Emily Pinkerton, Patrick Burke, and the NOW Ensemble Beautifully Unite the Traditional and the Contemporary

Photo: Sara Holm

On Rounder Songs, Appalachian folk ballads are realized through a post-minimalist context. Never descending into irony or cliche, it's an excellent album that honors tradition in a lovingly modern way.

Rounder Songs
Emily Pinkerton, Patrick Burke, NOW Ensemble

New Amsterdam

17 Nov 2017

The songs, practices, and traditions of Appalachian music have proven to be valuable source material in recent contemporary classical trends. From the genre-bending Goat Rodeo Sessions to Juilliard-staffed composer Robert Beaser to the violin and banjo brandishing invoke string quartet, the lyrical narratives and subtle virtuosity of traditional folk music has become an unlikely yet endlessly fertile inspiration for modern musicians. The challenge, it seems, becomes creating something new and personal while honoring the past and the legacy of Appalachian traditions, to construct something new without catering to irony or pastiche.

Rounder Songs is the result of a long-developing project between folk musician Emily Pinkerton, her husband Patrick Burke, and chamber group NOW Ensemble (Burke himself is a founding member). The album-length song cycle re-imagines folk songs (four ballads and one instrumental) with a contemporary sensibility, fusing clawhammer banjo and narrative songs with a post-minimalist aesthetic. Honest and intriguing, Rounder Songs unites the traditional with the modern in a stunning, beautiful fashion.

"Red Rocking Chair" opens with a pulse-driven by piano and electric guitar. The light mood suddenly intensifies as Pinkerton enters with her ethereal voice and plucked banjo. Everything initially feels inspired by the traditional banjo picking–back and forth accompaniment, slight arpeggios–until the rhythm gradually morphs into irregular beats and decidedly un-traditional syncopation. Think of it as folk-meets-minimalism, repetition that ebbs and flows against the expected. Flute and clarinet fade in and out of the foreground, building lush lines that compliment the sorrow conveyed in the lyrics.

The ballads set by Pinkerton and Burke are melancholy folk songs relating tales of drifters, death, and loss. Both the folk and classical worlds share the strophic tradition (same music in each verse, but different text) as a means to tell a story. "Marcum and the Yankee" fuses the popular and classical by setting Pinkerton against an ever-changing musical background. From bare simplicity to a hellish descent into dissonance, the group vividly invokes the story of a mill worker striking a deal with the devil.

The murder ballad "Pretty Polly" is arranged with enough care to propel the narrative without falling into tired musical cliches. Telling a tale of a doomed woman led into the woods and murdered by her husband-to-be, Pinkerton's beautifully fragile voice is clear and unsentimental about the macabre text. With creeping melodies and attentive dynamics, the NOW Ensemble carries the pulse with modern colors that naturally complement the banjo. It's a perfect example of how modern and traditional textures can not only coexist but thrive together in a natural environment.

Based on an old solo banjo standard, "Three Forks of Hell" revels in the same old world/new world fusion. The only instrumental track on the album, Pinkerton and the NOW Ensemble augment the original tune with countermelodies from piano and clarinet that build into a joyous, unabashedly beautiful composition. Completely devoid of irony, "Three Forks" is a celebration that honors its source material while offering new a new perspective on musical unity.

Tame in comparison to the rest of the album, closing track "Darling Corey" is built upon rhythmic cues from the clawhammer banjo accompaniment. With chopped up rhythms and occasional disjunct shifts, it's a brief, straight-ahead reading of a folk song that doesn't need to impress, especially considering what we've already heard on the album. Short as it may be, it reveals how skilled the members of the NOW Ensemble are at adapting to music outside the contemporary classical tradition. Nothing feels forced, and each member contributes a natural flow to each work on the album.

Rounder Songs is an honest and beautiful record, one that does more than merely respond to this recent Appalachian/classical trend. If anything, it's a contribution from the contemporary crowd, a counter-statement to the Yo-Yo Ma and Mark O'Connor sect. Pinkerton, Burke, and the NOW Ensemble honor the past by reimagining it as fertile material for a modern expansion.

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