There Comes a time for Change, a Time to Let go and a Time to Hand Over the Reins.
There Comes a time for Change, a Time to Let go and a Time to Hand Over the Reins.
This is a melancholy time for us, Marjorie and I that is. The ending of a long road on which we have travelled, laboured and loved. Let us start at the beginning.
When Marjorie and I were first together as a musical partnership…she asked me to come along and accompany some of her students which she assembled several times a year for a concert where they would play to each other, to friends and to families. I was on a steep learning curve and watched and listened to everything that Marjorie did as a teacher. She was and remains an exemplary role model for teaching and inspiring musical appreciation, passion and skill in students. Her violin students did not have regular interaction but would learn some of the same pieces so that the finale of each student concert could be a group piece. Sometimes these had themes where most of the tunes were drawn from a tradition. Thus one concert might focus on classical favourites, another on Celtic Tunes, Pop tunes or in the case of the first that I played along with , American fiddle music. I recall cranking up the banjo, for ‘Old Joe Clark’, ‘Turkey In The Straw and several other well-known Americana standards.
Around this time a musical acquaintance, Fred Pribac, had told me about his project to transcribe and play traditional Tasmanian music which had been sitting in the Oral History section of the National Library in collections taped by John Meredith, Rob Willis and others. Later Fred’s project extended to tracking down living musicians who had been taped in these collections and a year further on to teaching Adult Ed courses based on this music.
In January 2000 Fred, along with his co-transcriber Stuart Graham, put together a booklet containing some 27 great Tasmanian country dance tunes from all over the Island. Marjorie and I received a copy of this great little book, played through the tunes and we were hooked.
Consequently I ordered everything the National Library had in the way of folkloric Tasmanian music and set to work trying to transcribe these pieces, a labour of love which would takes years and which would inspire further searching for living musicians, tracking down family recordings, handwritten sheet music and colonial publications of scores etc..and lead eventually to several books and a massive online archive of Tasmanian folk dance tunes from 1814 to the present.
In 2000 we had started a group of student musicians in the Huon valley which we called Valley Strings. This group was mostly comprised of very young beginners. We met every Saturday at the music room at the Franklin Primary School. Meanwhile around July 2000 Marjorie had been asked if Valley Strings would like to perform at the Palais at Franklin along with some local school based choirs that September . This fell at about the same time that Marjorie’s Hobart based students were due for a concert. The Hobart based violin students at that time were mostly more advanced players than the younger Valley Strings players. I suggested to Marjorie that the Hobart based students should aggregate as a second ensemble and prepare a set of Tasmanian Tunes from Fred and Stuart’s booklet along with some tunes that I had written.
We had several practices at MacFie’s Music in Hobart in Marjorie’s studio room, which I recall felt a bit crowded. The tunes from Fred and Stuart’s Tasmanian Tune collection that we played were , The Black Cat Piddled In The White Cat’s Eye from Cape Barren Island, King Pippin’s Polka, and the School Polka and Dad’s Waltz from the Dawson family of Franklin. They also played Sober Maggie and The Franklin Mystery Hornpipe. Fred Pribac came along and played some of these tunes with the students at rehearsals and gave pointers on style and technique for this type of tune. Though young most of the players had a solid foundation in classical violin they needed mostly to learn about the idiomatic features and groove of country dance fiddling.
As the September performance grew near Marjorie asked what I think we should call the group. I suggested the Tasmanian Heritage Fiddle Ensemble. Marjorie at first protested that this sounded pretentious. I agreed but I conveyed that the group could live up to those pretentions and deliver traditional music in a way that did not belittle the idiom but rather that treated the music as the elegant and important music I believed it to be. Thus the name stuck and the Tasmanian Heritage Fiddle Ensemble was born.
When the performance came around, the thing that struck us was that the audience was visibly moved to hear this, almost lost, local music being revived and performed by a talented and charming group of young musicians. In the following few years the Ensemble would perform at the Cygnet Folk Festival, The National Folk Festival in Canberra ,10 days on The Island and several other events, but still we only met and rehearsed as a group leading up to a performance.
Meanwhile as members of Valley Strings progressed as musicians some began to join the Tasmanian Heritage Fiddles for performances.
The extraordinary public reaction to real Tasmanian folk music inspired us to search out, teach and to transcribe and to arrange more local music. As much as possible in our performances we would credit the collectors of the tunes, the folk that had played the tunes and the families that had preserved the tunes. We also presented any amusing stories associated with the people that had played the music. A lot of individual and regional styles became evident as we gathered and studied more Tasmanian music. We tried to include things from the musical vocabulary of different players; the elegant but steady beat of Paddy Dawson, the snappy upbeat ornaments of Edward Hills’ box playing, the shuffles and open string double stops of the Brown Boys from Cape Barren Island and the whimsical phrase endings and flourishes and surprising accent structure of Eileen McCoy’s fiddling. For accompaniment we tried to find a half-way house between the hillbilly guitar stylings of Athol McCoy and the swinging back-up style of the Hobart based jazz bands we had heard when we were younger such as the Pearce-Pickering band .
The Ensemble began regular weekly practices in the basement at Andy MacFie’s shop, the only space that could accommodate our growing numbers.
As the Tasmanian Heritage Fiddle Ensemble developed, we gradually evolved our own sound. It was at times orchestral, with coordinated bowing and intonation informed by the Hobart classical tradition that had been championed by Jan Sedivka. To this was added a guitar, mandolin, cello and bass rhythm section that could swing like a jazz band. These were combined with all the earthy and down-home quirks of the untutored folk styles gathered from around Tasmania. As a fiddle group we sounded different from the fiddle ensembles of Scotland, The Shetland Islands and North America and we grew to be proud of our distinct sound.
Over the 16 years since its inception the Tasmanian Heritage Fiddle Ensemble has embraced an array of visiting musicians, from The USA, China, Ireland, Austria, Japan and Denmark. Hundreds of people have joined and passed through the group but over the last 8 years a solid core group continued and helped progress our sound. Some former players went on to have very interesting musical and life trajectories of their own. Several of the current senior players are in demand as players in a variety of bands and covering a huge variety of musical styles.
The THFE has sought to preserve a local musical identity and to counter Tasmania’s endemic cultural cringe, (the belief that culture is always imported and never incubated in our own towns, valleys, villages, and families).
We have found that visiting players and collectors from places such as Cape Breton, Missouri and North Carolina immediately appreciated what we are doing and recognised us as kindred musical souls. Now a generation of young musicians have passed through the Ensemble knowing that their island, its towns and valleys, have nurtured a rich variety of music over the last two centuries. They have also learned to contribute to that corpus of work.
As well as seeking to inspire knowledge and pride in local musical traditions we have always intended the Ensemble to be a great forum for learning and teaching. When players have facility with the core cannon of Polkas, Waltzes, Jigs, Varsoviennas and Schottiches, etc. we ask various students to learn accompaniment styles, to analyse and understand the chordal structure of the tunes and to experiment with different rhythmic patterns for back-up. Later in their development we encourage players to compose harmony parts for traditional tunes and eventually to compose new tunes in the tradition idioms that they have been immersed in for several years. We also alternate sight-reading pieces with aural learning and ear-playing. The result is that our players develop a broad range of skills that includes, harmonisation, ear-learning, back-up playing, part-writing and melody composition.
Another positive to flow from this process is that students have contributed some great tunes which have already entered into the greater corpus that is the Tasmanian folk music tradition. This has helped create a sense that each member is part of continuity with previous generations of players. We have also programmed or borrowed tunes from local players and writers not directly involved with the Ensemble. Visiting fiddlers, instead of finding Tasmania a musical back-water and now often staggered to find how strong our local fiddling and country-dance musical culture is.
All of this and more has been part of our long journey with The Tasmanian Heritage Fiddle Ensemble. We have recently extended the concept to a Franklin-based ‘Heritage at Home’ session every three weeks for some of our Huon Valley students. We look forward to continuing this component of our project… along with putting together some long-overdue updated books of dance and concert tunes. But sadly as we get older and slower the demands of weekly practices, coordinating and directing the group, liaising with venues, festivals, etc, on a regular basis is becoming progressively harder for us. Now, after nearly 16 years, we are planning to hand over the Directorship of the Ensemble to Violet Harrison-Day, assisted by her sister Beatrice and a bunch of other very capable younger people who have literally grown up with the Ensemble.
We have loved our time building and working with the THFE and all that it entails. We have been pushed, stressed, shed tears, shared laughs, had moments of transcendent delight, musical experiences that were over-whelming. We have worked with adult beginners and nurtured them to become powerful contributors to the group and we have had the unspeakable joy of seeing young players grow and mature during their time with the Ensemble. In short is has been our life and to a large extent our family and community. We have measured time by the months between festivals, the days between rehearsals. For all we have given the THFE it has returned, many fold, and so we have been blessed. We hand over the reins of the main THFE with sadness but also with the confidence that it will thrive in new hands. We will continue to be available to perform with the group and will still work with the archive of tunes, transcribing work and compiling some books for the group. For everyone there is a time to step back, to take what one has grown and let it develop according to its own momentum.