Violinist Mark O’Connor On Playing Whatever the Hell He Wants
Violinist, fiddler, guitarist and mandolin player Mark O’Connor is something of a musical polyglot, or maybe schizophrenic. As a composer, his music blends classical music with jazz, bluegrass, Appalachian folk, flamenco, and whatever else he’s feeling at the moment, and his collaborators range from Yo-Yo Ma to Rosanne Cash. Apparently bored with simply performing music, then composing his own, O’Connor decided to develop his own method of music instruction, humbly called the O’Connor Method. It is, by his account, a more holistic approach than the punishingly repetitive Suzuki method, but it still sounds vague as to what exactly it entails (more on that below). Still, it’s an intriguing new trajectory for a guy who doesn't like to stick to only one thing very long.
O’Connor plays three nights in D.C. starting tonight. Appropriately, it’s not at a classical venue but at Blues Alley. O’Connor spoke with Arts Desk by phone.
How did you get into jazz?
I trained with [French jazz violinist] Stephane Grappelli. I was 17 at the time and he was 71. That was a very formative training period for me. He died in 1997 and I missed him so much I put a jazz group together in 1998, The Hot Swing Trio. It’s been 15 years and this is the group I’m bringing with me to Washington.
What do you call your music? Contemporary classical? Classical fusion?
I just call it American music at this point. I don’t try to separate the genres, I try to bring them together and not repeat the old.
Is the line that defines classical music becoming more blurred due to people like yourself?
When I started making a career out of it, people said what I was doing was impossible. You have to pick and choose one style. I didn’t listen to those naysayers. I wasn’t very anxious to take the academic route. I wanted to make American music more academic, to bring ragtime into the conservatory.
Historically, classical composers have had a hard time succeeding in the broader culture of music, unless someone got a breakout film score. But to put together a great career as a composer is harder and harder to do. I feel it’s because we’re ignoring our best source material: American music. The African-American musical experience especially should always have a central place in American music.
Describe your teaching method.
It’s only been around for three years but I’ve been thinking about it for a long time. The way they teach violin to kids, it’s almost like an indoctrination of thinking about music. I hear thousands of stories firsthand of people who quit playing the violin after learning it as a child. It’s usually something that was not a great part of their childhoods. My childhood included other things like basketball, skateboarding, so I wanted to make the violin part of that experience. If you took Suzuki lessons, you used the same temperament, the same tempo, the same few keys, the same expressions. What I teach is an all-inclusive, holistic approach that is embodied in the American music system.
Given your work with multiple styles, genres and instruments, do you worry about cultivating a “jack of all trades, master of none” reputation? Do you ever feel the urge to focus on just one thing?
When you focus on one thing you don’t have to neglect the others. I had people tell me things like “your bluegrass will hurt your classical.” I had heroes of mine tell me I shouldn’t play more than one instrument. It’s not accurate. What helps an artist is inspiration. I pick and choose what I want to express, and I see a lot more multi-instrumentalists out there today. So I advise my violin students, pick a second instrument. Why not? It gives you a chance to experience harmony.
O’Connor plays at Blues Alley, 1073 Wisconsin Ave. NW on Friday Sept. 28, Saturday Sept. 29, and Sunday, Sept. 30 at 8 pm and 10 pm. $45. 202-337-4141.
Photo by Christopher Mclallen