If I Had A Hammer: An Interview
with Malcolm Dalglish
by N. Scott Robinson
What was your performing experience before you got into dulcimers?
Mostly theater except for an early fifth and sixth grade experience with the American Boychoir in New Jersey, which was very formative. We performed all over the world, working with major orchestras, and powerful directors like Leonard Bernstein, and Eric Leinsdorf. We went through a lot of repertoire, and I was good at learning by ear, so the music really became a part of me. The voice is an instrument you can't just put away; like a trumpet after your high school band days are over. It stays with you. There wasn't much music where I went to high school so I became more involved in theater. At Oberlin College, I joined a really exciting experimental theater group. We did a lot of stuff that was very obtuse and not what you'd call "for the audience." We experimented a lot with vocalizations that went beyond words and language. These emotive sounds were inherently musical. Well the experience opened up a desire to do something more "for the audience" something with roots, and something with sound. That's when folk music and the hammer dulcimer came along.
You encountered the dulcimer in your undergraduate years?
I was working as a carpenter in Tennessee one summer, and I saw Guy Carawan playing a hammer dulcimer at a music festival. As an actor, I felt that I was going to be spending a lot of time waiting for a part, possibly literally waiting on tables, so I thought, "What better way to cope with a life on hold than to have a really fun instrument to fill those empty moments." Did you know Whoopi Goldberg keeps a hammer dulcimer in her bathroom?
Must be hard to keep that one in tune! So you just saw one, and then built your first dulcimer?
It wasn't that easy. I went back to Oberlin, and I drew up a lot of plans, actually multiple, optional, versions of plans, all from memory. Then I sent them to Guy Carawan, Bill Spence, and other people I knew who played dulcimer. I had little blanks for them to fill in the measurements. "Do the strings go this way or this way?" I was trying to make it easy for them. Well, to sit down and sort through those illustrated conjectures would easily have taken up the better part of an evening. Maybe some of those dimensions didn't even exist. Nobody filled out the form.
I did get some replies and some tips on where to go for more info. I found Howie Mitchell's book How to Build a Hammer Dulcimer, describing the building of something like fifteen dulcimers, each one having problems. I found this process of "how NOT to build a dulcimer" coupled with a pamphlet by Sam Rizzetta on how to build one in two hours; just what I needed to design my first one, which I did for a month long winter term project at Oberlin College. I didn't know how to use woodworking tools very well, so some of the joints I made with a hacksaw. It was huge and way overbuilt, with five strings per course, and a soundboard donated by the Baldwin Piano Company. One thing led to another. I dropped out of Oberlin. Got fired from my gig as a night time manager of a chili joint in Cincinnati, started building them for a living, and built about sixty instruments in a period of three or four years, experimenting with different designs. Pretty soon I got a job playing one in a pizza joint. Finally, I did a recording of Irish tunes with Grey Larsen called Banish Misfortune. Eventually, we had a recording and performing career happening, and I didn't have enough time to build anymore.
How did you learn tunes on the dulcimer?
I'd listen to recordings, mostly of Irish tunes, and slow them down, maybe draw some dots to grab the contour of the tune but I'd always sing them out a little bit.
What drew you back to singing?
When I began performing and going to festivals, I'd hear different singing groups using different kinds of vocal textures. I was attracted to the Word of Mouth Chorus from Vermont, led by Larry Gordon. They sang in a very pure style, not classical not pop, but with a very hard-edged sound. It was a non-blended type of texture, really gutsy. I was moved by this kind of folk choir sound with its raw musicality and a personality that really seemed to flesh out the vast poetry of those early hymns. I enjoyed the use of the voice as an instrument, drawing inspiration from Bobby McFerrin, and other singers who play with a broad pallet of vocal sounds.
Were you singing with Metamora at this time?
Yes, Grey Larsen, Pete Sutherland, and I liked to sing in our concerts. Hymns, folk songs, original singer-songwriter stuff, and some ballads, but we were known mostly as an instrumental group.
Did you ever study composition or theory?
Once I was out gigging with the dulcimer, I decided to get serious about a career and applied to the Conservatory in Cincinnati. The admissions guy came to my gig at the restaurant and accepted me on the spot. I studied some theory there but never composition. The composing grew out of the way I learn music which is very imitative, monkey see monkey do. By the time I'd figured out a bunch of tunes, usually from other instruments and newly arranged for the dulcimer, the process of invention was underway so it was a short leap to coming up with original tunes. I learn in a tactile way; I like to have something in my hands, or in my voice, or in my imagination, before I can work it out. In one sense, it's kind of a crippling feeling, but in another sense, it's a process that renders something that's really organic, connected, and alive because it's born out of play. The tools of our modern communication technology, things like tapes, videos, and digitized information, are in many ways better suited to the transfer of these structures than the written page. Folk music looks way too complicated when you try to capture its essence on a page. It's hard to read through my scores and get the true fun of the music. My songs are like playground equipment, you can't be holding a piece of paper with instructions.
How did you develop your technique on the hammer dulcimer?
Mostly through imitation and improvisation. When I imitate other instruments on the dulcimer I fail but in that failure I discover new sounds that are inherently dulcimer. The dulcimer is set up so that it's very easy to recognize arpeggiated patterns. I found Irish tunes very accessible on the dulcimer because the melodies are constructed of very danceable arpeggios. The trick of embellishing the melodies improvisationally was very difficult to do with the freedom of a fiddler. I learned some wonderful techniques in that process though. The more I played, the more I wanted to explore the possibilities of the dulcimer as a percussion instrument; playing things on it that were easy to do on this instrument, that were more difficult to do on other instruments. I tried to find the true voice of the dulcimer; what it does that's easy, yet extremely musical. I think the most important thing on any instrument is to discover what it wants to sing.
So what's the inherent sound of the hammer dulcimer, and how do you improvise on it?
It's a drum with a high end, a very bright ringing attack, and a mysterious and long decay. It's really fun to let these left right mallet feet go hog wild, but what's fun to play is not always fun to listen to. Fast melody leaves a trail of sustain that can be pleasing but if you get too busy with your melody and harmony and rhythm you lose that mystery. You're kind of thunking around in a big wash of sustain, trying to collect your saliva. I developed a way of visualizing the instrument through what I call "constellations." When you look at the stars, you see this chaos of twinkles up there not unlike the chaos of strings on a dulcimer. I pick out the points of impact that create a chord or sonority and connect the dots. I then have a constellation shape. I play on that constellation shape as though it was a drum. I simplify the harmony in order to intensify the rhythmic story, or I simplify the rhythm in order to bring out the purity of the melody. It's all a give and take with the wonderful limitations of the instrument. Its also nice to leave some holes where that mystery of decay and clarity of attack can be enjoyed. Imagine the mirrored surface of a lake. Too much thrashing around and you never experience the amazing visual of geese landing or taking off. I love these dulcimer metaphors. Some of my favorites come from dulcimer haters who liken the sound to a wild and abandoned set of rusty bedsprings or the sound of a birdcage falling down the stairs!
How do you compose music on the dulcimer?
I deal with the terrain of what's available on the instrument, and come up with voices and ideas through discovery on the instrument. It's a process not unlike when you want to build a fire; going out into the woods and collecting kindling, you say, "Oh, this'll work, I could use this, this is good," and you bring it back. You don't know how you're going to use it, until you build something out of it. It's a gathering process, rather than one where you invent right out of your head. Most of my pieces I arrive at through improvising. When I improvise I try to create moments with those new discovered sounds, moments that can later be found in full-blown compositions. I keep tapes of my improvisations. When I'm looking for a way to start a tune, I will listen to some of them. In perhaps an hour or so, of just playing around on the dulcimer, I'll find a way to connect these moments or at least a context for creating new material. Pretty soon I will have constructed a tour with scenic viewpoints, returnings, developments, and all that compositional stuff that transports a listener.
You rely on an intuitive approach?
I really do, and on falling down and picking myself up again. I guess its the art of capturing an idea and developing it. You ask yourself, "Why did I like that? What was it? What was it that made that work?" You put it together and then you use it somehow. When I was building dulcimers, I can remember spending four weeks building six dulcimers that pulled apart, and never amounted to anything. I tried a new idea, and that idea was a total flop but I learned in the process.
Jogging the Memory is a pretty innovative CD of instrumental pieces for solo hammer dulcimer, what was the process in creating that?
Jogging the Memory was a process where I was just experimenting with the sounds that the dulcimer could make. Playing some of the Irish tunes on the dulcimer was fun, but I wanted to expand on that a little bit, and make a theatrical experience that was fun to listen to, and where the dulcimer could take you on a journey. Working with multitrack, I would record something I really liked, improvise until I came up with the next phrase then connect them. I look at improvisation as not so much a thing that I enjoy listening to; I like doing it. It's a wild forest of ideas that you can walk into, and get lost in, and have a good time. I like the tension and release of structure and lack of structure that occurs in music. I get an idea, and I set that down, get another idea, and set that down. When it's an actual performance, you're telling a story live, and a lot of other things can come into play. People are watching people; they're seeing someone transformed from a human being into a storyteller, or a clown, or a zombie, or a bad guy. In performance, that happens, and it captivates us. I always feel great when the music is transforming. An improvisation can be used in a lot of different ways. It can be used as a learning technique. You discover something, perhaps dampening one string while plucking another. It might be very awkward, and perhaps not musical. So you work on it. It can be just an impressive technique that never gets musical but in the process you might learn some new ideas about the instrument. But you will never find it unless you go through this process of searching.
What are your sources of inspiration?
I listen to everything from The Beatles to Igor Stravinsky, Vaughn Williams to Egberto Gismonti from Brazil, Alex De Grassi on guitar. I listen to vocal groups like Zap Mama, Sweet Honey in the Rock; fiddlers like Kevin Burke, Martin Hayes, singer-songwriters like Greg Brown, and musicians who are household names in my own community of Bloomington, Indiana. I like music that creates a living theatrical world not just an atmosphere. I think we're moved not necessarily by technical prowess, but by the music's poetry, how it draws some connection between our lives and the world, between our feet and the floor, between our experiences and what we recall later.
How did you arrive at working with choirs? It seems like an out-of-the-ordinary combination, dulcimer and choir.
I like hymns and what hymns are about; getting a community of people singing in a group about the big stuff thats important to them. I also liked the pure straight sound I remember from the Boychoir. I thought it would be really interesting to write some vocal music calling for those sounds and that texture. I thought it'd be very spiritually rewarding. I didn't have any other expectations. Hymnody of Earth was the first choral work I did. First, I went through all my records and CDs, those where I really liked the singing. I made a tape that had different sacred styles of singing, from Georgia Sea Island singers to Bulgarian and Balkan women's choirs, Georgian men's choirs, Word of Mouth Chorus to Irish singers. I had nothing to go on, in terms of the text, until I read some of Wendell Berry's poetry. I thought that his poetry had a formal eloquence that could easily take flight into hymn song. So I set to work putting his poetry to music. This was quite a different process from arranging chords behind a folksong and quite a dramatic and personal way of experiencing poetry. I would read the poem into a tape recorder, in a way that seemed to have the most meaning to me. I would then morph these spoken rhythms and the pitch fluctuations into an improvised song that I might later color with harmonies or fragment their syntax with counterpoint. Each song had a different recipe. Some of the songs were settings of Shaker hymns. One song, "How Long the Watchman," a song about the apocalypse, borrows from two different sources; a sea island African-American tradition and a southern white spiritual.
You didn't actually compose, or write the music of these songs down?
No, I recorded them, with multiple retakes and overdubbing. I started off just singing, creating a melodic line. Then I would add another voice, weaving a melodic musical idea around each section. I slowly worked the sections together, and the sequencing. The actual writing down was the final step. I had the initial batch of songs transcribed by Peter Strickholm, here in Bloomington. I then, through a process of proofreading and imitation, started transcribing the tapes myself, which was exhausting for the barely literate musician that I was. Hymnody of Earth, which is a cycle of nineteen songs, was completed in 1990. I've just made a new revised recording of it with my group the Ooolites. We recorded a second CD of choral works called Pleasure at the same time.
How did Pleasure come about?
I decided that I wanted to make another choir recording using songs born out of folk music. Pleasure has story ballads, mouth music, lullabies, laments, old hymns, and dance songs. I brought together some of the most powerful young folk singers I'd ever worked with to record it. That's how the Ooolites came into being.
What is an "Ooolite?"
An oolite with two os is a spherical particle with concentric layers found in the famous bedrock limestone of southern Indiana. Add another o on the front and you have a singing sound. That would be us.
Were all the pieces on Pleasure settings of folk songs?
No, maybe a third of them were written from scratch, like the title cut, but they all have folk connections and stories like "Quil O Quay," the scary tale of a monster wild boar that I learned from Nimrod Workman, an Appalachian coal miner who learned it from his Cherokee Indian grandfather, whom fought in the civil war. He sang the song in this real hard nasal tone, that high and lonesome Roscoe Holcomb kind of sound. The Ooolite girls bring this real chesty hard sound of a Balkan women's chorus onto the song and it really works. Then there is my story based on a Scottish legend, "The Selchie and the Fisherman," in which a seal assumes the form of a wild and beautiful woman. She marries and eventually rescues her lover before returning to the sea. At one point in this song the melodic line morphs into the vocal imitations of seals barking. A similar hound dog-barking thing happens in "Bushy Tail." I try to make it like a visual illustration rather than a cutesy thing. There's an Ohio River roustabout song, "Bayou Sara," about the largest river boat disaster. I use a detuned dulcimer to mimic an old honky-tonk piano on that one. The finale turns this old American tune, "Sail Away," into a song of liberation ending in a big improvised jam of voices, flying feet, and scrambling dulcimer notes.
Is "Pegasus" an original folk based song?
Well there's a little scrap of melody there from a fourteenth-century laude, which was a kind of Italian folk song. Many of my songs launch the singers into free style Celtic sounding mouth music as in the title cut "Pleasure" or the French-Canadian "Reel a Bouche." "Pegasus," a song about rising from the depths of despair in dreams of flying, takes off from this dark and modal melody of the laude and closes with an ethereal flying carousel of horses in air, with voices pulsing close to your ear on the word air. The original laude was sung in Latin. I liked the open vowels of Latin but also enjoyed not knowing what the words meant so I went for instrumental sounds by using invented syllables. "Swifts" was commissioned to be sung by a multi- generational festival choir in Naperville, Illinois. It had to be easy, fun, and thematically connected to family. Using folk elements was a natural. I can remember going on hikes brainstorming lyrics into a mini-tape recorder, or siting in a school library where I was performing, combing through a thesaurus making lists of words related to flight.
Is any of this choir music available?
It's published with Plymouth Music in Fort Lauderdale, Florida. Also, Boosey and Hawkes has three pieces. I've got my own publishing company, Ooolitic Music. Eventually, I hope to have every piece that I've written available in my dulcimer constellation tablature. I'm also going to make tapes of the dulcimer parts soloed out.
What about your theatrical side and the one-man show you do?
The Wild, Wild Word Show, that I do in schools, is a celebration of imagination, language, and the connection between words and music, words and rhythm, and storytelling. I begin by juggling three tennis balls and drop them all so it's a total failure. I pick up the balls and say, "Maybe I can juggle with two balls on my arms, like this." My arms become a frog, and that develops into a story. We do things the kids can do; playing spoons and bones, making mouth music, and doing body percussion. The show explores the process of working out ideas, of being a little weird. I tell the story of writing "Jogging the Memory," where I'm working on the dulcimer, developing musical patterns. I get bored and drift into the kitchen, to look in the refrigerator for something good to eat. Then I go outside and fresh ideas come to me when I'm running and not even thinking about the music. I want to show the kids the way ideas come to you. The idea comes and you grab it, you dance it out or you write it down, or you work with it; you don't let it just go away. So many kids are in a mode where they'll collect stamps, or baseball cards, or coins, but they won't collect ideas, songs, or poems. I'm just trying to get them interested in the process of collecting these things. Once, when I was in Aspen, Colorado, a dog was charging at me. I opened up my coat, and I squealed really loud. It freaked the dog out; he turned around and took off. I thought, "Weirdness is a defense mechanism." I tell that story just so kids can see that it's okay to be different, just seeing things slightly differently, and holding on to new ideas that may seem silly in their embryonic stages. The whole idea of The Wild, Wild Word Show is that, this is what you do to entertain people, and move them in some way. This is not necessarily to impress people, but to move them, somehow. When you get into the idea of impressing people, that's when kids feel as though they have to do something difficult, rather than something that's poetic; something phenomenal rather than something that just makes a connection. I use a whole potpourri of stories, rhyme, and rhythm. I show them how to play the spoons, bones, the dulcimer, and do body percussion in the context of a story.
What would you say is the message in your show?
I like to spark kids to be expressive, and to follow the inclinations of their imaginations, I try to show that there is talent in the joy and love of doing something and ones tenacity to move and please an audience. Talent and genius does not reside in "sudden flashes of brilliance." I've had my sessions in schools with some of what would be considered the rowdy crowd, or the kids that aren't into music, or those who can't maintain their attention span, or ones who don't conform to the teacher's rules of being quiet. I've had those kids light up to music, sometimes more instinctively to the things that I do, than some of the quicker and more accomplished "good music students." When you work with folk music, you work with music that's traveled the corridors of the oral tradition for a long time, and you're working with a material that kids want to be a part of. They want to be a part of some kind of family, some ethnicity, some place, some way of going about things. The sounds, textures, rhythms, dances, and shapes of things that occur in the structure of folk music have worn themselves into an accessibility that presents a dependable ride for the soul.
Originally published in Dulcimer Players News, Jan. 2000.
© N. Scott Robinson-1999. All rights reserved.
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