The Contemporary Classical Music Weekly
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Evan Chambers: Where Folk Music
and Modernism Meet
By Armando Bayolo
Evan Chambers’ music is one of great emotional and visceral power. It is at once lyrical and jarring, edgy and songful, expressive and ironic. It is the musical embodiment of poetry. Yet Chambers’ is not yet a household name. Currently an assistant professor at the University of Michigan, he is slowly coming to prominence through his association with several performers and ensembles who passionately program his music as well as two recent CD releases.
Born in Louisiana, Chambers’ parents moved to North Carolina when he was only two years old and eventually settled in Dayton, Ohio, when he was five. They were, he says, “unreformed, 1950’s urban folk revivalist types” who instilled in their son an early appreciation, if not yet love, for music. Chambers picked up the viola in the fourth grade but had no lessons other than public school music classes until he was fifteen. He says that it wasn’t until his sophomore year in high school that his love affair with music, especially contemporary classical music, really began.
“It was like a switch got thrown," he recalls. "I read every book I could about music and music history. I found as many CRI recordings in the public library as I could. I got into new music right away. That’s what was exciting to me. I got into my local youth orchestra (which was a bloody miracle!) and they said that if I was going to play I had to have lessons. So I did, and I just went very deep into it very quickly.”
Though he was fascinated by new music Chambers did not at first major in composition, opting, instead, to receive a bachelor’s degree in viola performance from
Bowling Green State University.
“I was really excited about new music but it didn’t occur to me that you could major in composition,” he says. Regardless, “I was really interested in composing. I would go to all of the composers’ forums and ask the composers piercing questions about their pieces afterwards.”
Evan Chambers’ first musical goal, however, was to be a singer/songwriter in the
tradition of artists like Jackson Browne. It wasn’t until after he’d finished his Master’s degree in composition, long after classical music had become the dominant form of music in his life, that Chambers would have one of the defining moments in his musical life: his discovery of Irish folk music.
“I had a ‘conversion experience,’" he says. "It was Christmas eve. I was driving to Cleveland from Ann Arbor and was listening to The Thistle and Shamrock (an Irish folk music program on National Public Radio). [They were playing] a version of ‘Auld Lang Syne’ performed by this group, the Tannahill Weavers, a sort of Scottish bar band. [I was so moved] I had to pull the car over.”
After that Chambers began listening to a great deal of Irish folk music and eventually began attending traditional Irish music “jam sessions” in Ann Arbor. After just listening for a few months he eventually began to try to “pick the tunes out” on the violin.
“What was going on was that I was linking back up with the folk music part of my life,” he says, which had been put on hold, essentially, by his classical studies. He found the experience of making traditional Irish music liberating. “It was a way to have a musical experience that was about community and in which I didn’t feel like I had to play perfectly. It was a way of avoiding the politics and competition of the classical music world.”
As a result of his exposure to Irish music Chambers says he “felt the need to
find a way to bring the two [musical] parts of myself (classical and folk music) together.
Once I did, it infused a lot of energy into my writing.”
Indeed, folk music (particularly, but not limited to, Irish folk music) has become a
strong influence on Chambers’ work since then. This can be heard in both his Concerto for Fiddle and Violin (recorded by the Albany Symphony Orchestra, Jill Levy, violin, Nollaig Casey, fiddle and David Allan Miller, conductor, on Albany Records, TROY 354) and in all the works included in his debut solo CD, Cold Water Dry Stone (with the ensemble Quorum and soprano Jennifer Goltz on Albany Records, TROY 422).
These works display an intimate knowledge of and love for folk materials, yet they are far from sentimental. Indeed they are at once powerfully lyric and edgy, reflecting Chambers’ view that “folk songs are not quaint, naive or innocent, as they’ve often come to be misrepresented-- they are powerful, sometimes gritty, bitter and ironic, full of the sadness and longing for life.”
Perhaps the other dominant side of Evan Chambers’ musical personality is his work in electronic music. “I love to play with sounds.” he says. “I got into electronic music by blowing up my parents’ stereo by experimenting with adding layers of sound into a four track tape system. It is liberating for composers who are overly note-centric, who forget that music is not the notes but that the notes simply carry the music, to get into the studio and have to deal with relative pitch as gesture and harmony as timbre and the large-scale formal issues [that result from having to] put those things together to create a convincing musical shape.”
These seemingly disparate musical worlds live harmoniously within the lyricism
and power of Chambers’ music. This can be most easily heard in Lament, a work for zeta violin, sampler and tape which uses traditional Irish forms and literal, physical sounds and voices gathered on a trip to Ireland (available on Alternating Currents: Electronic Works from the University of Michigan, Centaur Records, CRC 2492). The beauty of the unabashedly lyrical violin writing in Lament is counterbalanced by the starkness of the sounds of the Irish coast and the sorrow in the voices of the people which make up the tape part.
That the worlds of computer music, still a bastion of modernism and the academy, and traditional folk music, as far removed from the academy as one can still get, should coexist in such a way in a single man’s work is the result of Chambers’ belief that “even though I’m still wedded to the idea of a work sealed in itself, the notion of communication, of the work being received by and creating meaning for another person, is absolutely essential.” “[And yet] I’m a bit of a ‘left-over’ modernist. I don’t try to position a product [for mass consumption] or concern myself with my position in society or try to guess what the next trend is going to be.”
It is Chambers’ modernist sensibilities, at once tempering and tempered by his
post-modern concern with communication and expression, that give his music its poetic power.
“What I wish for is for art that reawakens my awareness of how beautiful the world is," he says. "That’s what I wish I could do as an artist, to create that effect in others. Rilke wrote, ‘He who pours himself out like a stream is acknowledged at last by knowledge.’ I want to pour my heart out with every piece, to do everything I do with my whole heart. As long as I’m doing that, I’m a success.”
Visit Evan Chambers Web site at