Hollis Taylor: From Concertos to Fiddle tunes to Jazz to Fences -- Playing It All
I'm sure our readers will all recognize the name "Hollis Taylor." As author of "The Practicing Fiddler" column for the last few years, Hollis has shared her insights with us on just about any topic that's likely to cross the fiddler's path -- from warm-up exercises to pizzicato to how to listen. As you might guess from the range and depth of her columns, her musical path was hardly straight and narrow. But if you haven't heard her "Unsquare Dances" or "Twisted Fiddle" or "Frames & Boxes," you might not guess just how many genres and continents her trail has crossed since she started her musical career as a teenager with the Oregon Symphony. I managed to catch her for this interview as she was finishing up a short visit back to Portland and was about to fly back to the place she now calls home -- Australia.
Listening to your latest recordings it sounds like you are getting back to your roots, which I presume are in classical music?
I was classically trained. I learned first of all from my grandmother who was at that time blind. What I realized very early on was that I liked Bach and Bartók and not a whole lot in between. What I've come to see now is that, for me, music is really dance and not song. You take some of the great young classical players of our day, like Nadja Salerno-Sonnenberg. She came from an opera background. Her grandfather was playing opera to her and you see it in the left hand. It's all about vibrato and song. And to me it's not about song, it's about dance. So for me, I'm a right hand person. I like everything the bow can do to impart rhythm and dance and groove.
Did that come from your grandmother or did you figure that out later?
No, that was me looking and seeing -- I like Bach and Bartók, and they're the dance movements, the things that are grooving and dancing. And the third part of that trinity is Monk, once I got into jazz. Those are my three favorite composers.
What got you thinking about the fiddle as opposed to the violin? A lot of people in the classical line tend to look down on the fiddle.
Absolutely. Of course, moreso twenty years ago when I was getting involved in it. Now I think it's got more respect, with people like Mark O'Connor. But I certainly had reasonable success with classical music. I taught at Reed College here in Portland and I gave an annual recital and I had played in the Oregon Symphony, although I knew that wasn't what I wanted to do for the rest of my life. But I went on a thirteen month fly-fishing trip and for part of that time I was in Jackson Hole, Wyoming. And Shelley Clark had a great radio program. She's a great fiddler and I think had been Wyoming champion, but I'm not sure of that. Anyway, she had a radio program for an hour every night and she would play this incredible music. Byron Berline, Johnny Gimble I was going crazy! I started taping things off the radio. I was so excited to finally hear some good fiddling. Because I'd bought a book or two, and that was back in the days when the books were really just maps or outlines, you know. It was just so simple and so boring. You didn't have a sense of how to make your own version from there. So I started transcribing solos. And when I came back from that trip, I entered the Oregon Old-Time Fiddle Contest and became state fiddle champion, much to my shock.
Was that the first contest you'd ever entered?
Yes! I was shocked! And I think the people that lost to me were not so happy, either. I don't know if I had an old time sound. I think I'd gotten some of it by ear, not just from a book.
From Budapest, how did you find your way to Australia?
I came back to Portland for a few years, then went to New York for about a year and a half, and loved every minute of every day in New York. I went to every concert that possibly looked interesting. Most of it wasn't, but I did go a lot, and that's where I wrote the violin concerto. Then I went back and forth between Paris and Sydney for a year, and now I'm in Sydney. In Sydney, I have a couple of different projects that I'm really excited about. I'm finally bringing to fruition this jazz CD that I've wanted to do for a long time, and doing a lot of solo things à la Bach and making the violin be the whole instrument -- the bass, the accompaniment, the melody. Everything in one instrument. So I'm doing a lot of solo violin things on jazz standards, like "Opus to Funk" and "Embraceable You," which was partially inspired by what Sven Asmussen did on it, and I just tried to take it a whole lot further than that. So I'm enjoying doing that and I want to get that done this year. And I'm doing a fiddle album this year, too, for which my arrangements are about a third of the way done. This is hoedowns. I've never really performed that many hoedowns, so I'm going for hoedowns like "Say Old Man, Can You Play the Fiddle?" and "Sally Johnson," a lot of things that I've got that are quite twisted and jazz-influenced. And my partner Jon Rose is going to accompany me on fence.
On fence! Yes, talk a little about that fence.
Oh, it's just the craziest idea. I first heard him play a fence in Berlin at an avant-garde string festival that I was performing at. And I immediately thought this is the most weird avant-garde thing that you could imagine. Bowing a fence, bowing a five-wire fence, a bit of barbed wire on top. He even ran a violin down the fence and played it with that. He had a wire about an inch from the ground. Talk about a walking bass -- he'd walk along that, and I thought this is really out! And then the next time I saw him do it was on Easter Sunday in outback Australia on a sheep station for the locals. And they were equally fascinated. They didn't think it was particularly avant-garde or weird. They thought it was fascinating to hear the sound of this structure that they took for granted.
So he'd use a fence that was already there?
Yes! He'd just put some contact microphones into the wood and a little amp...
And he bowed it?
Hmmm. And did you play along with that or was he doing a solo fence?
No, that was him. Then, the third time I actually did play with him. My first fence was one we erected in a school gymnasium in Paris for a techno crowd. They thought it was très cool. And so, it seems like the fence really does have an audience. And now we have a fence CD out. My first CD released on a real label. Peter, I had to wait all these years, all these lessons, all the hours of practice, and now I'm playing fence!
[For the full text of this interview, purchase the Winter 03/04 issue of Fiddler Magazine!]
[Peter Anick, co-author of Mel Bay’s “Old Time Fiddling Across America,” plays fiddle with the Massachusetts bluegrass band Wide Open Spaces (www.wideospaces.com).]
Photo: Carol Yarrow