Wednesday, February 15, 2017

Appalachia Waltz

Trail of Tears released on O'Connor's 1998 album
In the summer of 1993, I went on a two-week retreat in the New Mexican desert in hopes of finding inspiration for a violin concerto slow movement I was composing called Trail of Tears. The name refers to the effect of the Indian Removal Act of 1830, a measure passed under President Andrew Jackson that forcibly relocated tens of thousands of Cherokee, Chickasaw, Choctaw, and other Native Americans from their lands east of the Mississippi to present-day Oklahoma. I was hoping to experience and identify with some of the Native American culture in New Mexico, since there wasn’t much of it left in my adopted state of Tennessee. I envisioned the soundscape of Trail of Tears as a slow drum march, and one of my main goals during my retreat was to develop a few melodic themes that reflected the tragedy of the hardship to which the title refers.

The album that launched Appalachia Waltz
But one day, a breeze of American optimism blew through an open window in my cabin, and in no time at all, and with seemingly no effort, I had composed three parts to a new nostalgic but powerful piece. I could not place it in Trail of Tears, so I wrote it down, recorded it on cassette tape, filed it away, and went on searching for more appropriate melodies for the concerto.

Two years later, the great cellist Yo-Yo Ma was sitting in my living room in Nashville, Tennessee. He and I, along with Edgar Meyer, were auditioning repertoire for anything we could perform together, and I thought it wouldn’t hurt to show him the piece I’d composed in the desert a couple years before. When I presented it to him, he embraced it wholeheartedly and insisted we create an album around it.

Thus, Appalachia Waltz was born.

As an artist, you can never be sure which of your creations will end up resonating with people. Largely thanks to Yo-Yo, Appalachia Waltz has become a mainstay of American classical string music and a beacon to musicians and composers around the world working to blend styles and bridge the gap between the antiquated domains of “art” and “folk” music. Yo-Yo has performed the composition on solo cello perhaps a thousand times – as an encore after performances of Bach and Dvořák, at dinners for heads of state and royal families, at memorial services (the most recent being the memorial service for Steve Jobs), and in many other settings. It was the first piece of music performed in a New York City concert hall after the attacks of September 11, 2001. In exposing literally millions of listeners around the world to Appalachia Waltz, Yo-Yo has bestowed upon it what one might call diplomatic importance.

I have also performed Appalachia Waltz thousands of times over the last 20 years, and because of its popularity, I have arranged it for many different combinations of instruments. There is a beginning version of it for solo violin in Book I and the complete violin solo and duet version in this Book V. I have also arranged it for violin/guitar duet, string trio, piano trio, and string orchestra. In 2006, I even composed an entire symphony (called Americana Symphony) based on the theme! Appalachia Waltz is direct and memorable enough to work in any number of settings, and each setting offers a new, fresh perspective on the melody and construction.

I have often been asked why Appalachia Waltz – or any of my music, for that matter – sounds American. It is a good question and a difficult one to answer, which is why I have spent much time thinking about it. To me, my music, and American music in general, implicates a sense of journey. The history of this country is characterized by movement, travel, and change to a greater extent than the history of any other country in the world. From the migration of the first true Americans across the Beringian land bridge tens of thousands of years ago, to the first European expeditions around the continent sponsored by competing kingdoms in the 15th and 16th centuries, to the influx of European settlers and African slaves in the 17th and 18th centuries, to the westward migration and Manifest Destiny of the 19th century, our country has always been on the move. Generally speaking, we have been willing to uproot our lives in search of better opportunities and greater freedoms.

Mark and his wife Maggie O'Connor recorded the violin duo version 
American music is thus a well-traveled body of music, and its influences are diverse and wide-ranging. Country, gospel, bluegrass, Canadian fiddling, jazz, Habanero, Cajun, Zydeco, old-time, and numerous other styles are themselves blends of sounds and songs from the various peoples, cultures, and communities that have made America their home.

To me, Appalachia Waltz is a modern-day spiritual. It conveys both optimism and longing, a belief in the future and a closeness for old homes, old friends, and past journeys. Ironically, folk musicians who hear it for the first time believe it to be a “classical” piece, and classical musicians call it “folk” music. Indeed, the piece exists in a liminal zone. It creates a bridge of trust between audience and performer as it lies at the intersection of many styles, emotions, and journeys.

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