Composer David Kirkland Garner draws inspiration from archival recordings capturing the musical heritage of the American south. His ebullient work for large chamber ensemble Dark Holler puts some of these sounds traditionally associated with southern folk music through Garner's prismatic compositional lens.
Composer David Kirkland Garner deftly weaves influences from the musical tradition of the southern U.S. into his compositions. An avid banjoist and fiddler, Garner’s incorporation of vernacular elements is oriented less around collage and insertion of found sound as it is demonstrative of a honed technique for development of motive, orchestration, and structural pacing. Garner often approaches vernacular material from one of two angles — either we hear idiomatic folkloric material presented first and then deconstructed, or we hear the deconstructed fragments initially as Garner slowly reveals the larger whole, adding elements in other parts of the orchestra or fleshing out the initial motive.Read More
Dark Holler's opening movement, Traveler, begins with a regular pulse on woodblock, metrically reinterpreted after lush strings circle improvisationally around the block’s beat. Fragments of the fiddle influenced melody are passed throughout the ensemble, catching in the winds, as Garner twists and turns the motives in an increasingly driving, pulsating texture. The second movement, Wandering, opens with evocative, hazy sustained chords, perhaps a portrait of a Southern landscape on a hot summer morning as the sun is rising in the sky. A regular plodding pulse grows out of the haze, and the cello steps forward for a soulful, expansive solo. Devil’s Dream opens with swarming, chromatic motives in the strings, a deconstructed fragment that unpacks itself over time, as Garner slowly builds more textures surrounding these motives in the winds. It is not until the four minute mark that the string lines begin to elongate, before eventually breaking out into a full throated fiddle hoedown. The Interlude, played by clarinet, percussion, and harp, is introverted and reflective, and acts as a counterweight to the exuberance of the surrounding movements. In New Railroad, fast, ascending arpeggios with off kilter rhythms on woodblock seem to symbolize the inevitable forward energy of progress and its impact on the landscape. A contrasting section of violin trills delivers commentary on the technical brilliance of the arpeggiated passages, before Garner flips the material on its head, outlining descending passagework with the same ferocity. Dark Holler closes with the self-titled movement, a lyrical, elegiac coda. Garner’s incorporation of folkloric material from the U.S. South is a natural blend between a Bartokian deconstruction of materials, a more Coplandesque penchant for nostalgia and expansiveness, and perhaps John Adams’ driving economy of means. Dark Holler, performed here by a star studded cast drawn from the New York based yMusic, is a strong statement by an American composer who embraces the music tradition of his surroundings while integrating it into a finely tuned compositional process. By taking a deconstructive approach to the component parts of a musical vernacular, Garner’s work grapples with the fraught complexity of the culture of the South -- a source of so much rich sonic material that is inextricably bound up with a laden and painful history.
Producer: David Kirkland Garner
Engineer: Sound Pure Recording Studios
Editing: David Kirkland Garner
Published by: Hanuga Music
Conductor: Verena Mösenbichler-Bryant
Recording location: Baldwin Auditorium at Duke University in Durham, NC
Recording dates: November 3-4, 2013
Mix and Mastering: Ryan Streber, Oktaven Audio
Design: Dan Ruccia
Photos: Arthur Rothstein, Jack Delano, and John Vachon
David Kirkland Garner writes music, plays banjo, studies fiddle, listens to jazz, hears everything, but suspects he knows nothing. Encompassing chamber, large ensemble, electroacoustic, and vocal works, his music reconfigures past sounds—from Bach to minimalism to bluegrass—into new sonic shapes and directions. He seeks to make time and history audible, particularly through an exploration of archival recordings documenting the musical traditions of the U.S. South.
Garner has worked with world-renowned ensembles including the Kronos Quartet, which commissioned a work based on the music of the Scottish diaspora. Awards include a Charles Ives Scholarship from the American Academy of Arts & Letters, an ASCAP Young Composer Award, and first prizes in the OSSIA, Red Note, and NACUSA competitions. His music has been performed by the Imani Winds, Ciompi Quartet, Vega Quartet, San Diego Symphony, Locrian Chamber Ensemble, the Wet Ink Ensemble, the Boston New Music Initiative, and the yMusic ensemble.
Garner holds degrees from Duke University (PhD, 2014), University of Michigan (MM, 2007), and Rice University (BM 2005), and has taught music theory and aural skills at Duke, Kennesaw State, North Carolina State, and Elon Universities. He is currently an Assistant Professor of Composition and Theory at the University of South Carolina.
Dark Holler, a marvelous work for large chamber ensemble by David Kirkland Garner, impresses on multiple levels. On formal grounds, it merges elements drawn from the musical heritage of the American south with modern classical composition. Fiddle tunes, banjo songs, and Appalachian ballads are but three of the styles drawn upon during the six-part, forty-four-minute recording. What makes the accomplishment more impressive, though, is that Dark Holler is no lazy collage or pastiche that simply drops said elements into the work's structure; instead, the incorporation of vernacular elements is handled deftly using one of two strategies: much like a camera gradually bringing a blurry image into sharp focus, a folk motif gradually assumes definition after first being presented in a deconstructed form that subtly alludes to the motif; or the folkloric material is stated with clarity first, after which it assumes a more fragmented form that still retains an audible connection to the originating material. Such an approach reveals Dark Holler to be a work of great sophistication and poise.
The work itself is impressive, then, but so too is its realization by the personnel involved. Recorded at Duke University in Durham, North Carolina during two days in November 2013, the recording features performers drawn from yMusic and the American Contemporary Music Ensemble (ACME), many of them familiar names in new music circles. Violist Nadia Sirota, flutist Alex Sopp, and cellist Clarice Jensen appear, as do clarinetist Hideaki Aomori, trumpeter C.J. Camerieri, horn player Jamie Keesecker, pianist Timothy Hambourger, harpist Jacquelyn Bartlett, double bassist Shawn Conley, violinists Rob Moose and Sarah Griffin, and percussionists Cameron Britt and Shawn Galvin. All play integral parts in rendering Garner's vision into physical form.
The opening movement, “Traveler,” provides an excellent illustration of the compositional technique in play. It begins quietly with a regular pulse on woodblock augmented by delicate strings that seem to gently swirl around the beat. As the ten-minute movement advances, however, the strings' expressions morph into a fiddle tune recorded in New Mexico in 1952; yet at the same time as that voicing becomes more explicit, the melody extends beyond the strings to the other members of the ensemble, with each musician contributing a part to the intricate whole. Without any compromise to the musicality of the presentation, the polyphonic effect proves mesmerizing; further to that, the combination of the complex patterning and pulsing rhythm suggests some degree of commonality between “Traveler” and an early John Adams composition such as Common Tones in Simple Time. The third movement, “Devil's Dream” does something similar in opening with agitated strings that eventually reshape themselves into a barn-busting fiddle hoedown at the five-minute mark.
Not everything is so extroverted: the second movement, “Wandering Boy” opens in a state of somnolent haze before a cello part rises from the mist with a plaintive folk melody drawn from a recording by Kentuckian Roscoe Holcombe. Hints of delirium gradually emerge as the string patterns accumulate, as if suggesting the effect of a hot sun beating down on the traveler as he struggles to reach his destination. Scored for clarinet, percussion, and harp, the introverted “Interlude” offers a pleasing rest-stop between the more dynamic surrounding movements, while “Dark Holler” brings the album to an elegiac close with dramatic material based on a recording of North Carolina balladeer Clarence Ashley.
Currently an Assistant Professor of Composition and Theory at the University of South Carolina, Garner comes by his connection to folk music honestly. Along with teaching and writing, he plays banjo, studies fiddle, and, so we're told, “hears everything, but suspects he knows nothing.” Certainly said comment shouldn't be taken literally: among other things, he clearly knows a great deal about reconfiguring the vernacular folk music of the American south, as borne out by the remarkable evidence at hand. Though it's possible to hear traces of John dams and Aaron Copland in Dark Holler, Garner is no copyist. This is a work that's stamped throughout with the composer's very personal signature.
Ron Schepper, textura, August 2017
As the title of this beautifully-crafted album makes plain, composer David Kirkland Garner draws inspiration from the traditional sounds of rural music from the American South. Although his music has been performed by ensembles as diverse as Kronos Quartet, Wet Ink Ensemble, and Imani Winds, this six-movement work zeroes in on his ongoing interest in old-time music, although his exquisite orchestrations and the conducting of Verena Mösenbichler-Bryant sand away the grit and grain of the music that he used as source material—performances by rugged singers and instrumentalists like Roscoe Holcombe, Hobart Smith, and Clarence Ashley. The music is performed by a group of New York-based players affiliated with ensembles like American Contemporary Music Ensemble and yMusic, players that often collaborate with artists like Bon Iver, or My Brightest Diamond, but the end result is thoroughly rooted in classic chamber modes, with no little crossover or hybrid methodology. -- Peter Margasak, Bandcamp Daily, 9.18.2017
With a distinct aesthetic, David Kirkland Garner’s work Dark Holler (New Focus Recordings) weaves pulsive and folk-like textures with occasional Ives-esque layering of melody, rhythm, and harmony. Garner, banjoist and composer, draws inspiration from the folklore of the U.S. South: folk songs and fiddle tunes weaving in occasionally subtle timbral textures to create a unique narrative. Influenced by Clarence Ashley’s tune “Dark Holler,” this album-length work performed by the American Contemporary Music Ensemble shares the same name. The liner notes offer further insight into the inspiration of the work, stating, “Dark Holler draws on American roots music recordings, carrying the listener on a journey across the U.S. South.”
The narrative begins with “Traveller,” using a fiddle tune from New Mexico in 1952. With a quiet, pulsating clank of the piano, a harmonious string texture emerges. Reminiscent of Charles Ives, Garner gains intrigue by brilliantly displacing melody and counter melody, creating a dense rhythmic dissonance on top of the seemingly bitonal moments. A pointillistic groove in the bass line shifts to continually rotate its placement under the dense melodic material, creating a strong forward impetus. At times, “Traveller” follows a simple structural framework, and just before risking predictability, Garner’s impressive sense of pacing shines by altering the narrative–a sudden removal of pulsation wisely reinvents the overlaying rhythmic dissonances.
Ending the narrative of “Traveller,” Garner creates a stark, fragile texture amongst the strings, while a series of sagaciously placed block chords, reminiscent of Louis Andriessen, color the space with impeccable timing. With a gentle orchestration, “Wandering Boy” displays similar intuition to alterations in form to subvert expectation. The string harmonic writing, with its static tones without vibrato, exquisitely blends with the crotales in the riskiest formal moment, seemingly halting time until the strings drop back into standard range.
Continuing the multi-tiered layers of displaced melodic lines, “Devil’s Dream” boisterously presents the same chaotic textures through a turbulent narrative. This culminates in a ruckus interpretation of Hobart Smith’s recording of a fiddle tune. In an unexpected moment, as the fiddle tune seems to climax, Garner again flashes his brilliant sense of timing, ripping away the floor as the rotating baseline falls out. The fiddle tune continues, but only through held breath. In “Interlude,” simplistic melodic writing leaves space for the background colors to shimmer to the forefront, allowing Garner to show off a delicate touch in orchestrating perfect crossfades between instruments. Garner displays an alternate way of breaking apart melodies in “New Railroad,” splitting one line between numerous instruments. The fragmented melody is a refreshing and necessary change of pace from the subsequent movements which all display similar compositional techniques regarding displacement, layering, and melodic development.
A clearer emotional narrative is heard in “Dark Holler,” using the melody Clarence Ashley recorded under the same title. The work takes on a darker tone with a sustained, booming bass line, while developing a sanguine melody that establishes a deft cognitive dissonance between the layers. The tune, as sung by Ashley, is clearly at the heart of the constantly shifting and haunting melody. In the waning moments, as the “Dark Holler” theme fades out, Garner introduces the pulsing of the bass drum, seemingly as a dirge, while the deep bass drones on. The impressiveness comes not only from the power of these two elements together, but also the risk taken in the finale section; a shorter finale would have been standard and predictable, but Garner’s risk and courage to extend this section makes it the most prodigious moment in the work.
Garner puts his best foot forward with Dark Holler, displaying tenacious manipulations and artful orchestration throughout. Using southern tunes as impetus for a work risks turning into a gimmick, though Garner approaches the delicate situation with an authentic effort to make the Southern songs his own. The work remains familiar as the same compositional tools revolve around melodic augmentation, pulsation, and displaced layering with occasional explorations into ethereal timbres. The majority of the large scale work contains an energetic, fun quality, though more moments, like the vibrant and colorful string writing at the beginning of “Wandering Boy” or the bass and bass drum at the end of the work, could have made for more contrast between movements of similar exuberance.
Garner’s authenticity and energetic writing is equally matched in performance by the American Contemporary Music Ensemble. In particular, Alex Sopp’s piccolo playing in “New Railroad” shows off her technical prowess in an extraordinary display of meticulous leaps and flamboyant pageantry. At the conclusion of the album-length work, Garner’s voice as a composer is unmistakable; with a true passion and inspiration of the music of the South, Garner creates an engaging and lively listening experience.
— Kevin Baldwin, I Care if You Listen, 10.5.2017
David Kirkland Garner (b. 1982) is something of a Southern reincarnation of Charles Ives. Like his Yankee spiritual predecessor, the South Carolina-based Garner draws heavily on American folk music; in addition to composing, he conducts ethnomusicological research on African-American banjo traditions. Garner’s six-movement Dark Holler for instrumental ensemble serves as a musical map of the South. Each movement is based on a particular folksong, transcribed from gritty historical recordings. These melodies slowly emerge from the musical texture through a kind of backwards thematic development, along the lines of Ives’s so-called “cumulative form.” For instance, the opening “Traveler” movement begins with a series of nostalgic, sweet-sounding “sunrise” chords for harp and strings, pulled straight from the first bars of Copland’s Appalachian Spring. These static harmonies slowly transform into a hazy counterpoint of individual string lines “rehearsing” snatches of a folk tune. It’s as if a group of country fiddlers was trying to tease out a half-forgotten ditty. Ever so subtly, one of the violinists comes forward with a complete rendition of Sanford Faulkner’s song “Arkansas Traveler” (which you may know better as “I’m Bringin’ Home a Baby Bumblebee”). The transition is executed so organically that you only pick up on the tune halfway through its first iteration. As the violinist cycles through a series of variations, a pointillistic cloud of pizzicato strings and spikey piano pitches begins to envelope the main theme. It calls to mind the pops and crackles you hear on an ancient 78rpm disc—most likely a reference to the original 1952 record of a New Mexico fiddler whose playing Garner attempts to resurrect in this movement.
The rest of the piece unfolds along similar lines, but we get a better sense of how Garner engages with his selected relics of the musical past. Rather than attempting to recreate an “authentic” down-home jam session, he repackages these folksongs in contemporary compositional styles. In the scherzo-like “Devil’s Dream,” the ensemble Minimalistically repeats a tiny snippet transcribed from a recording of fiddler Hobarth Smith. When the complete melody is finally presented, it’s accompanied by a driving rock riff in the percussion. In some respects, Garner’s treatment of thematic material is closer akin to electronica than to Ives in the way he samples, mixes, and layers. But in the process of modernizing these old ballads, the characteristic roughness of Southern folk music is smoothed over—Garner’s musical language has a sleek, machine finish reminiscent of John Adams’s music. This is also true of the ensemble’s interpretation; for instance, while cellist Clarice Jensen gives a lovely solo performance of “The Wandering Boy” in the second movement, she makes no attempt to imitate the dry, twangy vocal delivery of Roscoe Holcomb, whose recording inspired the passage.
But overall, conductor Verena Mösenbichler-Bryant leads the 13-member instrumental group in a performance of symphonic proportions—the superior recording quality helps to lend the tiny ensemble a big orchestral sound. Especially powerful is the final movement, titled “Dark Holler” (a side note: “holler” is Appalachian dialect for “hollow,” a small valley). Tense, high strings wail out in a mournful elegy as double bassist Shawn Conley repeatedly slides downward to the low end of his instrument’s range, bring the piece to a close on his growling, bottommost C. It’s clearly a lament—but for what exactly? Given the current social and political climate, where it’s perfectly acceptable to dismiss Southerners as ignorant hillbillies, Garner seems to be calling attention to the widespread suffering faced by many in the poorest American states. The work as a whole moves beyond the banjo-pluckin’ redneck stereotypes to present an accurate picture of the South—both its beauties and its darker corners.
© Fanfare, Joe Cadagin, 12.6.2017