(02. 11. 2019, made by Ellen Moysan in Pittsburgh, PA, USA; transcribed and edited by Joel & Dana Boyer)
Interviewer: Ellen Moysan
Interviewee: Robert Kirkman, Associate Professor at the School of Public Policy at the Georgia Institute of Technology and fiddler.
EM: I will start the interview exactly like I always do, which is by asking you what you understand by ‘inner song’ and if it is something you would use or if you heard before. It’s a French expression but translated into English it works well too.
RK: It’s not a term I would have used before. People talk about the song or music ‘in my head.’ That’s the slightly physicalist way of putting it. Sometimes it’s recollection. There are a couple of phenomena. One is when I have just learned a tune, I’ll sometimes walk around humming it or even just running it in my head without humming it. But since most of what I play is traditional music for the purpose of dance, I’m often moving when I’m doing that. So if I’m walking—because a lot of dance music is at a walking pace—I time the music to the walking and it feeds off of and feeds back into the walking. I try to enact the rhythm of the music which is central to the dance music I play.
The other inner song is the legendary earworm. I think it’s actually German: Ohrwurm. It’s when a tune—even a tune you don’t know very well—gets stuck in your head and plays insistently until you’re sick of it. It’s usually something you don’t like: something trite or annoying; some pop tune that you despise that torments you by playing over and over until it just stops or you substitute something else for it. Often that’s the case that if you don’t know the tune very well, you become obsessed with it.
Sometimes I would deliberately pick a tune and run it in my head. Sometimes I hear it, or reconstruct it just as a schematic of the melody. Sometimes I can vary the melody in my head: I can invent improvisations, variations and counterpoints.
EM: So, before going to the modification of the phenomenon, what is the difference between the tune in your head without humming and with humming—the physical expression of the tune and just hearing it running in your head?
RK: Sometimes, like if I’m on the train or in public, I don’t want to hum or whistle out loud so I’ll be rehearsing the tune internally and silently. Sometimes I find myself feeling the strain in my throat and movement in my mouth as if I were humming it, but I’m not vocalizing it. I’m not even necessarily breathing to support vocalization. My mouth and face go through the motions. Sometimes I’ll go to a higher pitch, for example, without making the pitch. Sometimes I’ll be sub-vocalizing it a bit.
EM: I guess we can grasp it more easily when we hum it. So do you think there is a difference in clarity between when you run it in your head and when you hum it? Do you think humming makes it clearer?
RK: I think it does. I think it makes it easier to hold on to it and not get distracted from it. If I’m just trying to rehearse it in my head silently, without movement, it’s easy to lose the thread. But if I’m enacting it in some way, even [vocalizing very very softly] little movements of articulation, it has more solidity to it in a way and so it’s clearer and more consistent. Sometimes it’s easier to reconstruct because it’s easier to hold on to the thread of the melody.
EM: Is it because it’s embodied then, and when it’s just in your head it’s not embodied?
RK: Yes. It’s more idealized and it’s subject to distraction from a thought. It gets diffuse and boring. Even just sitting here I was trying to remember a Scottish tune, ‘Mairi’s Wedding,’ and I found myself bobbing slightly to the rhythm. If I stop that and try to hold myself still, it becomes harder to hold on to the thread of it. Other thoughts intrude and the melody just sort of stops.
EM: So is it that your body is actually moving along with the melody? Because even when you hum, you don’t stay still, you hum by moving.
RK: I’m feeling the rhythm and moving as if I were dancing.
EM: Do you play mostly with dancers?
RK: I play mostly for dance. Yes. That’s why I learned to play the fiddle: to play it for contra dance. For me, music is always associated with movement. Even if I were trying to play for a session where we’re playing music for music’s sake. Or if I were playing for a concert, I would still be moving to the rhythm of the music. Rhythm is not aside from the melody. It’s part of the experience.
EM: When you were playing before, you were sitting.
RK: I was sitting, but the one thing I’ve learned is that to keep the rhythm consistent, you have to internalize it. And you internalize through the torso, experientially. There was one workshop I took where the musician leading it insisted on this point: rhythm has got to be centered. It’s this bodily experience. We would get up and play and get the whole body moving. If I’m sitting I slightly do this [moving torso] in time to the music.
EM: So he says that the rhythm is not in your hand, and it’s not in your head, and it’s not in your legs and feet?
RK: Well, it can be, but even if you think of the movement of walking, your whole body is moving. As Laurie Anderson puts it, ‘you’re falling forward’ in this piece she did called “Walking and Falling.” She makes the point that whenever you’re walking, you’re falling. Every time you take a step, you’re falling forwards slightly and catching yourself from falling. There’s this impetus to it that is in the torso.
EM: Actually, in ballet dancing, the center is here. So when you have to make a movement, they tell you to open your torso. Your head is there, but you don’t lead your body through your head. You lead from your torso.
RK: I know one English country dance instructor who said you’re being pulled by a string attached to your navel.
EM: It’s the same in tango.
RK: That’s my experience of it. If I’m playing, there’s definitely this slight movement of my torso in association with the other movements I’m making. It’s got to be there.
EM: So the inner song would be embodied because of that?
RK: I think it doesn’t have to be, but it’s clearer if it is. I can’t hold very still and remember and reconstruct a melody. I think the exception is when I am intentionally rehearsing the inner song. I’m reconstructing or playing deliberately in my head. And if it’s an earworm that’s involuntary, it doesn’t have movement. In fact, if I’m really annoyed by the tune, I actively try to resist the rhythm of it to disrupt it.
EM: The first chapter of my dissertation is on the voice because I have to explain how we get to grasp this thing. Derrida mentions two voices: the physical voice and the phenomenological voice. And he mentioned the pure auto-affection, or the auto-affection. And I think that we actually have three voices. So there’s the physical voice that would be a “Körper” in Husserlian expression—this pure object that can be grasped by others too. Then there is the embodied voice which is the voice that I feel. My relationship with my own voice is particular because I both hear my voice as an object and feel it. So I have this internal-external hearing. And then the imaginative voice I think is grounded in the embodied voice but it’s not embodied. I do think we can have a pure inner song which would have no embodiment at all—which would be to just listen to it.
RK: That’s like what Alfred Schutz described as music as an ideal object. That’s both in “Making Music Together” [(1951)] and his “Fragments on the Phenomenology of Music.”
EM: But that’s not the one I think matters for musicians. The one I think matters is the embodied voice. It’s an inner song that is sound, has a voice that is the embodied voice, and is made up of a lot of different things. For example, there is the rhythm and I breathe through it. And then there is the sound, the actual pitch. There is also the fingering. When you hum the tune, do you feel it as if your instrument is there?
RK: Not exactly. That’s a peculiarity of my relationship with the fiddle. When I’m humming a tune, I’m either humming it in my own voice as it were, or hearing it as if it were being played by the fiddle. Being a self-taught fiddler I can’t automatically associate the melody with fingering. When I try to do imaginary fingering, I have trouble working it out. But as soon as I have the instrument itself in my hands and actually generating the notes through the instrument, the melody falls into place and I figure out where it is. Then when I have the tune in my fingers, I need to start the tune, I sometimes just start the tune and my fingers unlock the inner voice so I remember how the tune goes. It’s this curious relationship. I don’t have this facility with singing the names of notes or being able to automatically work out the fingering just from imagining.
EM: For me, when I hear the inner song, I don’t feel the fingering. But I hear the notes more and more with time. Why do you think that playing it unlocks the music such that you can remember music just because you start playing it?
RK: Sometimes I’m at a session and I know that I’ve played a tune but in that moment I can’t remember how it starts or goes. And if someone plays the first three notes, once I get those intervals and I feel them in my fingers, the next ones just unfold and then I’m playing it. It’s a memory jogging thing.
EM: In this sense you speak of inner songs that have a history and are somewhere.
RK: Right, I guess I have to distinguish between songs or tunes I have heard and can rehearse in my head, and those tunes and songs I’ve played. I think I have a different relationship, I have a much more intimate connection to songs I’ve played. I have a better knowledge of how they work.
EM: So in both cases it’s an inner song that is a memory. In phenomenological vocabulary, it would be a memorized imaginative object. It’s not something that is generated by you like would be the case for an improvisation or for a composer.
RK: I do some of that as well. Sometimes I improvise better in inner song than I do on the fiddle. It’s like there’s a mismatch; I need to improve my mastery of the fiddle so I can keep up with what I can hear in my head. Of course it’s easy to improvise alone without pressure, without judgment. I can make up and imagine stuff, but when it’s in a moment with a fiddle, with other people, it’s hard to summon the confidence to just insert an improvisation. Sometimes, if things are flowing well in a performance, and I’m with musicians I trust and know really well, and, say, another fiddler does something, I can respond to it and then it goes where it goes and becomes an extraordinary invention. But I couldn’t necessarily go back and hum that and reconstruct what I just did. I’d have to hear a recording.
EM: Do you think it’s created from being with and holding your instrument?
RK: Sometimes my fingers are taking the lead—as though my fingers are doing something really cool and I’m startled sometimes by what my fingers come up with. It’s probably because I’m not that good or experienced as an improviser, but there’s some times when the improvisation happens beyond my intention. It’s a matter of trusting that my practice and experience will carry me through and get me somewhere worth going.
EM: I think that when we improvise better by singing than by playing, it’s a question of mastery of the instrument. From what I was thinking while watching tons of documentaries on great musicians, when we play we try to reduce this difference between what we’re playing and what we’re hearing in our heads. I think the inner song is the lead: what we want to embody. And great musicians are the ones who have this very close identification between the two objects, the one expressed and the one inside.
RK: But it’s contextual as well—a matter of confidence and trust. It’s really easy to improvise when it’s in my head with no consequences. Whereas in a situation where I have a responsibility to the dancers and my fellow musicians and I feel a little insecure in my ability as a musician, it’s hard to have the confidence or boldness and trust to assert something novel. It’s a risk. It could fall apart. I could mess up. A lot of conversations and workshops I’ve had on improvisation are based on being bold and making mistakes. I’ve heard really great musicians make mistakes large and small and just go on and they keep playing, even accidentally adding a note to a phrase, extending the phrase half a beat during a dance. And you can’t do that in a dance. There’s a slight hiccup in the dance but the band was so professional that they carried on as if nothing had happened.
EM: Do you think that as long as it’s not actually embodied—as long as I’m not humming it or playing with my instrument—it’s not there yet? Husserl speaks about a quasi-representation of the object, and I have this sense also that it’s like a painter who can have a fantastic vision and say that it’s beautiful but as long as it’s not expressed we cannot judge.
RK: I could also hum it or vocalize it quietly and it might be pretty good. But that’s not necessarily bound to the limits of the fiddle. What I am humming could fit on the fiddle really awkwardly—cross strings at a bad place. So what I want to work on is this dialectic of imagination and instrument—string bow, hand and body. You can’t do just anything on the fiddle. Certain pathways are easier. Anything that takes advantage of the fact that the strings are tuned in fifths, for example, is likely to go well. Whereas things that fit badly across the strings and intervals of the strings will be more technically demanding and difficult to pull off and so maybe not as fluid in improvisation—like Coltrane had to know his instrument to find his way around it effortlessly. So in terms of ideal objects. Schutz says something about the painter—he wants to insist that the musical work is a purely ideal object.
EM: I don’t think it’s true.
RK: I don’t think it is either. But he quotes favorably a saying that Raphael would have been one of the greatest painters even if he had been born without arms.
EM: It doesn’t mean anything.
RK: It makes no sense because it would be like a person is born with an artistic vision fully formed as if it didn’t form in a life long conversation or dialectic between eye and mind and hand and brush and pigment and oil and canvas and that interaction. There are certain possibilities in that you learn to unlock but only with long practice with those media and with bodily movement.
EM: That’s why I think the philosophers are completely up in the air. They don’t grasp the experience of practicing. By emphasizing the vision, which would be the same as emphasizing inner song as an ideal object which is not embodied, we miss something. This was part of my training too: I learned cello from a very young age but when I was sixteen I had some posture issues so that I was not able to play whatever I wanted to play but I did not hear it. So I did this master class with the professor and I played something. First he told me that my position was awful and that I would have to relearn my posture and I was tense. I was playing this slow movement from the Chopin Sonata and he said it was flat and boring and there is no expression.
It shocked me because for me it had expression because I was not actually hearing what I was playing, I was hearing what I was hearing here in my head. This is why some professors imitate you. They play out of tune or not musically. And at this point you realize that what you were hearing was not the real song. It was your inner song. With my second professor, I learned how to listen to the inner song as such. She would tell me ‘Listen to your head. Now sing it. Now play it. Now listen in your head again. So I realized that we can stand somewhere in between. Not hearing the real song and not hearing inner song either. I think that when you’re not very good at what you do, you don’t actually listen to the real song because you hear something that is much better than what you are actually playing. And at the same time you’re not really listening to your inner song. I think playing needs this double attention—being fully attentive to what you are actually playing—hearing what is not in tune or not rhythmic—and at the same time, hearing your inner song that you want to express. What matters is the vision which is nothing until it is expressed. It’s like ‘I love you.’ It doesn’t mean anything until you actually vocalize it. The inner song might be beautiful and carry a lot of emotions, but until you vocalize it, it’s not there.
RK: That’s what improvising in my head is like. Partly it’s the context and the confidence, but it is also partly having the facility on the fiddle that I can go wherever I want to—wherever attention takes me, I can play—but my hands don’t operate that well, and that’s why I need to go back and practice my chords and arpeggios.
EM: In my own experience, this discovery of the inner song went along with this very bland statement, ‘your posture is not good and you cannot do what you hear because you don’t have the ability to do it.’ It’s a mastery. You play and rehearse again and again. What we want to do as musicians is to reduce the gap between what I wan to do and what I can do. That’s part of being a genius, not just being able to reproduce your inner song as a real song but to perform it. So there are three important points. The inner song as this vision of the musician, the real sound that can become like an inner song in its quality, and then the practical realization that allows me to go from one to the other.
RK: The bio mechanics of the instrument and the body
EM: Fiddle is the same as cello, you can play an open string or with a finger. And it’s not the same thing.
RK: I have a violinist bias against playing an open E string on the fiddle. Violinists avoid it because it’s the most uncertain in its tuning. If it’s just a little bit off it’s a horrendous screech. So you play with the fourth finger on the A string so you have more control over it.
EM: I think the inner song as different levels of embodiment. It can go from the pure imaginative object that would be what Schutz describes…
RK: Which is kind of tenuous for me. Except if it’s an earworm. It’s hard to hold on to. It wants to slip away or fade out or get drowned out by other things. Whereas if you’re enacting the movement, this maintains it and carries it along. At least that’s my experience.
EM: What makes it tenuous is that it’s not embodied. If you have to memorize a tune, what do you do?
RK: I have two ways. There are tunes I learn from other musicians in a local context. Then, from paper—and when you have a traditional tune written down, it is usually one person’s version of the tune, just an approximation—usually I use the paper just long enough that I get it in my fingers and in my head, and then I put away the book and just practice the tune. I learn it by heart. And then I will take a freer approach to which notes I actually play. Because what is written is just one version or sometimes an elaboration: there’s lots of room for variation. I might add a note here, subtract a note there, change a rhythm slightly, or vary it from time to time. I’ll learn what’s on the sheet and then from singing and playing it, I will find the essential core of the tune of which this is one elaboration and I’ll work out my own elaboration of it.
EM: So from something external to you it becomes something within you.
RK: And I’ll bring it into a certain idiom. Certain bowing styles or techniques that provide certain rhythmic distinction. They’re great fun to play. This funny stuttering syncopated rhythm where instead of playing four eighth notes—da-da-da-da—you sort of ghost one of them—da-da da—and that’s a great effect in certain tunes. I’ll ornament that into a tune or other ornaments especially from Celtic traditions, there are a lot of flicks and rolls and turns that you can use. So I’ll mess around with it but still, what I’m holding on to is the core of it. But then suppose I learned the tune from paper and then I sit down with other musicians who may have learned it differently. What we do then is negotiate among ourselves—same core but with different embellishments and I’ll adapt what I’m doing to them. The tune Whiskey Before Breakfast, which is an old time tune, Scottish in origin. I know at least two regional variations of the first notes.
[Vocalizing] da da da da dam da da da da da da dam da da da da dam da da da da da da dam is the opening, or [vocalizing] da da da da dam dam da da da da da da da dam… then they join up. So those are regional variations that you adapt to the crowd you’re playing with. You don’t get too wedded to what’s on the paper. What I hold on to is the core of the melody—the schema—that I can then freely vary in context. I might have some favorite variations that I use as some sort of default. But that’s where a lot of the improvisation ends up being much more subtle, smaller stuff.
EM: The paper is just here to pass it on. What matters is not what is written and how it is written. It’s just that the content needs to be passed on.
RK: The piano player in my band often doesn’t like the chords that are written down and will substitute his own chords. That’s a perfectly normal part of the process. And I’ll fit in a section Either there’s an established and agreed upon chord structure for a given tune, or the rhythm players, the guitar and bass players, sort it out among themselves and watch each other and adjust the chords they’re playing. To learn a song is to learn the core of it and the feel of it. Then you can vary.
EM: So what do you think happens when you learn it by heart? Is it because you brought it into your emotions? How would you describe this learning by heart and why is it so important for you?
RK: For me, it’s important because I’m not looking at a piece of paper. There are two things. If I’m really dependent on the paper to know what note to play when, unless I’ve practiced really hard and know it really well, there’s always going to be a slight processing delay because it has to go from paper to eye, to brain, to muscles, to hand. If I can eliminate some of those steps by having it already in my fingers, it’s much easier to lock in to the groove of it and sync up with other players and be on time. It’s also from there that I have the freedom to do variations. I’m not bound to particular notes on the paper. Like a jazz musician, they learn the basic melody and chord progression and it is on that basis that they carry on their improvisation.
EM: So there is an efficiency there? My Russian cello teacher told me to learn things by heart. She told me to take my score with me on the metro—thirty minutes here, twenty minutes there—and learn it by memory. I think it’s because it becomes you. It is because there is this movement—you’re a philosopher so I can use my technical terms—it goes from the object as something that is shared with others—Husserl would say the körper, to the Leib. It’s embodied in you. You have it in your fingers and in your heart in the sense that you are moved by it.
RK: There’s an immediacy and intimacy to it. The other factor is when you’re staring at a piece of paper it’s harder to pay attention to the musicians you’re playing with. So there’s a kind of interaction and responsiveness, even eye contact. In the American South at least, when you want to signal the end of a tune, you hold up a foot like that [gesturing].
In Quebec, you share a look.
It’s much easier to be tuned in with, to use Schutz’s phrase, the people you’re playing music with. In my case, with the musicians, the caller, and the dancers, it’s much more easy to be attentive to them and adapt to what the dance is doing and what the caller wants and so on.
EM: You’re more available.
RK: And more responsive.
EM: Vision as a sense perception brings you outside whereas listening brings you inside.
RK: Except that there are cues from others and so I watch what another person is doing because they’re moving their body in a way that sometimes anticipates what they’re going to do. I was in a band for a while with another fiddler and she and I had very similar styles and sensibilities and it worked really well. From the first time we got together and practiced, it was just electric; there was so much back and forth. I found it was easiest for us when we were facing each other because I could anticipate and see what she was going do. She would move her body and feet in certain ways that revealed what she was experiencing and where it was going. I think that vision is part of how we get the cues for tuning in and locking in.
EM: Of course vision is important when you are playing with others. But let’s say you’re just practicing at home, not performing with others yet. Very often we take out the vision. You did that before when you said ‘let me find a tune’ and you closed your eyes and you played. I think there is something happening. We are gathering ourselves together by closing our eyes. Because we feel the voice from the inside. I think we feel better when playing when we close our eyes. That was one other thing that my professor was telling me: she said ‘close your eyes and listen to the note.’ One time we spent an hour and a half on two measures because she wanted to teach me how to practice well and correct my pitch. So we suffered over two measures because she wanted me to play exactly in tune and wanted to bring my attention to the sound itself. This is how I learned the importance of inner song. We have the information, but performing it is different. I think when we want to focus that’s what we do. We are not focusing on the score. We are focusing on the inner song that is this hearing through the score.
RK: But I also think that in the context in which I’m playing though, playing for a dance, there are also visual cues in the hall, the caller, the musicians, and when I’m practicing with the band I need to be watching. One of my great challenges is a big community band which I organize which is for musicians of any level. There’s a fiddler who’s a perpetual beginner. He started playing fiddle when he was fifty. That’s a tough thing to learn. And at fifty he’ll always be a beginner. He’s really bound to the paper. After 8 years I’m finally getting him to put aside the paper and just play. I need them to be able to see each other and listen to each other and listen to me.
EM: It’s like a speaker at a conference who is stuck with a paper. We don’t want to hear someone who is just reading a text but someone who is communicating with you. I guess when we rehearse alone, we can have those moments of presence to the inner song by closing our eyes, but it is true that when we perform with others we need to be available, grasping the physical movements.
RK: It’s probably because of the pulse—the tempo—because inner time is not measurable. It’s somewhat variable. But when you’re playing for a dance, you need to be in sync with the musicians, the caller’s expectations, and the dancers. To figure out if you’re playing too fast, watch the dancers. If they’re straining to keep up, you’re playing too fast and you need to slow down. You get cues about the tempo from the environment.
EM: When I’m at my ballet class, we have a pianist and so when we do exercises the pianist will start something and the teacher will interrupt and say ‘no, no, this is too quick.’ When playing for a band, you need to adjust only for your instrument and what you can do. But with a dance, you have to adjust to what the body can do.
RK: You can only walk so fast. The contra dance is basically a so smooth walking step.
EM: So you say that you learn from others.
RK: Yes, learning by ear is how we put it. I often teach tunes to my open band and I refuse to give them the paper so we’ll go through it slowly, a phrase at a time. We’ll hum it. We’ll sing it. We’ll play it. And then we string it together. And then I’ve got it to about 20 minutes to teach them a basic dance tune, at least so they can play it. Because you have to break it down and do a lot of repeating. Sometimes I go to a festival in North Georgia and I walk in to a jam session. I know the idiom. I know the style. But there are a lot of tunes I don’t know. So someone will call a tune I don’t know and everyone will start playing it, but I have some options to get into it. One is to just listen for a while. Another is to sit and thumb pizzicato—just strum or pluck the bass note and figure out the chords. But then, as I’m listening, I’ll try to catch the core of the melody so I can play it in half notes and then start to play the down beat and then fill in the gaps. Being aware both of the core of the melody and the particular style of embellishments, I was able to pick up five new tunes last April. I took them to my band and we learned them.
The strangest experience I ever had, I went to a Scandinavian session in England when I was in Oxford for a summer. A lot of Swedish fiddle music is really complex and involuted.
EM: They have beautiful instruments.
RK: It’s the Hardanger fiddle and the nyckelharpa which is half-way to a hurdy-gurdy because it’s keyed but with a bow.
I went to this session and they started playing a march and I started playing along and I think I played it exactly right the first time I ever played it. It was such a simple tune and it was so standard and obvious that I just knew where it was going to go. That’s the only time it’s ever happened to me—that I knew a tune I never learned.
EM: Well, I think when we know a culture, we can predict because there’s a certain logic in the harmony.
RK: It was a no-surprises, very simple march. It’s never happened again, though it does get easier over time as I learn the idiom. And with Quebecois tunes, so many are sequences of arpeggios and scales. There’s a really fast, rollicking reel called Reel Saint Antoine. If you know your A major scales and arpeggios, then you already know that tune.
EM: I think it’s like when you pick up a language. When you go to a country where you don’t speak the language at all, you hear a flow that doesn’t make any sense to you. And then if you have some basic understanding, you will pick up one word here and there and fill the gap to understand what they are saying. When you speak fluently, you have no gap to fill.
RK: For me the tunes that are hardest or even near impossible to learn, in the Appalachian and Quebecois tradition, are tunes we call ‘crooked.’ The tunes I play for dance are called ‘square’—they’re all sixty-four beats, with eight beat phrases, with AABB structure. There’s a structure and squareness to the tunes. In old time music and Quebecois music there are a lot of tunes that don’t follow that pattern. They’re adding a measure or two measures, or even a single beat. There are some that change time signature and then back. Some of the old time ones are just mind-blowing they are so deeply crooked. I can’t even hear those tunes right, let alone play them because I’m just not familiar with that structure.
EM: And so in this way the inner song is so deeply cultural. You don’t hear anything unless you have those basics.
RK: Swedish fiddle tunes are hard for me because I’m not in that idiom.
EM: Do you know Bulgarian or Serbian tunes?
RK: They have weird meters like 11.
EM: Yes, the rhythms are limping like this.
RK: I know some people are really good at that. I’ve seen some musicians who take standard American children’s tunes like The Itsy Bitsy Spider in 11/8. There’s this weird hiccup in it because they take out half a beat. Crooked tunes make me laugh. I think the humor of it is the humor of misdirection or disrupted expectations. A very silly example of this is the joke: What’s orange and sounds like a parrot?
EM: I don’t know.
RK: A carrot. It’s not what we usually mean by ‘sounds like.’ What makes it funny for an English speaker is that it upends your expectations. For me, crooked tunes upend my expectations.
EM: Just to go back to how you came to traditional music, you were a violinist at first?
RK: I played violin for 9 years. I stopped when I was out of high school. I played in one musical theater production. I would have been eighteen the last time I played. Then, almost exactly 20 years later—I had been contra dancing since I was a graduate student at Stony Brook—I wanted to play music for the dance and I thought ‘I have this violin, I should make it a fiddle.’ And I sought advice on how to do that. The first piece of advice was the best.
EM: Which was?
RK: I asked a fiddler from Asheville, North Carolina what advice she would have for a violinist who wanted to play fiddle and she said ‘stop thinking of it as a melody instrument. Start thinking of it as a rhythm instrument.’ That is the secret. So when I’m learning a tune, not only am I learning the schema of it but the groove of it, the feel of it and how it fits with the dance. Contra dance has different figures that have a different rhythm to them, some that are smooth and straight ahead and some that are more punctuated. There’s a move called the Balance where you stomp, step back, and stomp in the simplest version of it. It’s a bit of punctuation. If I can play a tune that supports or accents that punctuation, that will support the dance. And so I’m often trying to figure out as I’m learning a tune, what kind of dance this would fit with.
EM: Don’t you think that your musical practice is helped by the fact that you were a dancer first?
EM: How does it work? Is it because you can feel it with your legs?
RK: Yes, I feel it in my legs, I feel the phrasing of it, and I also feel the phrasing of it in the flow of the dance, because the dance is phrased as well because of the way it’s called and prompted. The figures go in four, eight, or sixteen beat phrases. And the music is in four, eight, or sixteen beat phrases. They fit together that way. That’s why I’m so attached to square tunes and find crooked tunes so funny.
EM: Do you know how to dance to crooked tunes?
RK: There are not really any dances that go with crooked tunes. There’s one tune that adds two bars or measures to one of the parts and then repeats, and there’s one dance that adds a four beat figure to match that phrase. But it’s a little bit odd for the dancers too because they’re not used to that. In southern square dance it matters less. The dance is tied less to the phrasing of the music. It’s really just resting on the rhythm of the music—just keeping the beat going. I play sometimes for southern squares and we just play fast and stop when the caller tells us to.
EM: You have a band in Georgia?
RK: I have two bands I’m part of. One is a trio and the other is the open band that I organize.
EM: So you’re the leader. Is it always fiddle musicians who lead?
RK: Fiddle tends to lead because it’s one of the strongest and most rhythmic melody instruments.
EM: Sometimes I’m frustrated that I chose to play the cello instead of the violin.
RK: You need to see a young cellist from Kentucky named Ben Sollee. He’s a singer, songwriter, and plays cello. He plays very rhythmically. In terms of cello, there’s also a band called Crooked Still. They are rooted in bluegrass music but go in a very different direction with it. It’s a five-piece band with a singer. One of the musicians is a cellist who plays very rhythmically.
EM: Do you sing too when you play?
RK: When I’m playing, I have trouble vocalizing. I can’t even speak. It shuts off my ability to speak and sometimes after I’ve been playing it takes me a little while to regain the power of speech. I get the same way when I’m dancing. I know people who can play the fiddle and call a dance at the same time, which I cannot imagine.
EM: Do you know the jazz musician Keith Jarrett? Did you see how he is humming all the time on stage?
RK: There are other jazz greats who did that. I think Thelonious Monk did that, he was always murmuring.
EM: When I was watching them, I thought ‘this is the inner song.’ This is exactly what I’m looking for.
RK: I took a workshop on swing fiddle and one of the keys to jazz and swing improvisation is you need to know the basic melody really well, and as you’re improvising, be singing the melody in your head which keeps your improvisation anchored in the tune and lets you know where you are in the tune and know where to stop. But that’s a discipline I have trouble with: playing against the inner song where your inner song is the core melody but what your hands or mouth are doing is something radically different.
EM: It’s not necessarily playing against it but it’s more like a polyphony.
RK: Maybe that’s one of my limitations as an improviser: I haven’t yet focused on that moment of separation.
EM: Dividing attention maybe?
RK: It’s a little like doing foot percussion and long bow in time with the feet. Lisa Ornstein had us doing it very slowly and dividing our attention back and forth until we got to the point where we can more or less ignore the feet and focus on the bow and do more complex rhythms against the rhythm in the feet. It was probably deliberate steps and slow action creating that separation. I’m not sure if I could teach myself to speak or sing and play at the same time if I’d take it slow.
EM: I think it’s a matter of attention. It’s like in ballet when you divide the upper body and the lower body. When musicians who don’t have any violin background want to start fiddle, how do you learn the posture and all of that?
RK: I think you’d need to have at least a session with a teacher on that. I went to a workshop with a fiddler, a conservatory trained violinist who went over to the dark side and started playing Scottish fiddle. He won the National Scottish Fiddle Championship in the United States one year. He’s very insistent on the ergonomics of playing. He has an approach not only to posture and how you hold and set up the fiddle, but to fingering, practicing certain anchor positions and you move your fingers as little as possible. If you don’t have to move a finger, don’t move it. So you go through a tune very carefully and work out these fingering combinations. He’s insistent on a very straight posture. And also on a good position for the hand. He handed out wine corks. You put the cork here [indicates crook where thumb joins to palm] and set the fiddle on it and you get the right position. If you maintain the same position after removing the wine cork, that leaves your hand free to move up and down the neck. He also insisted on always making sure you’re centered and comfortable. He has an extra high shoulder rest and a padded chin rest so he can hold the fiddle without turning his head or clamping down and that keeps his neck up. If they bring it down in front, that tends to flatten their hand against the fiddle, which makes it far less mobile and they have to reach more awkwardly for some of the notes.
EM: I think one of the things that made me much freer with my instrument when I relearned cello, my teacher made me aware of the structure of the instrument. She would tell me to stay where I was and instead of moving my whole head—I had this academy training of first position, second position, third position and she changed that—she would say, you just have to extend your finger: don’t move, just extend it. And I think this made me aware of the space of the instrument. Because I think instruments have a spatial dimension—you have to understand how to move on the space and how to reduce the effort. I think the Russian teaching is a lot about reducing the unnecessary movements.
RK: Jamie, the fiddler who was teaching ergonomics was saying that the sweet spot on the bow, for him, is in the middle third. In fiddle you often don’t need the whole bow, and you get a lot more articulation that way. After that, it’s a matter of learning bowings that are going to emphasize the off beats. In traditional music, you’re often bowing across the phrase—doing a slur or a tie across the phrase so the articulations are in the off beats. There’s this temporal slip.
EM: Thank you for this nice conversation, now let’s go play some music somewhere !