Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Contradance Music

I've never been to a contradance - not to dance and certainly not as a musician - and I don't know if I ever will.  Nonetheless, I have happened upon the style of music performed at contradances and I like it a lot.  To my ears, contradance tunes are the best of both worlds of oldtime and Irish music.  With Appalachian music, you have fiddlers trying to sound as "oldtime" and authentic as possible, mimicking the untrained musicians of lore who perhaps unintentionally created a definitive style.  Then with Irish music there's a lot of ornamentation and flashy, speedy, virtuoso playing, also with its own distinctive style to maintain. Very little crossover between those two styles for most folks.

All that gets put aside with contradance music.  I guess it could be thought of as more of a generic sound because you have musicians who draw on tunes from a variety of traditions.  Groove seems to be the main component rather than an adherence to authenticity.  The tunes are played loosely but cleanly primarily as a means of maintaining the beat.  In the hands of a contradance band, an Irish tune loses a little bit of its Irishness and an oldtime tunes loses some of its oldtimey nature, but in doing so the tune actually gains a fusion of rhythm and drive that often livens it up.

From what I understand the first commercially available recording of contradance music was not until the 1970's, although the history of playing this dance music goes back way before that. Still, there isn't a whole lot of tradition built up yet to get in the way of simply playing the tunes, whatever they may be.  Also, the instrumentation of a contradance band isn't as set in stone as more traditional forms of music and there appears to be more of any anything goes type attitude, so long as the structure of the tune falls into a set number of measures played at a fast clip.

Speaking of recordings here are some of the first ones that I've become aware of:

New England Tradition - Farewell to the HollowThis recording featuring the legendary Bob McQuillen on piano, April Limber (fiddle) and Pete Colby (banjo and autoharp) is available on Rhapsody, among other places.  The tunes mostly come from French-Canadian, Scottish, Irish, Cape Breton and English sources.  Pete Colby's banjo playing is worth pointing out. At first I thought it was a tenor banjo, but it's a 5-string.  He just has a very Irish way of playing it.

Another one I like, which also features piano player Bob McQuillen, is The Rhythm Rollers – Grand Right and Left.  I accidentally found this album on Rhapsody when searching for a recording of the Camp Pleasant Jig, and I knew immediately that I liked this music!  Bob's superb piano accompaniment is still there along with banjo, this time played by W.B. Reid.  Again I thought the banjo was a tenor banjo, but apparently it's a banjo guitar.  That's cool.  This album features a great selection of tunes and is the best overall contradance recording I have heard.

The Charlottesville area contradance band Floorplay has released a neat recording called Block Party featuring original jigs, reels, oldtime breakdowns, rags, klezmer and more, all of them written by band member Paul Rosen.  I really like the fun and playfulness of this band and transcriptions of all of their tunes can be found on their website, which is a nice bonus.  Take a listen and learn a couple yourself.  I've been playing Clouds Thicken and Critter's Gone to Texas from the album and I love both tunes.

The folks at The Portland Collection have put out two CD's of companion music to their two books of tunes as well as a two-disc set with 97 slightly slowed down tracks called A Portland Play Along Selection.  I have the Portland Play Along Selection, as well as both tunebooks.  The play along tunes are played at about 80% of their full speed, making them easy to learn and jam with .  I'm not an ear player, so I also have to look at the music in the Portland Collection Books for transcriptions, but I've gotten many great tunes out of these books and CD's combined.  The play along CD's also sound good enough to listen to for enjoyment alone.

I've heard of other classic contradance bands such as Yankee Ingenuity and Canterbury Country Dance Orchestra, as well as more contemporary and progressive bands like Elixir, but I have yet to acquire any of their recordings.  However, this tiny step into the world of contradance music has opened up a whole well of opportunity for future listening, learning and playing!  I'm sure there's a lot left to uncover.

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