Modern folk music makes for a rewarding evening at Sonic Festival

Wed Jun 07, 2023 at 2:16 pm
The Bergamot Quartet performed Tuesday night at Roulette for the Sonic Festival. Photo: Corey Hayes

Folk music has been at the foundation of what we call classical music since the very beginning. The two have rarely been separate—even during the post-WWII decades when atonal serial procedures dominated the academies and were seen as the inevitable future. What could be more natural for musicians than working with the music of their communities and countries? 

The American Composers Orchestra’s Sonic Festival gave a sample of what modern folk-based classical music sounds like Tuesday night at Roulette. As Ledah Finck, first violinist of the Bergamot Quartet and composer Dan Trueman explained, the pieces had elements of fiddle music from Norway, Ireland, and Appalachia. There was one full traditional tune too, and it all added up to something luminous, touching, and humane.

In a well-made program without intermission, the Bergamot played several pieces by Trueman, interspersed by the composer playing solo on his Hardanger fiddles; Trueman also joined the quartet in some of his own works. His solos had a dual purpose: he got to play modern folk tunes written by him (with one by a Norwegian composer) and also gave the quartet time to retune for the different pieces.

These tunings weren’t discussed, except when Finck said her violin was tuned to octaves for her lovely playing and singing of the traditional “Wagoneer’s Lad” (which she learned from a Doc Watson recording), but they were key to the concert. This was a lovely performance in its own right, and also showed how what is avant-garde from one perspective is just the way people have been making music for themselves and each other for centuries.

The modern pieces—like Trueman’s Memory Field and Sill’s Gully, Fink’s Quilting SongAfter Lester by Anna Roberts-Gevalt and Annika Socolofsky’s Four Tunes In A Major—were more than just the idea of old tunes reimagined in a contemporary context. Folk music can use a variety of non-classical tunings, many designed to use the resonance of open strings as much as possible, along with the bent pitches and in-between notes that classical music considers micro-tonal.

The new music captured this sound. The music was uniformly warm, bright, with a delicate, jangly quality and an edgewise bite when moving from open strings to more chromatic chords. This was pushed to even greater brilliance with Trueman’s Hardanger fiddles, their resonant strings increasing the color and internal illumination in the music.

There was an extraordinarily rich sound world for the whole concert, especially deep and formal in Socolofsky’s gorgeous, four-movement work. The Bergamot Quartet’s overall sound and intonation were excellent. 

Trueman’s work, especially Memory Field, works in a kind of curiosity about dissonance, about what might happen pushing close intervals together in a folk music context, and one felt this playing could have been a touch more robust and supple. 

But the grounded, humble air to everything was marvelous. This is music that essentially has no rhetoric, it tells stories about people and places, it serves memory and narrative, and that simplicity Tuesday night was profound. 

The 2023 Sonic Festival continues through June 12 at various locations.

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