Andrew VanNorstrand (right, with brother Noah at left) describes perfectly the mental and emotional process of fiddling. I couldn’t have said it better myself, so I asked to share his observations, which are reprinted with permission from Andrew’s 12/16/13 blog, The Deep Blue Green.
Fiddle Tunes and Three-Dimensional Truth
© 12/16/13 Andrew VanNorstrand. All rights reserved.
What exactly is a fiddle tune? Say you want to play a fiddle tune but you don’t know any. So you go out and buy a book like the Portland Collection or the Fiddler’s Fakebook or something like that. And you open it up and pick a tune and play it through. 32 bars of notes in a particular sequence with chord suggestions. Start at the beginning and stop at the end. Is that a fiddle tune? Is that music? It only takes about 35 seconds to play a fiddle tune once through so maybe repeat it a few times. Seems like a good idea. Dum di dum di diddly dum, dum di dum di die-do. Okay then, I guess that’s it. Wow, fiddle tunes are really super easy. Maybe try playing it faster. Done. Maybe try playing it like, way, way faster. Done. Maybe try playing through 40 more tunes in the book. And… done. So is that it then? Didn’t make any mistakes, played all the notes. What else is there?
This is a scenario I encounter pretty frequently at music camps, especially with folks coming from a background in classical music. These are very capable and accomplished musicians who want to learn how to play fiddle tunes. Which is awesome by the way. But it can get really frustrating for them because while they obviously have no problem playing fiddle tunes accurately there’s still something missing in the overall sound. Something that just doesn’t quite connect. It’s hard to pinpoint what exactly. Fiddlers do have some cool “tricks” up their sleeves. Different genres of fiddle music have different stylistic ornamentation so you can add in some double stops or triplets or slides (shout out to the dreaded bluegrass “chops” workshop). There’s often more than one version of a tune so you can learn a whole bunch of variations from a bunch of different sources and switch back and forth between them. Sometimes there might even be space for a little solo of some kind so you can be brave and try out a little improvisation. So is it a fiddle tune now? It’s certainly a lot more complicated. But I’d be willing to bet that it still doesn’t actually sound right.
I like to think about this a little differently. Take some classic tune like Sally Ann or Old Joe Clark or Turkey in the Straw. Now think of the notes in one long ribbon and instead of a repeat sign at the end, wrap that ribbon around so it connects to itself in a big circle. Now think of every single time that tune has been played by every single fiddler that’s ever played it as having it’s own ribbon. And these tune-ribbons just keep wrapping themselves around and around, crossing each other, overlapping each other, twisting and turning until you’ve got this giant three-dimensional ball of a tune. And believe me, old fiddle tunes are massive. They’ve been rolling around pubs and campfires and dance halls and living rooms for centuries. People have poured their lives into these melodies. They’ve crossed oceans and mountains and prairies. They’ve soaked up sun and rain and whiskey and tears to the point where they are literally overflowing with joy and heartache and memories. When you play an old fiddle tune, it’s going to weave it’s own unique path across the face of this huge globe; intersecting at every note with a thousand other paths yet still different because it’s YOU playing it. On your instrument. Right now. And that’s never happened before.
Sometimes we talk about variation, ornamentation and improvisation as if these are tools or techniques; as if they are distinct and separate from the melody, which is somehow morally superior. But that’s not it at all. Whatever you play IS the melody. And you are responsible for every note. Fiddle tunes exist in a constant state of change where every single note has to be played not because it’s correct but because it’s the note you meant to play. There is no safe zone where the tune is some kind of neutral third party. Old Joe Clark doesn’t sound so easy anymore. Here’s the thing… music has to be about stuff. Even (especially?) a simple fiddle tune has to be about something. The raw physical existence of this world is really more than we can handle and we need music and art and stories to help us process life. Nobody cares about the notes you play. I’d say nobody even hears the notes you play. What people hear is the meaning; the reason you chose those notes. Tunes played accurately but without depth have this eerie zombie effect that’s hard to explain but immediately recognizable.
And this is really how I think about truth. Picture that giant fiddle-tune-ball I was talking about earlier. How does the tune go? What does it sound like? Well, walk up real close to it and you’ll hear a beautiful melody. But then the ball shifts a bit and you hear it differently. Still the same tune but in a new voice. Was the first one wrong? Roll the ball some more and the tune just becomes deeper and richer and more varied. And I think that can be scary. There’s this temptation to say “Wait a minute, what’s the real tune? How does it actually go? What’s the real truth?” but there isn’t an answer. Even if you back up and try to see the big picture, there’s always the other side that’s hidden. That’s just the nature of human perspective. Absolute truth exists but we are fundamentally incapable of understanding it. And that’s okay. That’s why we have fiddle tunes.
Andrew VanNorstrand is a fine fiddler and teacher and performer who plays for dances and concerts with the Andrew/Noah Band and the Great Bear Trio. You can find him at many dance festivals and dance camps, including Fiddle and Dance camps at Ashokan. He and his brother, Noah, are trailblazers in the ongoing contradance music tradition. The torch has been well and truly passed!
The Andrew/Noah band are at http://www.andrewandnoah.com
The Great Bear Trio are at http://greatbeartrio.com/Great_Bear_Trio/Home.html
Listen/watch them (Noah is fiddling, Andrew is on guitar) http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HtgyvNFfWEw
Photo: Noah and Andrew VanNorstrand (Angela Goldberg photo)