Mark O'Connor: Living On The Cracks

By: Dennis Cook

Mark O'Connor
Not everyone can communicate without words. Getting meaning, feeling and narrative across using nuance and texture instead of defined syllables is beyond the grasp of many musicians. Yet, Mark O'Connor has always told vivid tales with his violin and compositions. From his early pithiness as a Nashville session hot shot through innumerable award winning projects in the jazz, bluegrass and classical fields, O'Connor has shown himself a remarkable storyteller, eliciting laughs, scares and sighs with ease, a wordless screenwriter who's thrilling and calming by turns and never wants for emotional oomph.

Since first rising to prominence as a teenage national champion on fiddle, as well as guitar and mandolin, in the early 1970s, O'Connor has remained an active, hugely diverse voice in American music, predictably high quality at all times but unpredictable in every other respect. Where one release may find him sculpting a folk mass, another may be a series of intimate duets or art-ed up mountain music. His large group works in recent years reveal an even more exhaustively vigorous and musically authoritative mind than even his ridiculously laudatory career had already hinted at. Beyond being a superb soloist and violinist of the first order, O'Connor the composer possesses a brilliance that harnesses some of the playful wit of Carl Stalling, the melodic dexterity of Duke Ellington, the brainy conceptualizing of Charles Mingus, the ingenious arranging skill of Gil Evans and the heat and speed of Louis Armstrong, all incongruously yet perfectly touched by immigrant folk elements and hillbilly spirit. In Mark O'Connor's work we find just about all the sweet meat of American music stirred to utter perfection.

On March 10, 2009, the man who once garnered "Musician of the Year" honors six years running (1991-1996) from the Country Music Association released his first symphony, Americana Symphony: Variations On Appalachia Waltz (OMAC Records). Conducted by Marin Alsop and performed by the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra it is a moving, evocative, tremendously ambitious addition to the modern classical canon and further confirmation of the admiration and creative fellowship he's enjoyed with contemporary masters like Yo Yo Ma and Edgar Meyer, as well as further evidence that the guy can handle and excel at everything from salty sailor reels to swing jazz to commercial country and every damn thing in between and beyond.

Mark O'Connor sat down for a lengthy discussion of his symphony and some of the many roads that lead to its creation. We are honored to share a slice of his time and certainly learned a thing or twelve about music in the larger sense and American music in particular in our talk with him.

JamBase: The natural place to begin is with the new symphony. As a non-musician, I find the whole concept of trying to compose something of that scope, that scale, something you give to that many other people to realize, just daunting as hell. How did you approach writing your first symphony?

Mark O'Connor: It is a daunting task, and more than that, it's something many composers never really get to, for various reasons. One is the undertaking of this kind of thing is very long and by the time you have the talent and technique and experience to do something like this often people are very busy in their lives. What I had to do was set aside a lot of things. My other output and my career, in some ways, kind of suffered for taking this year off, and even my playing took a backseat. At one point, I literally hung up the violin for a couple months just to try to get this going and actually finish it. I started in with some trepidation but feeling like I could handle it based on the six concertos I'd composed before. And about halfway through the symphony I realized what an undertaking it was, having the whole orchestra be the sole voice that communicates the musical idea to the audience.

JamBase: That's very different to the soloist mentality of bluegrass and a lot of the other music you've played.

Mark O'Connor: You're right, I've been a soloist my entire life [laughs].

In your professional career you've been brought in a lot for session work, which is very spot-specific, where your instrument is brought into the context of this other thing already in progress. This is the diametric opposite of that, where you're letting it all go to a lot of other players.

I was gaining confidence in the last 20 years in my composing abilities, and I think this was a way to put it on the line and really assess myself as a composer apart from being a dynamic soloist/composer.

I wanted to pick your brain a bit about the title, Americana Symphony. What are the characteristics of Americana as it applies to symphonic work? What are the American characteristics that come into this very European model?

Mark O'Connor
Well, metaphorically it can be a proper usage for many different things in different genres and art forms. So, I looked at the scope of the symphony as creating a story or a film or a novel or an expansive painting or a series of photographic portraits, something like that where the symphony becomes American in how I was going to treat it. And the violin is also European but given the proper context, pulling in from the language of American culture, is what I was out to do.

For a number of years I've been creating this philosophy of what American music is. It started from a lot of people from the classical community asking me what it is, and over the years I've created different parts of this story – so to speak, the American Story – musically through my compositions. "Appalachia Waltz" itself is part of that story. It reflects the journey in one part of it and the feeling of the wide-open spaces in another part. So, I take the wide-open spaces, the journey and the melting pot culture as the three major influences into the making of an American musical art form.

I think with a symphony I was really able to bring in and distill these influences and cultural examples that inform our American language. So, when you look at say bluegrass music or rock 'n' roll or Appalachian fiddling or blues, almost all of these types of music are fed from these same kinds of cultural aspects – the journey, the melting pot and the wide-open spaces, both physically and metaphorically meaning there's a better day ahead.

Absolutely, that sort of westward expansion as metaphor as much as a literal thing, that movement into the unknown. There's a lot of things that are very lovely about the American Spirit, and I think your symphony touches on a lot of them. I think my favorite section, though this shifts with each listen, is the third movement, "Different Paths Towards Home," where the delicacy of the beginning is sort of flipped for the grandness at the end. That range speaks volumes about American music and the American Ideal, the ability to be quiet and thoughtful but also the ability to be quite loud when we want to be.

Mark O'Connor & James Taylor
I know, and also I visually see this sort of starting place in the mountains along the East Coast, and how we branched out to the North and to the South as we went over West. And the fugue, the writing technique I used in that movement, really plays itself out well with that kind of visual backdrop. Everybody has a similar goal but different ways to get there. So, the connecting phrases of "Appalachia Waltz" pull that concept together and the fugal nature of the composition makes it expansive.

I love that you hone in on the idea that instrumental music can still be a storytelling medium. That's not always understood very well, especially as we've become so verbal as a culture and our popular music has become so verbal and aggressive.

One of the things I noticed as a big void in classical music, from the American perspective, is that there's been 300 years pretty much ignored from the classical music establishment of cultural music from America.

It's weird to hear you say that out loud because that's sort of the ghost in the room.

Exactly, and we have to give credit that in maybe the past few generations there've been some kind of cross-pollination, especially with jazz and more recently with pop music. But what's interesting about this whole thing is in the last 100 years, or less even, maybe the last 60 or 70 years, vocal music has been prominent in our culture and the 300 years before that were more instrumental. When I give my clinics at some point I always hold up the violin to the audience and say, "The entire American history can be told on this instrument."

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