Thursday, August 14, 2014

Ken Burns and the top hit of 1990

A musical lament in Ken Burns’ “The Civil War”is the closest the traditional music world has had to a top 40 hit. Fiddler Jay Ungar’s mournful, Scottish-style “Ashokan Farewell” provided a moving backdrop to the 11-episode documentary released in 1990, and its popularity led to its publication as sheet music and its performance around the country for weddings and funerals. A wealth of traditional tune books are out there, more than you would imagine, but, until “Ashokan,” a single traditional tune in sheet music existed only on the list of mythological creatures alongside the ram with the golden fleece.

Wednesday, August 6, 2014

Creativity or mathematics?

My mother’s heart attack in 2004 helped me to compose a new tune, one inspired by the annoying beeping of a machine in her room. Suffering is said to lead to art, although in this case she did the suffering and I created the art, but was it creativity or simply following the rules of mathematics in music?
The heart attack nearly killed my mother, and she spent several weeks recuperating in Aultman Hospital’s Long-Term Acute Care unit, much of it on a ventilator that prevented her from speaking, beeping when it needed attending to. The ventilator launched into its little air when I was visiting my mother one evening after playing music in Canton. I had my mandolin with me and said, “I’m going to write a tune based on that melody,” so I got out my mandolin and found the notes.