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Mark O’Connor: Thirty-Year Retrospective With A Name on the Horizon

Mark O’Connor was a child prodigy on guitar, but switched to fiddle after seeing Cajun star Doug Kershaw perform on "The Johnny Cash Show." For the next three decades he learned from masters — Texas fiddler Benny Thomasson and French jazz violinist Stephane Grappelli — as well as recorded albums — his debut released when he was 12 years old.

Years as a Nashville session player brought money but not creative happiness. Putting that aside he concentrated on a nagging desire, to create a new kind of American string music that incorporated classical, bluegrass, jazz and more. His initial foray, Fiddle Concerto, came out in 1994. That was followed by seven more albums including collaborations with Yo-Yo Ma and Edgar Meyer. I spoke with O’Connor shortly before his appearance with the Youngstown Symphony. At that time, he was at work in his studio on his next classical composition.

JPG: You recently released an album with your new Appalachian Watlz Trio, but your appearance with the Youngstown Symphony is as a feature soloist. Is that because it’s easier to introduce yourself and your music?

MO: I’m an invited guest by the orchestra and that’s really wonderful for me because I’ve composed these concertos for violin and symphony orchestra. If it weren’t for orchestras inviting me to play with them, then I wouldn’t get to play those pieces. Personally, I could not afford to hire them. That’s a lot of people.

JPG: Bringing together the different styles within the classical realm, when in your head did the idea of the melting of genres come to you?

MO: Gosh. Probably, when I was a kid. I was training on folk music and in jazz and in classical all by the time I was 13 years old. I started experimenting back then about how things interrelate. Even a lot of my childhood concerts had a lot of variety and mixtures of sound. Of course, I’ve refined those ideas over the years. I think I had the notion of what I’m doing today, even back when I was a young teenager.

JPG: At what point did it become a higher purpose? You described it as wanting to bring an American School of String playing a la the European tradition.

MO: That specific purpose of wanting to explore a new kind of American string school, if you will, has evolved into a goal more recently after seeing the impact of my experimentation.

Originally, it was purely an artistic vehicle for me to express my music. I didn’t have any necessarily lofty goals like the one you just described back when I was just a kid. It was just more of a natural kind of evolution in my own musical experience and my own life experience, meeting different people. I think probably growing up in Seattle had something to do with it because I always had to reach out towards people because there didn’t seem to be a real professional scene of anything that I really liked anyway. So, I ended up being in several scenes to satisfy my appetite. Most of them amateur, but I just found myself introducing different ideas to different friends. Oh you’ve got to check this out.’ That kind of dialogue. And I find myself still doing that today.

JPG: Did the New Grass movement encourage you because you could see others bringing together different elements? It wasn’t straight bluegrass. It wasn’t straight jazz…

MO: Well, I think for both practical purposes I was actually part of the New Grass. I was one of those people that were experimenting, busting genres, I suppose. I remember applying possible violin passage work into my fiddle tunes and my fiddling friends thought it was nuts. But that was what I was doing. That’s the kind of thing that I was experimenting with. It’s easy to imagine that those experimentations lead directly to my work with Yo-Yo Ma and orchestra and The Appalachian Waltz Trio.

JPG: I find it interesting, the quote where you say, you developed a style of playing that doesn’t necessarily change with the genre but lends itself to the genre. Was that obvious to you from very early on, a particular way you played was accepted by people? At the same time, I would think it was unexpected because you weren’t purely this or purely that. Have you always been the salmon swimming upstream throughout your music career?

MO: I guess in my professional work, probably. But I would have to say that I did learn traditional things that were part of my musical training. I did learn straight ahead jazz tunes. I did learn straight ahead bluegrass tunes and fiddle music and classical training. So, that’s a part of my musical training.

When I started putting it all together to create my own sound, my own style, I’m sure that in some ways it kind of gets in the face of some folks. But anything new and different that might be bold in its reach possibly does that in music, in art, so I’m used to it.

JPG: You were recording professionally at 12 years old. I mean, going through your teen years can be difficult enough, and throughout that time, you’re developing your niche. It seems as if you were able to find those that were sympathetic to your ways. Was it still difficult on you personally to make your way through this or did you just have a tough shell and say, I just have a feeling that this is right and one day, I’ll be vindicated?’

MO: Well, I think I always had the feeling that it was not only my job to do my best, but to also educate the people around me to what I was doing. I never completely blame people for not understanding what I was trying to go for. It was just one more thing that I had to figure out, how to communicate to people with.

I finally learned after awhile that the music performance simply might not be enough. I have to bring people along. I have to embrace people. I’ve got to, maybe, do some teaching, some mentoring of, train other musicians to follow in some of my footsteps.

The ultimate goal and necessary achievement was to create a body of work. It wasn’t enough to release one, two or three albums and just say well there it is. (slight laugh) It has to be 10. It has to be 15. It has to be 20. To really put a body of work out there that substantiates the effort. Obviously, it takes time to do that. I’ve got six concertos now.

Most people that are familiar with my concerto composing, I’m a guy that’s been doing this for awhile. But, when I composed the first one and only the first one that was a substantial effort. To a lot of people, it wasn’t quite enough to lay it all out there for them and for them to say, Okay I get it. That’s a whole new direction.’ It takes follow up and coming back and playing with the orchestra a second time and so forth. So, some of these things take time and you’re not going to accomplish all those things even if you are talented in your teenage years, it’s going to take some time to establish yourself.

JPG: As far as composing your concertos, did you learn how to write out the orchestration once you decided on creating classical pieces?

MO: I did have theory and classes like that when I was a kid. And then I worked in a couple of groups and was around a lot of composers and the groups early on, so I saw how they worked, saw how they put things together and composed and arranged material.

Then I worked with lots of arrangers in the studio scene in Nashville, where I would see how people would go about different things and see different harmonies and spread out a chord through two different instrumentations. When I wanted to really start trying my hand at composing in a classical setting, I just hit the books and did a lot of studying through composing manuals and lot of listening and studying scores, especially by likes of Beethoven and my other favorite composers; how they were achieving their results.

Over time, those experiences add up plus my own individual artistic sensibility meet those kinds of training regiments half way, so to speak. Then, I come up with a musical idea and I’m able to craft it into something that I wanted it to be.

If I compose a concerto, all the different parts, I’ve written in the score, and created parts for the individual musicians to read. I probably spent nine months composing and finalizing the concerto, "The American Season." It’s a lengthy process.

JPG: Now, those that see you perform as a guest of a symphony, the majority aren’t familiar with you, what do you hope that they’ll get when they leave the performance?

MO: It’s fun for me to appear with a symphony and to realize that at least half of the audience probably has not heard much about me at all. I approach it as a dual effort in that I want to perform for them as a violinist as well as introduce this new musical style and composition to them in a way that they can check it out and see if they want to embrace my kind of music, which is American symphonic.

JPG: As far as American symphonic music, usually when one thinks of 20th Century classical music it’s a lot of atonal with odd time signatures. Do you see, what you’ve been doing as a new form of 20th Century Music or do you think the idea of an American tradition of string playing is a good enough realm for you?

MO: I actually see two paths. I see myself as the extension of a grand tradition of player/composers that goes back to the very beginning of Classical music, composing music. I see that as a pathway for people to follow. I also see another pathway that goes to the American musical form. That’s also a very direct connection and people are willing to embrace it.

I don’t think of a lot of American Music involves atonal. The latter half of the 20th Century doesn’t really have anything to do with American Music. That has more to do with the evolving of Classical Music. I see myself as an extension of the great Classical tradition of player/composers that would include all the famous names — Mendelssohn and Paganini, all those guys.

I see my other pathway connected to Americana, which includes American folk music and the traditions that were developed in America that were created here — blues music, bluegrass, folk fiddling, jazz and rock and roll — that are part of the American cultural fabric. The atonal, 20th Century music has some association, but it’s not the model that produced who I am.

JPG: I didn’t think that type of classical music produced what you do. I was thinking that what you do is another form or another possibility of 20th Century Classical.

MO: Twentieth Century Classical parallels Europe almost exactly. You couldn’t tell really the difference between an American composer and a European composer in that style.

JPG: Go back for a second, when you were talking about needing to educate people to what you’re doing, is that why you started the fiddle camps and, eventually, the string conferences in order to find musicians who weren’t within the defined boundaries and wanted to express themselves a little outside the boundaries as well?

MO: I wanted to create an environment that had appreciation for more than one music style and, therefore, learn more about it in a camp style. And then to see what would happen if they started growing from their new influences in an artistic way that would make the results of the efforts be different than if they had stayed with one style, one manner of playing.

The 12 years that we’ve been doing this, there are a number of young string players that are coming into the scene now that have broadened the horizons of string music in this country. And they’re backing me up, backing the idea that this can comfortably exist in the professional music realm.

JPG: As far as backing you up, was it difficult convincing Yo-Yo Ma, who is so known within the classical world, to take this chance on what you were doing because, let’s face it, his participation would help legitimize your work to a wide group of people?

MO: I knew that getting Yo-Yo on board with the project was an absolute great opportunity to have a lot of people hear this music. Besides the personal aspect of getting to play with someone so great and further broaden my own performance ability by playing with someone like Yo-Yo Ma, it allowed for a great vehicle to spread the word about American string music. Certainly, he put his stamp on it, and through him created a real electricity out there in the string world about it. You’d be hard pressed to run into a string player that had not heard about that project. Before that I wasn’t even batting .500, I’m sure, in that department as far as having all the string players knowing exactly what I was up to.

That really helped set the stage. Of course, my new Appalachia Waltz Trio with Carol Cook and Natalie Haas. Carol and Natalie are both in their 20s and they were directly influenced by that work. You can see from their recording and the effort some of the things that I was doing with Yo-Yo. It almost gave a reason for people to go there with it and say I not only like this stuff, but I want to play more of it. I actually can fashion a career out of it.’ That’s a big step in the world of string playing.

JPG: In 2004 you released Crossing Bridges, which features you and the new Appalachia Waltz Trio. Now, you’ve spent the past 12 years or so, working within the classical realm, but, earlier this year you released Thirty-Year Retrospective, a live document that brought you back to your fiddling roots. Did that confuse some people, thinking that you’ve turned your back on the classical world? What made you want to perform in that realm?

MO: Well I’ve done so many different kinds of music projects now that it would be hard for people to say that I would be turning my back on classical because I’m constantly composing. The Thirty-Year Retrospective, of course, is exactly how the title describes it, it looks back. Obviously, I wouldn’t be able to look back without playing a lot of music from my early years. So, the project, artistically, made a lot of sense for me in the way that it looked back over my career.

Now, if I was just going to do a brand new project, I don’t know if it would have occurred to me to do it in that setting but it gave me a great reason to play with some fantastic new virtuosos on the scene and look back over my musical career and have them help me with it. I’m very proud of that recording. That recording helped launch my new label, Omac Records.

JPG: Did you discover anything about yourself or about those tunes by coming back to them?

MO: Oh yeah. I mean, there were some things that I had forgotten about a little. In doing my research of my earlier albums, and looking at them more carefully and rearranging them for the new ensemble I could see things that were clearly a direct line to what I’m doing now in classical music.

The greatest revelation of that project was how this whole thing fit together, that a thread actually went through the whole thing. I don’t think it’s a disconnect of my musical journey between bluegrass and my work in my concertos. Somehow, I’ve figured out how to draw a line. it wasn’t really two different things. One was always being an extension of another. You could say that when I played a fiddle tune, it sounded like a symphony. When I play a symphonic piece it sounds like a fiddle tune. You can even go that far and describe it in how it interconnects.

JPG: Listening to one to the other you can hear that thread. I was reading how it’s always difficult for people to describe you, whether to say fiddler’ or violinist’ or both or…then there’s the description in New York Times calling you a poly-stylist.’ Are you just comfortable that as the saying goes that they just spell the name right?

MO: Yeah, that’s something that I think is going to get a name one day. I don’t think it’s me that’s going to give it the name. So, I’ve not really bothered myself with it that much. I think for it to deserve a name, there has to be more people doing what I’m doing. I don’t think it should be named if I’m one of the very few (slight laugh) actually doing this stuff. Doesn’t deserve a name, but if a lot of people end up doing it I think there will be some writer out there that will take it as something. I can see, historically, that happening.

You have some degree of clarity when you say my name. People know what they’re going to get in that they don’t know exactly what they’re going to get. I could be playing with a mandolin player. I could be playing with a symphony. The kind of fan base that I’ve tried to create is a fan base that is probably going to appreciate most of what I bring to the stage. I end up playing slow music. I end up playing fast music. There’s something there. I end up playing rhythmic music. I end up playing American Music. I think there’s something there for a lot of people to latch onto no matter what the instrumentation.

All I know is that I feel like with each passing year, I’m exposing more people about this kind of new string music/art form and, for instance, the language that I’ve developed through these processes for orchestration is now becoming quite a bit more comprehensive to the point now where people are asking me to write a symphony where I would not appear as a soloist. So, I’m going to set aside some time in the upcoming few years to compose my first symphony.

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