Monday, September 7th, 2015
by Tim Hansen
In 1942 Aaron Copland was commissioned to write a new ballet for Martha Graham with broad brief of creating something “American themed”. No prizes for guessing the work: Appalachian Spring was an instant success, immediately becoming a cornerstone of Americana and continuing to thrive today in concert halls and SUV commercials. Years afterwards however, Copland confessed he was always a little amused when people enthused about how well he had captured the ‘sounds’ of the Appalachians since, as it turns out, he hadn’t had the Appalachians in mind (or indeed, any particular region of the US) when he wrote it, planning to simply title it Ballet for Martha. (It wasn’t until shortly before the premiere that Graham suggested Appalachian Spring as a title, and boy howdy, did that name stick).
This is, with hindsight, probably unsurprising. The Appalachian region stretches from Southern New York to Mississippi, making it an integral part of the bulk of the US’ folklore at the time, especially to the booming population of New York City’s urban migrants. For many, Appalachia was America, and the enduring popularity of Copland’s masterpiece in no small way ensures that this remains the case today. The region continues to evoke something undefinably American in the work of artists who are inspired by its beauty and unique cultural heritage, from symphonies to TV shows to The Hunger Games.
This brings us to Shawn Jaeger, a young Kentucky-born composer currently living in New York who is infused with his native state’s reputation for both unerringly pleasant manners and love of all things Appalachian. One of last year’s JFund awardees, Appalachian folksong and hymnody are absolute fundamental building blocks of Jaeger’s work. “My music often explores the people, places, and cultural practices of my native state of Kentucky, as well as structures and metaphors drawn from the natural world,” explains Jaeger.
Growing up in Louisville, Jaeger played violin in both his church and school orchestra. This dual musical upbringing – arguably quintessentially Kentuckian – implanted in Jaeger the belief that “music is a force that draws people together, something that creates a sense of community and shared perspective or purpose.” Later, in college, Jaeger was exposed to the raw passion of Old Regular Baptist hymnody. “When I first heard Old Regular hymnody,” Jaeger reflects, “I was overwhelmed by the sense that the singers believed their salvation depended upon the conviction of their song. That is, the stakes for their music making were as high as possible. This kind of total conviction is a goal I strive for in each piece I write”.
For his JFund commission however, Jaeger drew from the other great influence in his life, Appalachian folksong. Specifically, the music of Dillard Chandler, a ballad singer from North Carolina who, despite his obscurity (he gave one public performance in 1967) is, in Jaeger’s opinion, “the greatest ballad singer on record.”
Jaeger’s work is titled The Carolina Lady after the song sung by Chandler, which Jaeger used as his source material. Not in a conventional sense however; to compose the work, Jaeger first created what he (awesomely) calls a “hyper-song prototype,” in which he took the original recording and altered it digitally to extreme lengths, compressing prolonged excerpts down to flash-in-the-pan impulses or stretching a single inflection out over minutes. He then transcribed the results, a challenging but enjoyable process. “When compressing a lengthy chunk of audio into a short gesture,” Jaeger explains, “the question became how best to simulate the sonic richness of that gesture despite its brevity. On the flip side, greatly slowing down short segments of the source audio often revealed incredibly subtle fluctuations in frequency, timbre, resonance and so on.”
For Jaeger, the obvious choice of instrument to perform this work was the saxophone, and he composed The Carolina Lady for long time friend and colleague Ryan Muncy. “The saxophone resembles the human voice in many ways,” Jaeger says. “The saxophone can really ‘sing.’ It’s also an extremely virtuosic instrument, with an incredibly diverse palette of timbres. For a piece made by transforming audio, it was important to me to choose an instrument that could simulate the wide variety of sounds I would create with the transformed audio—noisy, airy, pitched, complex, etc.—as well as an instrument facile with microtones.”
“Ryan is one of the finest saxophonists of his generation,” continues Jaeger, “and it is an absolute honor to work with him. ‘Fearless’ is the word that comes to mind. He has taught me a great deal over the course of developing this piece, and has been nothing but a patient and willing collaborator.”
Despite Jaeger’s work being rooted so firmly in a tradition that is (pardon the pun but I can’t resist) old as the hills, his music is undeniably forward-looking. “I am drawn to the idea of ‘finding the avant-garde in the old-time’ to use a phrase from Brian Jones,” says Jaeger. For Jaeger, the music of the Appalachians is a well-worn map that he uses to explore completely unfamiliar territory. “This piece is unlike anything I’ve done before, both in terms of how it was written and how it sounds,” Jaeger says proudly. “Of course, when you’re in unfamiliar territory, there are often missteps and false starts. That has certainly been the case with this piece. But as a composer, missteps and false starts, even total failures, are ultimately much more exciting than retreading familiar ground.”