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Adirondack Sketches: John Kirk

At the outset, I was very excited to sit down with John Kirk to discuss my Adirondack Sketches project, and he did not disappoint! John is a very well-known and accomplished musician, mostly in the realm of folk and fiddle music, but he is also a classically trained vocalist and musician. In addition, and perhaps more important, he has an enthusiasm for what he does and a generosity of spirit that are effortless and inspiring. John is known mostly as a fiddle player and singer, but he also plays mandolin, banjo, guitar, and dulcimer, making his brain one that I very much wanted to pick for this project. John has toured around the world with his music, including at the behest of the State Department, and currently teaches at both Skidmore and Bennington Colleges. I sat down with him at his office in Zankel Music Center at Skidmore.

I had a lot of questions for John, especially about music notation for mostly-oral-tradition instruments like the banjo, and what makes Adirondack music unique from other folk traditions, even as it draws on those other traditions. While he did answer many of these questions, he also gave me much more. I say this because it was almost immediately after meeting with John that I began putting pen to paper in earnest to start writing Adirondack Sketches.

As far as the banjo is concerned, John was able to build on the knowledge I had gained from speaking with Dan Berggren (see my earlier post about Dan). We talked about certain idiomatic finger patterns on the banjo and how they might be notated. I began thinking it would be a good idea if the banjo part for this piece had both a traditional five-line, treble-clef staff and an alternative tablature staff. This is not only helpful for a banjo player who is more comfortable in tablature, but will be helpful for me to visualize what the player’s fingers are doing as I write. Several times during our conversation, John used tablature to show me in more detail how certain music can be accomplished on the banjo, in addition to demonstrating this on his own instrument. This was all extremely helpful for a pianist to whom banjo technique is something of a foreign language!

As helpful and necessary as the banjo conversation was, perhaps more important to Sketches was the conversation about what makes Adirondack music. . . well. . . "Adirondack." Knowing that much of the music of the region came from the Scotch-Irish tradition, the French-Canadian tradition, some Native American influence, and other popular styles of North America and Europe, I wanted to know what it is that sets Adirondack music apart from all of these. Having grown up in the Adirondack Park and having heard musicians like John play since I was young, it has always been one of those things that, as they say, “I know it when I hear it.” But when you grow up hearing this music, you don’t always appreciate fully what you are hearing.

John zeroed in on two elements of the Adirondack style, to which he credited fellow musician and Adirondack music expert Sara Milonovich. First, he said that Sara describes Adirondack music as “unadorned.” I immediately knew what this term meant, and it became very clear to me what this was about. As John continued to explain, most folk musicians of Europe and North America will add ornamentation (little trills, turns, mordents, triplets, or other musical acrobatics) to a melody. However, in the Adirondacks, the melodies are more typically left alone in this regard by fiddlers, singers, and other performers, letting the melody speak honestly for itself. I would not say this leaves the music “plain,” rather it allows the spirit and emotion of the music come through in other ways. “Unadorned” is a perfect descriptor!

Second, John talked about the back-beat accent that tends to be used in Adirondack music, particularly with regard to reels. Adirondack performers tend to put the stress on the second half of the beat rather than the first half. He demonstrated this for me, and again, after hearing Adirondack music all my life, I was surprised I never noticed this ever-present nuance! John played an example of this for me, and you can hear this here:

This same lilt is present in jigs, too, wherein the first two thirds of each beat tend to be slurred together with a slight accent and change of bow direction on the last third of the beat. John referred to this as “didleing” (di-dle-DEE, di-dle-DEE, etc.). Here is an example:

John and I also talked a bit about musical form. In the Adirondacks this tends to be the typical, straightforward folk “AA-BB-repeat” form. However, he demon-strated that the Québecois music, which is widely played in the Adirondacks, occasionally strays from this in ways that are unexpected, adding an extra measure or two here and there to accompany certain dance patterns. Thus, it throws off the regular AA-BB pattern. This can be heard here in a tune called The Four-Poster Bed:

French-Canadian music is often given to some improvised syncopation in the accents of the melody. Examples of this can be heard in the tune called I Married Your Daughter, and Yet I Didn’t. You'll also hear John’s footwork (rhythmic foot tapping), which is also somewhat typical of the Québecois style:

This idea of dropping a bit of unpredictability into the predictable is always interesting to me as a composer. I will certainly find a way to include it, even if it is done in in a way that suits my own style and voice. My idea with the Adirondack Sketches project is to honor the music of the region, while also writing something that is new and different, reflecting my own style. It bear repeating from my previous post about my meeting with Dan Berggren, one of the overarching aspects of Adirondack music is that it is deeply personal, and so should this piece be as well.

I have done my best to give the “Reader’s Digest” version of my conversation with John, but he was such a great help and inspiration that I cannot include it all here. We also shared some stories, reminisced about mutual musical acquaintances, and discussed great performances (both folk and classical) that one or the other of us had the privilege of hearing or being involved with. Always the educator, John also took a great deal of pride telling me about some of his more accomplished students at Skidmore and Bennington. It was a fantastic conversation, and I hope to remain in touch with John going forward, both with this project and beyond!

You can learn more about John Kirk and see what he is up to here.


Saratoga Arts made this project possible with an Artist Grant funded by the New York State Council on the Arts with the support of Governor Andrew Cuomo and the New York State Legislature.


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