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Pledging allegiance to the strings

Stewart Oksenhorn

To put it delicately, fiddler Darol Anger hasn’t felt much kinship with the administration that has led these United States the past four years. So Anger created an alternate sovereign power of his own.”We’ve created our own country at this point – the Republic of Strings, whose borders extend beyond all the imaginary borders we set up for ourselves in the world,” said the San Francisco Bay Area resident. “Anyone who plays a string instrument, I hereby declare them a citizen of the Republic of Strings. And I’m not levying any taxes.”The joking manner aside, there is a worldview behind Anger’s words. For his latest album, released earlier this year, Anger assembled a group called the American Fiddle Ensemble. The name can be misleading. The tunes on the album – titled, in fact, “Republic of Strings” – open all borders and cut across all cultures. The album begins with Liz Carroll’s Irish number “Lost in the Loop,” makes its way through the Brazilian choro “Andre de Sabato Nuovo,” and concludes with the contemporary Finnish tune “Sand.” There are also stops in various regions of North America: Detroit (Stevie Wonder’s “Higher Ground”); Kentucky (Bill Monroe’s “Old Dangerfield”); and Manhattan (Anger’s jazzy “Sneezin,'” an apparent tribute to Miles Davis). Perhaps the most obvious attempt to erase musical borders is the “Afro Suite,” which links Anger’s “Evening Prelude” to “Evening Prayer Blues,” written by Deford Bailey, a black harmonica player who performed on the Grand Ol’ Opry, and the traditional African tune “Dzinomwa Muna Save.” All of it is rendered in the vocabulary of American string music, though Anger has the broadest sense of what that categorization can mean.”When you consider that America is populated by people from all over the world, there are only like two real ‘Americans’ living in America,” said Anger, who brings his group – billed as the Darol Anger Fiddle Ensemble – to the Wheeler Opera House on Friday, Nov. 5. “In its ideal form, America is a microcosm of the world. So in that sense, it is an album of American string music.”

In his native New Jersey, Anger both studied classical violin and watched spellbound as the Beatles arrived from an ocean – that might as well have been a galaxy – away. Building on those two formative influences, Anger has always been of the mind that boundaries between different breeds of music didn’t mean much, that the Beatles shared much with Bach, and that bluegrass wasn’t walled off in any way from Motown.”I always sort of had a sense that that was possible, a weird sort of feeling not supported by anything,” said Anger. If he were looking for evidence to support that intuition, he found it emphatically in the form of the David Grisman Quintet. After moving to Marin County at the age of 11, Anger began following local mandolinist and fellow New Jersey native Grisman as he made his way through Old & In the Way and the Great American String Band. Anger dropped out of college in favor of playing bluegrass in northern California pizza parlors. In 1975, when word got out that Grisman was putting together his own combo, the 21-year-old Anger showed up with his fiddle – and a thorough knowledge of all of Richard Greene’s fiddle parts from the Great American String Band. Playing in the original David Grisman Quintet, Anger helped forge a sound that mixed bluegrass, folk, jazz and South American rhythms, and that opened the gates for a multitude of similar-minded string players.”Playing with the DGQ, and taking on so many different styles, he was a really great model for me,” said Anger. “I was so utterly attracted to Grisman’s music because I knew he was going exactly where I wanted to go.”After a few years with the Grisman Quintet, Anger and Mike Marshall, a multi-instrumentalist and another early DGQ member, formed the Montreux Band. The idea behind the group was to take the foundation of the Grisman Quintet even further, to “try to find ways,” said Anger, “to transfer all kinds of sounds into acoustic instruments.” In the mid-’80s, Anger co-founded the Turtle Island String Quartet, a group intended to redefine the centuries-old notion of the string quartet.

“That was a totally conscious effort to take jazz and other contemporary styles and play them convincingly in the context of a string quartet,” said Anger. “All string quartets had always sounded like a string section, like there were parts left out. With Turtle Island, you didn’t have to imagine it – we put in drum parts and bass parts, and that meant creative thinking, learning new ways, new techniques, to play the instrument.”Nearly 20 years later, Anger is pleased to see that those ideas have taken hold in the nation of Acousticstan. “Now, those techniques have become common,” he said. “String players all over the world are taking that on, simulating what we were doing. You have a new breed of string players who accept no boundaries. It’s a given that you have to play all these styles.”As proof of that new thinking, Anger proudly points to two young constituents of the Republic of Strings. Playing five-string fiddle in the Fiddle Ensemble is 17-year-old California high school student Brittany Haas.”She’s just in a complete ‘nother world,” said Anger. “In another time, she would have been a classical music virtuoso. But what she really likes is all these vernacular styles. She’s probably the best Appalachian fiddler there is. I’ve got her working on Coltrane and Cannonball Adderley, and she’ll probably be through that in six months.”Also in the ensemble is 25-year-old cellist Rushad Eggleston. The graduate of the Berklee School of Music attended a string symposium in Canada about three years ago, in which Anger also participated. Mutual friends told Anger he had to play with the young phenom.

“He’s utterly absorbed this ethic [of playing multiple styles],” said Anger. “What he’s doing is creating an entirely new instrument, that just happens to be called a cello. He plays drums, bass, guitar – on cello.”When Anger originally founded the group three years ago, the first citizen of his nation state was guitarist Scott Nygaard. Nygaard was featured on “Republic of Strings,” but is replaced on the current tour by Bryan Sutton.As much as Anger loves living in the Republic of Strings, he maintains multiple citizenships. He plays in the cutting-edge acoustic band Psychograss; the Fiddlers 4, which leans in the direction of Cajun and old-timey sounds; and in a duo with Marshall. Anger also appears on the recent compilation CD, “Creole Bred: A Tribute to Creole & Zydeco,” and on “Mountain Tracks, Vol. 3,” the latest live release by Colorado jamgrass group Yonder Mountain String Band. But if Anger has a true homeland, it is any place without boundaries.”I think anything I do now is going to be borderless, contemporary string-band stuff,” he said. “I have ideas that go in that general direction.

“And in the last few years, I’ve realized music is more about the people. You can start the music with an idea, and it may or may not work. If you have kindred spirits, though, the music will take off. Basically, we have three generations of string players in this group, and it’s a testament to the idea that there’s no limitations on what musicians can do.”Stewart Oksenhorn’s e-mail address is stewart@aspentimes.com


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