Sunday morning I went to a Unitarian church, which I had discovered by way of music. (Unitarians are dedicated music lovers.) I had seen a poster advertising a concert to be given in the Unitarian church in Montpelier. The service I attended was beautiful, and I spoke to several interesting and welcoming church members afterwards.
Sunday night we heard a great concert of Celtic music by one of my favorite fiddlers, Aly Bain, from Shetland, and Phil Cunningham, a great piano accordion player from Scotland. Phil moved his hands like lightning over his big accordion. At times he sounded as though he were playing a real piano. He showed us how he got this effect. He just stepped on a pedal and the rest was done electronically. He had a great sense of humor and he kept us all laughing. At one point, he remarked that the fiddle and accordion were also used extensively in Cajun music, and he told us that they would play an example. The two of them played “How Much Is That Doggie in the Window?” in true Cajun style. It was no surprise to hear quick and happy music coming from his accordion. However, he also played some beautiful, sweet, slow airs. One such tune was an air he wrote in memory of his brother Johnny, one of the world’s greatest Scottish fiddlers, who passed away about a year and a half ago. Phil had a distant, sad look on his face when he played it. S, who sings as well as she plays fiddle, said that a lot of Phil’s harmonies sounded like church choir or instrumental harmonies. Aly, too, could play at lightning speed. S and I watched his right wrist with awe and amazement. His bow went so fast at times that it looked like it was flying. I watched the tip of the bow moving at incredible speed. Then I watched the lower half of the bow moving likewise. In the middle of his bow was a balance point or fulcrum, and the bow see sawed on it. He used few, if any slurs. No matter how fast the notes were, he played each one in a separate bow. His left hand was also impressive. Unlike most folk fiddlers, he did not play open strings except as drones. Most of the time he played in the upper positions with his hand way up the neck, often with his fingers down on the strings and fingerboard over the body of the violin. He played with lots of beautiful slides and vibrato and some perfect trills. Sometimes when he was playing very quickly, he would use left hand pizz slipped into his bowing. For most of the concert he had a second violin on a stand in front of him. S and I speculated that it had alternate tuning, and we waited eagerly to hear him play it. He told us that the fiddle was tuned in one of several ways used in traditional Shetland music to imitate the sound of the Hardanger fiddle, a Scandinavian instrument. I knew that he sometimes played with AEAE tuning, but I didn’t know about the other tunings. He played some Shetland tunes on this fiddle and they were awesome, the most impressive tunes of the concert, as several of us agreed. He used drones, lightning fast bowing, and left hand pizz in a tour de force. One of our friends in the audience, who was not a fiddler and did not know that the tunes were technically very difficult, said that these tunes were his favorite ones in the concert because they sounded so pretty. When Aly finished with this set, he looked tired, and he left the stage to rest for a while. Later, a friend told me that he had heard Aly play many times in the past and that Aly had slowed down a bit with age. He sounded awfully good and awfully fast to me. I’m so glad that I had the opportunity to hear him while his playing is still brilliant.
Monday I walked around in the sun for a while, got a milkshake at Ben and Jerry’s (an ice cream chain store which started in Vermont), and hung out and bought S a CD at the violin store. I had a long talk with one of S’s friends, who told me that Vermont has a highly educated population and very few jobs, almost all with low pay. If not for the weak economy and harsh winters, I would gladly move there. When I hugged S and said goodbye, I told her that I plan to come back for another one of their weekly jam sessions. Good friends, good music, and good food: that’s about as good as it gets.
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