Three Ways to be a Genius
Mark O’Connor might ask: What more do you want from me? As a kid, he won contests on fiddle, mandolin, and guitar—falling in love with bluegrass and jazz and landing a job alongside Dave Grisman accompanying his jazz hero, Stephane Grappelli. As an adult, he conquered Nashville (Country Music Association “Musician of the Year” six years running in the 1990s), then collaborated with Yo-Yo Ma and Edgar Meyer to create the most successful classical crossover albums of the era (1996’s Appalachia Waltz and its 2000 follow-up, Appalachian Journey).
And he has a jazz group, his Hot Swing Trio.
And he has written violin concertos (six), string quartets (three), trios, solo classical compositions, choral works, and movie soundtracks. And now a symphony.
Mark, it’s cool. You can slow down, buddy!
Not likely. In 2009 alone his own record label has reissued the Hot Swing Trio’s Live in New York, then put out the debut of his symphony, “Variations on Appalachia Waltz” by the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra (Marin Alsop, conductor), then debuted his most recent string quartets. Whew.
The inevitable question with Mark O’Connor, then, is always: spread too thin or genius? As a mortal human, you’re just rooting for the former. Nobody should be this prolific, this catholic in his skills and interests, this widely acclaimed. But, alas, he is probably a genius.
The through-line in O’Connor’s work is the connection of the vernacular to the sophisticated. For all his artistic wandering, O’Connor is keenly focused on making searching art out of some of the great American folk forms. In these three releases, he achieves that goal three different ways. Different folks will find different elements of his expression preferable, perhaps, but each is a ringing success.
String Quartet No. 2 is titled “Bluegrass” because it appropriates newly imagined bluegrass licks and forms them into the language of the classical string quartet. Happily, this means much more than having a classical group saw away at a musical style to which it is ill-suited. Rather, O’Connor has written a true string quartet—with the dynamics and strengths of that form utterly intact—that happens to toss about themes and rhythmic motifs that are derived from a complex and worthy American vernacular source.
For example, three minutes into the second movement, O’Connor provides the group with a brilliant section of interlocking, somewhat fugue-al counterpoint that happens to be playing with licks that could come from a Bill Monroe recording. There is a fresh aggressiveness to the writing such that it never sounds as “sweet” or quaint as the “Appalachia Waltz” material. Like a good string quartet, this music is lean and often harsh. But its backbone—gospel in the third movement, for example—is from the soil of this continent.
String Quartet No. 3, “Old-Time”, is grounded in old-time fiddling that flourished in the mountain lands that run from the Hudson into the American South. The rhythms here are quite different, funkier and with greater stomp, than in the bluegrass quartet, but the process of using string quartet language at the service of a different set of ideas is the same. In the third movement, for example, the sharply bowed patterns obviously come from American fiddling technique, but the music develops—particularly harmonically—into areas well beyond the confines of old-timey music.
Hot Swing Trio, Live
Similar rhythmic and harmonic hi-jinx are afoot in O’Connor’s “Hot Swing Trio”. This set (re-released this year on O’Connor’s label but recorded in 2004) begins with the artist’s inspiration: the famous “Gypsy Jazz” of Stephane Grappelli and Django Reinhardt. Here, “Fascinating Rhythm” and “Ain’t Misbehavin’” largely stick to form. But on most of the other tracks, five written by O’Connor, the band moves far beyond its obvious source. “Anniversary” is a stately essay on the blues, with little suggesting “hot swing” beyond the instrumentation (O’Connor’s fiddle with Frank Vignola on acoustic guitar and Jon Burr on bass). “Funky Swing” has a fun groove, but also contains a series of dissonant chords in the bridge that suggest some interest in jazz from the 1960s. And if “Fiddler Going Home” brings to mind the folk experiments of the work with Yo-Yo Ma and Edgar Meyer, then O’Connor’s solo on “Cherokee” is bold and boppish, an improvisation ripping across chords in such quick succession that the only comparisons are Charlie Parker and Sonny Rollins.
Again, what makes O’Connor successful as a boundary-crosser at play in a particular genre is his interest in dirtying up that genre with the smart and real stuff he brings from elsewhere. If the “hot jazz” style of Reinhardt and Grappelli had a soft spot, it was the tendency of the music to seem baroquely ornamented, over-pretty. Not only does O’Connor play hard and swinging, but he incorporates the edgier harmonies of bop, some blues grittiness, and some chamber music austerity into his version of Gypsy Jazz. The string quartets that incorporate folk idioms do not fall prey to being smoothed our, codified folk; they keep the dissonant edge and nakedness of, say, a Bartok quartet while still playing with folk themes. The Appalachia Waltz trio, alas, was not always so austere.
O’Connor’s “Americana Symphony” is highly accomplished classical writing for the new century, but it sounds less innovative and more history-bound than the quartets. Casual listeners will inevitably hear the influence of Aaron Copland in these very “American” themes and the way they are orchestrated as fanfares, dances, and tone poems. This work is explicitly identified as “Variations on Appalachia Waltz”, so it is definitionally familiar to O’Connor fans and the many who loved the trio.
But listening to the fourth movement, “Open Plains Hoedown”, is equal parts lovely and too familiar. O’Connor is exceptional in playing with his themes in different registers and with different instruments—what the strings introduce the flutes then fling into the air, to be joined by percussion, and so on. But it sounds like symphonic music that not only could have been written 50 years ago, but actually was written 50 years ago. By Copland.
Perhaps part of the difference is the absence of O’Connor the performer. The back half of the symphonic recording contains Violin Concerto No. 6 (“Old Brass”), with the composer as soloist. Not that things get insane or 12-tone here. There is still a vaguely Copland-y Americana-ness to this piece, but placing a true fiddler in the middle of it all burnishes the work and helps to remind us that there is always a sense of tremendous “play” in O’Connor’s music. The first movement, for example, begins with a fiddling pattern, but it is quickly subsumed into a more austere kind of symphonic play that draws the soloist into the whole string section as it examines and breaks down the fiddling theme. Not that it isn’t fun—O’Connor gets away with some delicious bent and blue notes amidst all the orchestration—but it seems much less like a work that is trying to get to feel nostalgic.
This is when the magic of Mark O’Connor’s talent is highest: when he toughens up the inherent sentiment of his folk sources with the discipline or daring of his more studied pursuits (modern jazz and modern classical music). As a composer, O’Connor certainly represents a hopeful and appealing route back to tonality. He offers a genuine understanding of American vernacular music but also the sensibility not to present it as mere pap. Copland did this too, with a certain individual way of stripping the music of its potentially cloying sweetness.
O’Connor does it too, at his best. He brings real stones to this music, a steely edge. If you listen to the solo portion of the last movement of “Old Brass”, you hear a “fiddler”, yes, but also a ripping trumpeter from the ‘60s and an acidic soloist beyond Stravinsky. Mark O’Connor is daring to be a modern musical mind. He can comfort, but he can challenge. When the mix is right, it’s an arrow straight into you.
Live in New York
String Quartets Nos. 2 & 3