of "Bright Angel Canyon"

This is a new Twang Darkly arrangement of some musical ideas that I've been playing in a variety of forms since the early 1990s. This performance, at the Shreveport Farmers' Market, is one of the first times we've played this one out in the world.

Last year, I utilized some of these same ideas, sans the epic bridge that we're now doing, to create a peppy little recording arrangement I called "Another Home". I've toyed around with bringing it to the band for a while, but its many-dulcimers arrangement simply wasn't cut out for our trio.

But my memory rescued me, and I was able reintegrate the epic bridge section into a more appropriate piece that we'll be able to develop nicely, I believe. Even in its earliest forms, I'd always used lots of river canyon related names for this music, and this time around it really suggested to me the eye-opening experience of coming upon Bright Angel Canyon (a major vista of the Grand Canyon) for the first time.

Wednesday, June 6, 2012