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Music from America’s Roots has Surprising Influence

One of my students is working on a project involving Short Trip Home, off of the album Heartland: An Appalachian Anthologyso I’ve spent a fair amount of time listening to it, and analyzing it with her, and I have three thoughts to share with you in regards to this music.

  1. Lately it seems as though superstar soloists are getting bored just going the rounds playing the same fifteen concertos over and over again. Violinist Hilary Hahn just finished a really cool project where she commissioned 27 short pieces for her to use as encores at her concerts, then recorded them all (you can find the results here). Yo-Yo Ma has been searching for new music with his Silk Road Ensemble for over a decade at this point. Ma, along with Joshua Bell and double bass virtuoso Edgar Meyer, have now put out a handful of albums with musicians more known for the American fiddle scene than the classical. All of this innovation and searching for new connections can only lead to good things for music fans – not just classical music fans, but music fans at large.
  2. This is simple music. It is also great music. Classical music has a bit of a reputation for being heady stuff – you’re only supposed to be able to “get it” if you’re brainy. I would contend that while there is plenty of great music out there that is complex, it is not complexity that makes music great. I’ll even take that a step further – if music needs complexity to be great, than it isn’t really great in the first place. We love Bach’s fugues because of the great cathedrals he builds, not because we have to think about the music to get it. While Brahms was a terrific illustrator of his ideas, a fantastic idea is always at the core of what’s being illustrated; otherwise it’s all just fluff. The music that’s being presented here is a great example of music that succeeds at being beautiful without going to great lengths to be artistic.
  3. I made a discovery a few weeks ago that may be coincidental, but I think it’s still pretty nifty. Listen to the first phrase in the violin. It’s a melody that uses very few notes – five in fact. The five notes are A, B, D, E, and F#, and they form the core of the music – I’d like to say that 80% of the music revolves around those five notes. It doesn’t sound like it because of the context that the guitar provides, but that’s actually a pentatonic scale – a scale which is traditionally associated not with old timey Americana, but with the Far East. Again, I don’t know whether or not it’s a coincidence, but how poetic for music which comes from the bowels of the American musical past to feature a scale which was borrowed from another culture.
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2 thoughts on “Music from America’s Roots has Surprising Influence

  1. The pentatonic scale is very much associated with American fiddle & folk music, as well as Irish, English & Scottish fiddle! I’ve always found it odd that classical musicians associate it more with East Asian music (though I’m sure it’s prevalent there too).

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