Music from the Heart: Compositions of a Folk Fiddler – Review
Music from the Heart: Compositions of a Folk Fiddler. By Colin Quigley. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1995. ISBN 0-8203-1637-7. Pp. xiii, 273. $35.00.
The book is two projects in one. It is a fine example of a modern trend in folklore, the close, carefully nuanced and explicitly reflexive examination of the life and work of an individual traditional artist, in this case a folk fiddler from French Newfoundland, Emile Benoit (1913-92). Quigley sought to establish “what life experiences influenced the values and beliefs that affected Emile’s music making; what aspirations motivated him to compose and perform; what conceptions of himself and his role as a musician influenced his performances; what shaping influence might his training in the musical tradition have had; and what musical concepts inform his performances and compositions” (x). The second project emerged in the middle of this skein of inquiry: while Benoit was typical of his (changing) time and place in most ways, he was unusually creative, with a compositional process strikingly open to view. This offered an adventurous focus for part of the book.
The opening biographical chapter carries us through Benoit’s life in francophone western Newfoundland. He followed a typical path by leaving school young, fishing and doing small-scale farming, and raising lots of kids. But he also emerged as a leader, serving his community informally as veterinarian and doctor, and pushing the not-unusual pastime of fiddling to its limits within his community and, later, beyond the community into the folk revival. He learned to fiddle within his musical family, largely aurally, though with some modest use of recordings. Quigley tells this story, one in which the remarkable emerges from the mundane, with the aid of plenty of quotes and sensitive reflection.
The second chapter explores Benoit’s musical worldview–how he conceived of sound, sorted musical genres, and verbalized other aspects of musical meaning. Quigley found that Benoit thought of music essentially as conversation, as personal expression, as supernatural–here fascinating anecdotes flow freely–and as linked in many other ways with matters spiritual and worldly.
The third and most innovative chapter concerns how Benoit wrote new fiddle tunes. Quigley presents this analysis as offering a rare yet representative window on fiddle-tune and other folk composition. I agree that this is a rare opportunity to witness creative process, and one skillfully explored, but am less certain what it represents. It is hard to imagine that Benoit’s very unusual proclivity to write lots of tunes was not matched by atypical ways of going about this. Nevertheless, Quigley’s conclusions do not surprise. He found the “core of Emile’s compositional technique” was to begin with “a musical idea that is realized as a melodic motif played as an experiment. This [was] aurally monitered, evaluated, and subsequently modified” … with all experimentation “within the structural [and stylistic] parameters of the fiddle tune form” (83). Last, Benoit seemed not to consider a tune finished, or to be able to reliably recall it, until he selected a title for it from among names of local personalities, places, or events. More striking than the end of the process and of its analysis is the journey–Quigley had the remarkable opportunity to record interim stages of Benoit’s working through musical ideas, and transcribed these for the reader. I should note that this part of the book was published previously nearly word for word as “Catching Rhymes: Generative Musical Processes in the Compositions of a French Newfoundland Fiddler” (Ethnomusicology 37, no. 2 [Spring/Summer 1993]: 155-200).
Quigley next presents Benoit’s style and repertoire. This is the least strong part of the book. Treatment of ornamentation is underillustrated and that of tonalities not very deep: what we learn about tunes’ finals is okay, but discussion of modes sticks to major versus minor, neglecting Benoit’s interesting and variable use of pentatonic patterns. Bowing is treated thoroughly and well. Quigley transcribes fifty-two tunes, six of them in two versions, a nice and not unusually sized repertoire that fiddle scholars will have fun comparing to those of their own fiddle consultants. It is hard to tell how faithful the transcriptions are. They do not seem very detailed to me, and we are referred to Quigley’s field collections rather than to Benoit’s several commercial releases.
The last chapter and concluding section are delightful. Benoit’s performance venues move through local public dances and house parties, the decline of these in the 1960s, and into the modern revival milieu. He was at his best in smaller gatherings, and livelier in performance than in interviews. Interestingly, he found ways to shape recent performance venues to be somewhat like those from earlier in his life, for instance, interviews, other small gatherings, and even some recordings took on the mixture of narrative and performances typical of the earlier house party.
This is an enormously ingratiating volume. Quigley’s narrative is warm, lucid, and meticulously documented, and Benoit comes across as a charming and fascinating friend we would each like to have visited. It is not a big book, but it is an important addition to the growing literature on American fiddling, to the biography of nonfamous people, and to the broad sweep of American musical culture.
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