Andrew Conklin: Field Reports


On "Field Reports," Composer Andrew Conklin engages with the rich legacy left behind by early 20th century composer Sidney Robertson Cowell's Northern California Folk Song Project, an archival project sponsored by the WPA in 1938 in which she documented thirty five hours of folk music from the region. Conklin reimagines these songs in a brilliant collage of contemporary chamber music, American folk music, and sound collage scored for three singers, three percussionists, double bass, and electronics.


# Audio Title/Composer(s) Time
Total Time 25:46

Field Reports

Andrew Conklin
01I. Russian Hymn / II. Granny Does Your Dog Bite
I. Russian Hymn / II. Granny Does Your Dog Bite
02III. Adeus Ulina
III. Adeus Ulina
03IV. Why Don't You Write a Letter Home
IV. Why Don't You Write a Letter Home
04V. Old Dan Tucker / VI. Andrew Batan
V. Old Dan Tucker / VI. Andrew Batan
05VII. Field Hymns
VII. Field Hymns

Andrew Conklin’s Field Reports is a contemporary composer’s engagement with one of the most important archival projects in the musical history of the United States. Between 1938-1940, ethnomusicologist Sidney Robertson Cowell (composer Henry Cowell was her husband) secured funding and support from the Library of Congress, the Works Progress Administration, and UC Berkeley for the Northern California Folk Music Project, one of the earliest surveys of folk music in a specific region of the country. Over the course of two years, Cowell and her team assembled 35 hours of sound recordings in several languages and from many musical traditions reflecting communities living in Northern California. Scored for three singers, three percussionists, double bass, and fragments of Cowell’s original recordings, Conklin’s Field Reports uses this archive as source material to be deconstructed, integrated into collage textures, and viewed through the distorting lens of time and a transformed national landscape. On the recording, we hear songs in Russian, Spanish, Portuguese, and English.

Opening with a woman’s voice lamenting that she had forgotten a verse, the first track layers two songs on top of one another, a haunting hymn from the Russian Molokan Church in San Francisco performed by Conklin’s ensemble, and fragments of the folksy “Granny Does Your Dog Bite,” heard on one of Cowell’s recordings. Percussion and electronics play a superimposed polyrhythmic figure over the ternary lilt of the hymn, setting up a childlike chanting of “Granny.” The track ends with a playful setting of the now bluegrass standard, “Old Dan Tucker,” with snippets of the melody and harmonies accompanied by slightly off-kilter figures in the bass and vibraphone.

“Adeus Alina” is a Portuguese song of farewell, set here with the main melodic line surrounded by melismatic countermelodies taken from other songs in the archive, and disjointed accompaniment in the marimba. Cowell’s recording of the original performance enters midway through the track, transporting the listener back to the mid-20th century, both in terms of recording fidelity and performance practice.

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“Why Don’t You Write a Letter Home” also begins with a recording of a woman speaking, while the bass plays a solo over a pad of jazz harmonies in the voices and pitched percussion. English and Spanish texts (the latter from the folk song “La Noche Está Serena”) are layered on top of each other briefly, before the piece ends with disembodied invocations in Spanish. Conklin’s setting moves through foley sounds, material in the percussion that lies squarely within the contemporary classical vernacular, and various vocal styles.

“Old Dan Tucker/Andrew Batan” opens with a drum corps-eque groove that persistently subverts regularity, before it is interspersed with a recording of “Old Dan Tucker” from Cowell’s collection. The vocal ensemble wraps the recording of English song “Andrew Batan” in a halo of harmonies, before performing a version at half time underneath the recording, as the bass and percussion return to the off-kilter material from the short appearance of “Old Dan Tucker” in the opening track. In the final track, “Field Hymns,” we hear musical ideas from the others, before Conklin settles into the melody from the introductory “Russian Hymn” while percussion and bass accumulate an increasingly complex texture that provides a contrast to the simplicity of the wordless vocal melody.

On Field Reports, Andrew Conklin has created a multi-dimensional dialogue with folk music traditions in early 20th century California, the pioneering folklorist who archived them, and his own poly-stylistic contemporary compositional sensibility. Through this dialogue, we can reflect on a rich musical history captured with diligence 80 years ago, how American music has evolved since, and how the present and past speak to each other through the decades.

– D. Lippel

  • Producer: Andrew Conklin
  • Engineer: Michael Coleman
  • Recorded at Figure 8 Studios, January 18 & 21, 2016; February 6 & 17, 2016

Sidney Robertson Cowell’s field recordings are housed in the Library of Congress in the collection, “California Gold: Northern California Folk Music from the Thirties”

Andrew Conklin

Andrew Conklin is a composer, songwriter, singer, and multi-instrumentalist who makes music that engages both with American vernacular idioms and contemporary classical practices. He has appeared as a composer or performer throughout the United States and Europe, and his music has garnered recognition from diverse voices spanning the worlds of popular and classical music.

Andrew's work has received critical acclaim in blogs such as Pitchfork and The Line of Best Fit, and has been supported by grants from sources that include the Mid Atlantic Arts Foundation, the New York Foundation for the Arts, and Vox Novus. His first full-length album, If I Were More Like You, was praised by the indie rock musician Merrill Garbus as “one of the best collections of songs I’ve had the pleasure of being exposed to, ever” (Filter Magazine). Andrew's string quartet was a finalist for the 2017 Lake George Composition Competition and received performances at the 2017 Florida State University Biennial New Music Festival and the 2017 Society of Composers National Conference in Kalamazoo, MI. As a 2018 Millay Colony Fellow, Andrew worked on Song Collector, the second in a cycle of large-scale compositions that exist in dialog with Sidney Robertson Cowell’s field recordings of California folk songs from the late 1930s.

A versatile musical collaborator, Andrew earned a 2017 Grammy nomination for Best Bluegrass Recording for his bass playing on The Hazel and Alice Sessions by Laurie Lewis & The Right Hands. His playing can be heard on record labels including Six Degrees, Spruce and Maple, Plug Research, City Slang, and Arhoolie, and he has recently contributed as a guitarist to recordings by Ben Goldberg, Meklit Hadero, and Michael Rocketship. He has also toured extensively in the United States and Europe as a guitarist and bassist with indie rock bands (Chris Cohen), bluegrass groups (Laurie Lewis), and improvising combos (Timosaurus). As a composer, Andrew has enjoyed fruitful partnerships with musicians from some of today’s most inquisitive new music ensembles, including the International Contemporary Ensemble, Yarn/Wire, Ensemble Mise-En, Spektral Quartet, Ensemble Connect, Tala Rasa Percussion, and the Calidore String Quartet.

Andrew has held teaching positions at West Chester University of Pennsylvania and Stony Brook University, and has served as Assistant Professor of Composition and Music Theory at University of the Pacific since 2018.