Mark O'Connor has been thinking about what America sounds like almost since he first picked up guitar and fiddle as a child growing up in Seattle. When he went back to his hometown lthis summer, it was as festival director for Seattle Summer Fest, joining with the Seattle Symphony to present artists who play music ranging from classical to bluegrass.
That works for a musician whose own path in music has been in some ways very straightforward and in other ways totally unexpected. O'Connor's latest major work is The Americana Symphony, and most of his first ones were bluegrass fiddle tunes. He's also renown as a hot jazz and swing player and composer, is a one time member of the rock fusion band The Dixie Dregs, and for a number of years was the go to guy for top country artists and producers who wanted fiddle on their recordings.
O'Connor recorded four albums of old time and bluegrass music while still in high school but found that neither his high school classmates nor most of the music world knew what to with him at that time. "I went through a period when I was about fifteen when I suffered some depression and almost quit, I really had the blahs, " O'Connor says, but "I started composing a lot on guitar, for guitar, and I did an album when I was sixteen, called Markology. Half the music on that was my own, and the rest were my arrangements of traditional material. That album was very successful for me," O'Connor says, "and by the time I was seventeen I was almost exclusively writing the music I was recording, from that point on."
That's still true through what he's recorded on his own albums, from bluegrass breakdowns to classical caprices. Along the way he has added his musical skills to the work of hundreds of other artists, as well. A few months out of high school, he auditioned for, and won, a spot as a guitarist with the David Grisman Quartet, whose mix of bluegrass and gypsy jazz proved as important for his fiddle playing future as it was for his guitar playing present: gypsy jazz master Stephane Grappelli was in the group at the time, and convinced of the young man's talent, spent time sharing his knowledge on fiddle. Next stop for O'Connor was a brief stint with the jazz rock fusion of The Dixie Dregs. Then, with the encouragement of guitar master Chet Atkins, he decide to move to Nashville.
"It seemed like Nashville was the way for me to go," he says. "I ended up moving there, and getting plugged into a social and music network and fabric of the music business. I think I needed to be around people who worked hard," he says, "who really cared about what they were doing and did it every day. Part of that work ethic was in my blood, because I felt like my father, who was in construction, had a great work ethic and I carried some of that with me, but I didn't know what to do with it, with respect to music, until I got to Nashville. I said aha! you work hard, you work with people, you work with groups, you create recordings, you learn material, you learn how to work with different musicians. It all just started focusing."
That's a set of ideas and a focus he's kept, through years of Nashville session work, into making his own recordings of jazz, swing, and classical music. Perhaps his best known work is Appalachia Waltz, ideas from which form part of the basis for his recent American Symphony. He's recently begun writing music for string quartets, and has also composed a piece based on the music of Johnny Cash as well as a folk mass for choral singers. Mark O'Connor is also teacher, excited about getting other musicians together to share their different understandings of music. He has created fiddle camps to ignite that same spirit in other musicians.
"The fiddle camp idea was largely inspired by my experience at fiddle contests," he says. "People looked forward not necessarily to the contests, people looked forward to being together just for fun. It was just a great environment to get a lot of players together," he said. He got to be around older players and learn from them, as well as jam with kids close to him in age. "So I kept some of that experience with me," he said, "but possibly the best launching pad for it all my was my album Heroes. That not only put me in duet settings with literally all my childhood violin heroes, fourteen of them in all different styles, not only was I getting to introduce a whole set of fans to some of these great musicians for the first time, I was also introducing them to each other."
O'Connor was inspired to continue the project in a new way. "I felt this incredible responsibility to be the catalyst for violin players to discover each other and to discover these wonderful styles," he said. "I wanted to do it in an educational setting, and that's how the concept of the fiddle camp was born." He began the first one at Montgomery Bell State Park outside of Nashville in 1993, and started one in California in 2001. Students, many of whom have gone on to teach at the camps as well as to professional careers in music, include fiddle players Natalie MacMaster, Laura Cortese, Jeremy Kittel, Rachael Barton Pine, and Hanneke Cassel, cellists Rushad Eggleston and Natalie Haas, and mandolin player Chris Thile. "One of the things I think Mark is really great at is bringing all kinds of players from all different genres together," says Cassel, who plays and composes folk style Scots and Cape Breton fiddle music. "There's this idea that classical players are stuck up and folk fiddlers can't play, and when they get to together there's this mutual respect that happens because everybody sees that's not true," she says.
O'Connor is working now mainly in classical music forms. He thinks about classical music as American music, drawing on classical vocabulary in musical conversation with the sounds of the Mississippi Delta, the high lonesome echoes of bluegrass, the sounds of the borderlands with Mexico and Canada, and the music carried by immigrants. "It's the harmony of the American landscape," he says. "The way I kind of look at it is, I have three pillars of musical influence and training," he says. "The pillars are western classical music, American folk music, and jazz. Those are things I studied as a child, and I continue to be interested in. Even this week, you will probably find me going to see some kind of jazz music, going to see some kind of classical music, going to see some kind of folk music. Those are things that have always been with me. I use those experiences, and that training, in everything I do for my career, for my work, for my social settings, and it's a very natural thing for me to combine music and styles to create American music and musical ideas."
learn more about several of Mark O'Connor's recordings:
Kerry Dexter, Music Correspondent Kerry's credits include VH1, CMT, the folk music magazine Dirty Linen, Strings, The Encyclopedia of Ireland and the Americas, and The MusicHound Guides. She also writes about the arts and creative practice at Music Road and contributes to Fred Bals' Series of Tubes.