The Alan Sondheim Mail Archive

May 17, 2017

Physical Non-traditional Mountain Banjo Music

The mountain banjo's difficult for me to play; this one is very
heavy, fretless, without markers of any sort; the strings near
the end of the fingerboard are about a half inch high, making it
close to impossible to finger or chord; every string needs a
different positioning. If the strings are plucked too hard, they
move out of the nut or bridge slots. Playing in tune on fretless
is hard in any case. So there's a lot of physical action on this
one as well as restraint. The shorter piece involves fast index
and middle finger 'vibrating' - switching fingers when they
seize up - and the longer is more plucking or pipa-like trills.
On both I'm constantly having to 'slide into' pitch when I'm
anywhere above the fourth or fifth; I can pull about three and a
quarter octaves more or less, but not continuously; I'm guided
by pitch harmonics at times, as well as fourths, fifths, and
normal discernment. When I miss pitch, I back down. When I miss
rhythm, I often pause and bring up something from the bottom
string. The drone string slot by the way is slightly out of
position, making fourth string sliding harmonies impossible. In
whatever passes for real life, the banjo's tone is beautiful; I
was playing next to a rooftop demolition project out of my
window and very occasionally that comes through. I do want to
note that physicality comes through of course with heavy
instrument playing - but it also comes through with internal
tensions, and that's what's faced here. For those who are
interested, there's a good but little-known book, Tensions in
the Performance of Music, A Symposium edited by Carola Grindea,
with a forward by Yehudi Menuhin, Broude, NY, 1978; I recommend
it. The Strad magazine (more or less on traditional bowed string
instruments and their classical repertoire) often has useful
articles on the same.

Of the history of the mountain banjo and its construction, I've
found very little online. Some are sold on ebay. Frank Profitt
played one.

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