My composition and performance ranges across three sonic traditions: classical, grassroots, and a hybrid of those that I like to call class-grass. For an introduction to my work in each area, click on the tabs below.
Then back in 2010 for an Earth Day event, I wrote a suite that really required players with skills in each tradition. My good friend and now band-mate Shauncey Ali said, “Hey, I know just the players!” And so the band Graminy was born, and the style we call “class-grass.”
There are actually lots of musicians working in this area, in our view, although they don’t usually use the term “class-grass.” Chris Thile, Edgar Meyer, Yo-Yo Ma, and Mark O’Connor are among the best known. But it’s a style that doesn’t really have a widely used name yet. “Class-grass” is our suggestion for that name.
Graminy features violin, viola, cello, steel-string guitar, and mandolin, as well as vocals. (Sometimes we shyly also add in banjo.) So we have most of a string quartet, when we want to sound like one, and as well as most of a standard bluegrass line-up, when we want to sound that way. We also put in quite a bit of jazz and improv.
Plus we’ve often worked with a full classical choir.
The Soundcloud player below provides some samples of my class-grass composition, all performed by Graminy.
How to describe my classical composition? Not “modern,” certainly. I am too fond of tunes for that. Not “postmodern” either, however. My music is not aimed at the sonic erasure of boundaries and categories, nor the solipsistic declaration of self through the ceaseless search for the claim of originality. Rather, my musical purpose is the delight of engagement—communication, through the shared, of something that renews the cultural conversation. If music is unintelligible, there can be no communication, no sense of the musical act as a commons. But as well, if music is a mere stale repetition, there is no renewal—no sense of interconnected aliveness, of the on-going and the going-on, of the past made future in the unexpected joy of an unpredicted present.
Call it a participatory sound. Call it the sensibilities of the grassroots musician, which is where I began my musical life, singing and playing in a family band with my father, two brothers, and an older cousin. Or call it what I prefer to term it. Not modern. Not postmodern. Not anti-modern. Rather, call it dialogic—that is, classical music which is in conversation with performer and audience about our future pasts and past futures.
There is deep collective history in the term “classical” and the living body of music it helps hold together. Too much, say some dismissively, casting it aside and proclaiming instead an allegiance to “new music.” I am also happy to consider my music new—but also old. For me, the new does not have to be a “modernizing” or a “post-” or an “anti-” any more than we need to reject all existing words to say something which has not been said before.
Rather, we speak the new through reshaping meanings that others already know. Indeed, every use of a word or a note reshapes its meaning, giving it a new context, a new life, a new suite of connections. And it is the reshaping of meaning, not the abandoning of it, that gives it intelligibility as something which is alive and relevant to human purpose. That is, there must be something to reshape. The history of musical meaning must be apparent in its very reshaping, if composition is to be a dialogue with others, and not a monologue we attempt to impose.
“Art,” wrote Modest Musorgsky, “is a means for conversing with people, not an aim in itself.” Such is the passion I try to bring to classical music.
You can find some samples of that passion in the Soundcloud player below.
I’ve been playing and writing folk and grassroots music since I was a teenager playing in our family band, the Outhouse Shouters, which included my two brothers and our father, and sometimes my mother’s first cousin Bill Keeler, the famous Cussin’ Bill, who passed the tradition on to us. My brothers and I still play at family gatherings, and some of our children and nephews and nieces now carry it on with us. I’ve played in more than a dozen (I’ve lost specific count) folk bands since the Outhouse Shouters reverted to only family entertainment.
Meanwhile, the tunes and songs keep coming. I have gathered many of these together into a tune book, New Rosin for an Old Bow, which can be downloaded for free. (It’s folk music, after all.) Once I get this site fully updated, you’ll be able download many of the them tune by tune. Something like 20 of them have been recorded by various artists over the years, and some years ago I got to perform one of them (“The Cloud Forest”) on the NPR show A Prairie Home Companion, with my old band, the Barn Owl Band.
You can sample some of my grassroots compositions below.