A Conversation with Dan Trueman
We talked via Skype on April 16, 2010.
What were your musical experiences as a child? Where were you born and raised?
DT: I was born on Long Island, near Stony Brook, about halfway out on the north shore. I grew up there almost exclusively, although I had two separate years abroad. My father went on sabbatical, one year to Oxford, and another year to the south of France. I mention those in part because during the year in the south of France I was about ten, and was studying violin at the conservatory in France, and had a very different kind of musical experience than I had been used to growing up on Long Island. Thatâ€™s been part of who I am as a musician.
What year were you born?
DT: I was born in 1968, so I was there about â€™78 or â€™79. I grew up in a very musical family, although my parents are both amateur musicians. Both my parents played recorder, and I grew up with a wall covered with recorders of various sizes. Those recorders are hung over a harpsichord that my parents built when I was about four or five years old. In that same room there is a grand piano, and a clavichord that they built. My older sister is a superb musician â€“ she is a pianist, a singer-songwriter, a guitarist. She is currently a musician in the Chicago area.
I grew up playing chamber music with my family. We used to read Telemann and Bach trios, and stuff like this, with me playing violin. I started violin when I was about four, so to me making music with other people in the home was what you did. I didnâ€™t realize that that was kind of unusual. That was really important to me â€“ this daily making of music with people you know as something you do â€“ not even as performance, but as something you do.
How did they get involved with the early music subculture? Early music in the sixties was something that had to do with resistance to the dominating culture of the society â€“ it had to do with being a hippie, or perhaps in the labor movement, being a leftistâ€¦there were various directions in. In the sixties to build your own harpsichord said something about where you were coming from.
DT: I donâ€™t know the answer to that. My parents, as far as I know, were not part of any leftist or counterculture-type movement. My mom was from northern Minnesota, and was found by the University of Chicago in one of their outreach programs. They would go to rural areas to try to find promising high school students. The rest of her family never left that rural Minnesota environment. As I remember, they were a little older than a lot of the people who were the driving forces in the counterculture in the sixties â€“ my memory of them talking about the counterculture was that they were more scared of it than part of it.
When we were in England when I was four, they took recorder lessons with Walter Bergmann, and they had all these editions of his that we played from. Somehow, before I was born, and when I was very young, they got into this music. I think that my dad just loved playing music. He grew up playing trumpet, but didnâ€™t want to play trumpet anymore, and was just trying to find other music that he wanted to play. He is very enthusiastic about listening, but also about wanting to make music. He likes to build things, so building the harpsichord came out of that.
Where was your father from?
DT: Outside Philadelphia.
They met at Chicago?
DT: Yes. My dad was a graduate student in physics there, and she was an undergraduate. I think she majored in art or art history, and then went to the Art Institute in Chicago for painting after that [part-time student, for a couple years; never got a degree there]. Then my dad got a post-doc and then position at Brookhaven National Laboratory on Long Island, and has been there ever since, which is why I grew up there.
You could say that you are taking after both sides of the family in that you are making and experimenting, and at the same time making music.
DT: Absolutely. Itâ€™s not even just my dad who is in making and science â€“ when there is an engineering problem in the house, and something needs to be built, it is my mom who oversees it. Itâ€™s a funny thing about the talents they have, and how they influenced me, and how I inherited them â€“ itâ€™s not as cut and dried as you might think.
Your Norwegian heritage comes from your motherâ€™s side of the family?
DT: Yes â€“my mother is half Norwegian and half Swedish. She denies the Swedish sideâ€¦
From good Lutheran farmer stock?
DT: Absolutely. She is a recovering Lutheran, as she would put it.
Sheâ€™s from Lake Woebegone, in other words.
DT: Exactly. Sheâ€™s a recovering Lutheran, and not quite a rabid atheist, but a pretty outspoken atheist.
What sort of music did she grow up with?
DT: Not much. She has three sisters, and none of them played music. She wanted to, and had a wonderful piano teacher that they found up there in Bemidji, Minnesota. She started early; her older sister had lessons with a nun, and hated it, but Mom was interested, and signed herself up for it in kindergarten, then informed her parents. She studied with the nun for three years. She moved to a different teacher, and was really great, until age fourteen or fifteen, and was kicked out of the studio by her teacher when she refused to perform in public anymore. There wasnâ€™t much music in her family. In fact, when I started getting into Norwegian folk music as an adult, I didnâ€™t get that I had some Norwegian in me â€“ it wasnâ€™t coming from my family, it came because I heard this music and fell in love with it. I told my mom that I was getting into Hardanger fiddle music, and she said â€śOh, that awful stuff!!â€ť Sheâ€™s since changed her opinion about it, but it wasnâ€™t from herâ€¦.
My experience with Irish sessions is either the guy got off the boat from Ireland, or his father did, or his grandfather, and that almost everyone has some direct connection in the family with the musicâ€¦.is there a similar scene for Norwegian music in the US?
DT: Much smaller, and not as much based on family ties. A lot is based on cultural interest, where there are Norwegian descendants who become interested in their culture, and very commonly through the dance, rather than the music, they get into their cultural folk practices, and start learning more about the music. There are some who may discover that grandfather had a fiddle in his closet, but in this country itâ€™s not the norm to learn the tunes from Dad, who learned it from his mom, or something like that. Itâ€™s much more disconnected, and is the result of what happened with a lot of Norwegian immigrants in the upper Midwest. They didnâ€™t want to be Norwegians any more. A lot of them put that music away, and wanted to become Americans, wanted to do something new. There was a period of time where that kind of music in America almost vanished. It wasnâ€™t until the seventies and eighties that there was a resurgence of interest. These were people from several generations later, who were not worried about their identities as Americans, but wanted to see the cultural heritage that they had.
Exactly the same thing that happens with klezmer. Do you remember how you got started on the violin?
DT: One of my Dadâ€™s colleagues, Danny Slatkin, was a violinist, and his wife was a cellist, and they used to come over and play music [apparently he also played some fiddle music, that I really liked]. When I was three or four I started pestering my parents â€“ â€śI want to play violin like Danny Slatkinâ€ť, and apparently after a year of pestering they gave in, and got me violin lessons. I donâ€™t remember not playing the violin. I started so early that I donâ€™t remember a time when it wasnâ€™t part of what I did every day. Iâ€™m glad that I have this story, because it helps me come to terms with the fact that it is a daily commitment to live with this instrument, to play and try to maintain a certain level. There are things that I donâ€™t do because I have this commitment to the instrument. Itâ€™s unforgiving â€“ you donâ€™t play for a couple of days, and you start sounding worse pretty quickly. I have pianist friends who can set it aside for a month, and come back, and it might be a little rusty, but itâ€™s not that big a deal. The violin â€“ itâ€™s brutal. I am glad that there was something in me that wanted to play that instrument, that I canâ€™t explain, that goes way back.
I can certainly say that I know professional violinists who resent their parents for having made them violinists.
DT: Exactly. I am glad that I donâ€™t feel that.
If you let it go, all that investment is useless, and it doesnâ€™t take so long to get to that point. Maybe itâ€™s not quite so difficult if you are playing Irish or Norwegian, where, yes, there is technique, but itâ€™s more about your swing, and knowing the tunes.
DT: I think thatâ€™s true, that there is a less of an intense level of virtuosity, although these days the folk scene is a really professional scene. High-level, competitive, people trying to show off a bit and push it to the next level.
Because it makes a difference to their bottom line.
DT: I find the â€śknowing the tunesâ€ť part to be a significant investment. I have to spend a fair amount of time not only learning new tunes, to broaden my horizons, and to broaden the people that I can play with, but simply not to forget the ones that I have learned. The Norwegian tunes are less easy to remember than most traditional fiddle tunes. The phrase lengths are very unusual â€“ not typical four-bar pairs, and so forth. The forms are very strange, so itâ€™s quite easy to lose them, and itâ€™s quite hard to get them in the first place. I have been learning some old-time fiddle music recently, and to learn a new tune you can hang out with somebody and pick it up. Not really so with most of the Norwegian tunes. You have really got to spend a week getting it into your body and your ears â€“ itâ€™s hard. So in terms of the daily practice and the daily time commitment to this instrument itâ€™s still pretty substantial. I will catch myself forgetting tunes, and will have to spend the next week reviving the tunes, before they really disappear, and I have to start from scratch.
This is a fundamental difference between folk music practice and classical music practice. If you are a great sight-reader â€“ if you can play in a New York new music ensemble and just read the music right off the part â€“ thatâ€™s one skill. But itâ€™s a skill that is almost counterproductive to being able to retain that music in your ear in terms of learning tunes. They are completely different skills, and the conservatory and university system privilege the idea that music is what is on paper, and that a musician is someone who can write down music and realize it from the paper. But if you are educated in that system, and try to sit in an Irish session, try to learn those tunes by ear, and realize that these people may have four or five hundred tunesâ€¦.itâ€™s a different skill, and you canâ€™t really do both.
DT: Itâ€™s really hard, I agree. I didnâ€™t grow up playing that way â€“ I grew up sight-reading. It was in my early twenties when I really wanted to this. I tried a bunch of things â€“ I started playing jazz, and all these other kinds of music, but it wasnâ€™t until I got to the Hardanger fiddle that I found the thing that I really wanted to do. I needed to do this. Itâ€™s been a long process of changing the way my brain operates musically, so that I can participate in this other practice that you describe, where you are in a room with people trading tunes, and making up variations. I would still say that I am not great at it. Itâ€™s something that I am OK at, and sometimes I hit it right and it goes, and other times I just feel like a complete loserâ€¦.for some reason, that difficulty is one of the reasons that I am a composer. I am pretty good, but not really good, in any of these ways of being a musician in real time. I like to participate in them, but I also feel like I need to invent my own things that I can then play and play with other people.
Itâ€™s the curse of being a rootless cosmopolitanâ€¦.but then if you think about people who are scholars in the area of art, itâ€™s very unusual for the scholar to also be a practitioner. The musician is already closer to practice than anyone else in the academy. To be involved in multiple practices is yet another level of difficulty. To rewind, as we say in Brazil â€“where did you go onto musically after playing Telemann with the family at home? Did you join the stereotypical rock band as a teen?
DT: A little bit. I was in a rock band as a teenager for a little bit, but the violin thing wasnâ€™t so cool. I couldnâ€™t make playing violin in a rock band work at that point, though I did some later when in my twenties when I was playing in a couple of different rock bands, playing six-string electric violin with distortion and pedals. But in high school I was a classical musician. I played in orchestras, and played a lot of chamber music. We had the Long Island String Quartet, and I played the Debussy, and Beethoven quartets, and it was a really important part of my development as a musician.
Were you studying with a faculty member at Stony Brook?
DT: Interestingly, no. I was studying with Irene Lawton, the ex-wife of David Lawton, the conductor of the orchestra at Stony Brook for many years. I canâ€™t overstate how influential she was. She was a really wild violin teacher. She was a German hippie. She grew up in Germany, was trained as a violinist playing string quartet music with some of the best players in Germany. Then she went to Berkeley in the sixties. She was a total left-wing counterculture type. They moved to Stony Brook sometime in the late sixties/early seventies, and she became a very well-known violin teacher in the area. She had an intense approach to teaching, but you might have a lesson which started with forty-five minutes of yoga. You would do yoga, focus on some meditation, and then do some sight-reading â€“ and then work on technique in Bach unaccompanied partitas. She was intense about every aspect of life. She would be teaching me about water conservation, all sorts of things like this, complaining about the salaries of professional basketball players. I had a comprehensive radical education with Irena. There was some tension there â€“ my parents, my conductor in my high school orchestra â€“ they wanted me to get from under her influence, felt that she was having too much influence on me. In some ways everything that I do musically was influenced by her. She was a great player, but at some point in her twenties, she stopped performing, because she was unhappy with her relationship with her instrument in performance. She took about ten years to literally reinvent her technique. She would describe how she played her instrument before, and then how she looked afterwards, which is how she taught me to play â€“ a radically different holistic approach to playing the instrument. She had no interest in training future professionals, she had no interest in her students winning competitions â€“ she didnâ€™t want them to enter competitions, she didnâ€™t care if they were first chair in the orchestra â€“ none of the typical stuff that you get with violin studios in particular. That was incredibly influential, even compositionally. I was never someone who entered compositions or who was ambitious in terms of a career. I couldnâ€™t do that and take myself seriously, given the kind of experience I had with her for many, many years. I have never really taken part in that composer-career-thing that composers do. Itâ€™s not even because I donâ€™t want to, not because I have an intellectual opposition to it, though I do to some extent, itâ€™s not that I wouldnâ€™t have wanted the accolades â€“ I just couldnâ€™t. I really couldnâ€™t do it.