It’s not only the sheer number of Mark O’Connor’s musical accomplishments that set him apart—it’s their variety, and above all, their pioneering influence. His career has taken him from teenage fiddle champion to in-demand sideman for the likes of the David Grisman Quintet and The Dixie Dregs to first-call Nashville session player, Grammy-winning recording artist, leading folk-savvy classical composer and, most recently, creator of an entirely new approach to education in American string playing.
Since O’Connor essentially invented a new model for the modern virtuoso-composer, he’s used to being called upon to explain the vision behind it all. He recalls, “When my career started, people were going, ‘That’s not going to work. You won’t be able to do that. You won’t be able to Appalachia Waltz and have a classical cellist play with you on it.’ Now it’s becoming second nature. I knew it had to happen.” And one of the many results of O’Connor’s success at carving out a niche for himself is that he’s also made ample room for subsequent generations of American composers to stretch their creative legs.
1) As a violin player, you’ve often credited two primary mentors over the years: Benny Thomasson and Stephane Grappelli, who represent the folk and jazz/classical streams of your sensibility. So who are you biggest influences as a composer? Do they also span the folk and the classical?
I would say that my biggest influences for composition are the American classical composers, like Aaron Copland, George Gershwin, Leonard Bernstein and Charles Ives. My favorite European composers are Mahler and Beethoven. That’s where I get a lot of my composing inspiration and energy from, is those great masters.
2) I know you were recording originals at least by 1978, when you made your album Markology. How early on in your playing did you begin exploring composition?
My very first two pieces were on my 1975 album [Pickin’ In the Wind] when I was 13. Those were the first two composed pieces that I registered with BMI. The two were called “Pickin’ In the Wind” and “Mark’s Waltz.” Both of those tunes are actually good tunes. I’ve played them [throughout] my career. I ended up winning a lot of fiddle contests playing “Mark’s Waltz” later on. Then I recorded it again for my thirty-year retrospective with Chris Thile and Bryan Sutton.
3) You wrote material for your own albums for a number of years before you started composing classical works intended for other musicians to perform. What was it like making that turn?
Up until The New Nashville Cats, I thought of my own music as highly personalized, music that only I would be playing or interested in playing. I think The New Nashville Cats allowed me to fully realize the potential of what I had been working on for so long, which was a unique voice that was accessible, not only to audiences but to other musicians. When I started to be emulated and copied is when it all sort of hit home.
My first classical piece was actually before The New Nashville Cats. It was my String Quartet. It was commissioned and premiered by the Santa Fe Chamber Music Festival. That really set the benchmark for me. I realized how these incredible string players took to my work and played it just as well as I could play it. My next piece that I started to conceive was my first orchestral piece, the Fiddle Concerto. And in fact, I wrote the Fiddle Concerto completely opposite of everything else that I wrote, in that I didn’t even write it for myself. I wrote it for everybody else. I was assuming that classical violinists would play the piece and I was writing it for posterity, [with the idea of] bringing American fiddling into a classical setting for the first time. And it just turned out that people also wanted me to play The Fiddle Concerto too. I actually got the first offers to play The Fiddle Concerto from the Nashville Symphony, my hometown symphony, and Santa Fe Symphony. When I premiered that piece in both of those cities, it basically launched a new career.
4) Your album Appalachia Waltz was also very influential. How did you take bits and pieces of Appalachian folk idioms, like reels and jigs, and adapt them to classical contexts, which tend to involve not only a lot more movements but a lot more complex movements?
The secret to the fiddle tunes and the form is basically I use the language of fiddle music, but I use the form of classical music. The aspiration wasn’t to change anything. I wasn’t changing fiddle music. I wasn’t changing classical music. I was just adding a new dimension, and the dimension allowed me to bring in what I call American music language into a classical music setting. The language itself is inhabited by those hoedowns, by the spirituals, by blues and by ragtime. I’m not using the musical forms—I’m using the musical language. Then the language informs the content of what I write in a classical music structure. And that’s how I created The Fiddle Concerto, and other pieces of music.
5) A couple of decades ago you founded a fiddle camp, and your educational offerings have multiplied since then with your O’Connor Method Books and corresponding recordings. How did you come to see the role of educator as being so central to what you do?
This all started at that first fiddle camp twenty years ago. I wanted to have an educational component to my musical life. It happened on the heels of me winning the first Grammy and releasing my Heroes album with all my own heroes, Thomasson, Grappelli and twelve others. It was a wonderful feeling to be in a position to educate musicians of all kinds about string playing. In teaching all these young people, I was able to see what was missing in our string music education. I realized that waiting until a child is in their teens or in college to discover American string playing is going to be too late for the majority of the students. Students will have to access American string playing earlier. That’s where the method comes in.
The effort still is to learn how to play the instrument, but, in my case, learning how to play the instrument using American materials, American tunes, with the history and culture and relevance of that music to our lives, and with the component of creativity and improvisation all the way through. There were so few player-composers on the violin in the last couple of generations. And there were so few bandleaders that were violinists. So I created a list of what creativity meant to a violinist. It was composing, improvisation, arranging music and bandleading.
6) Ordinarily, I’d need to steer the interview toward your advice for aspiring composers, but you’ve already been speaking to that. And you also have an essay on your website—a Manifesto you call it—in which you lay out your belief in the benefits of composers-in-training learning to play the violin and learning American vernacular music. That’s a unique perspective that you fleshed our over the past two decades, and I gather that you’ve been able to observe its impact.
While I draw incredible amounts of inspiration from our American classical masters, they didn’t know as much about string writing as those European masters from back in the day. So I felt that that was something I could really make a contribution to in classical music, was refocusing on string music with American music language, both in composition and in pedagogy.
Obviously experiments like what I’ve come up with wouldn’t be worth a grain of salt unless they were working. The great thing about it is the results. We’ve got tens of thousands of children already learning the O’Connor Method around the country, and reports from teachers all over the place are saying it’s working. Students are learning faster. They’re more inclined to practice. They’re more engaged in the material, more excited about the music.
7) Some of pieces you give students in the method books and on the corresponding recordings are traditional and others are pieces you’ve written. How is composing and arranging for young students different from composing and arranging for experienced virtuosos?
Something I thought I could [accomplish] in the American method was to bring the full scope of hundreds of years of music-making and have that scope presented in a sequence to inspire these children. My second piece in the first book is “Beautiful Skies,” which I wrote for the book. You go from 400-year old “Boil Them Cabbage Down,” which is an African-American hoedown, to “Beautiful Skies” that was just written a few years ago for the method. So already from tune number one to tune number two you’ve traveled 400 years. All this came from years and years of study of children and music, and the things that effect children more deeply are often things that adults take for granted. Children really are affected by tempo change. They find that very inspiring. Me being a composer has allowed me to author the method in a way that previous to this was more difficult if it was just going to be authored by a violin pedagogue.
8) You’ve performed at all sorts of venues over the course of your career, from the plywood outdoor stages of fiddle contests to some of the world’s most exalted halls. Do you have a favorite venue?
Carnegie Hall. I know it’s an easy answer, but it is the right answer for me. It has an incredible sound and the musician that stands on the stage feels warmth and clarity. There’s a very connected feeling on that stage. I’ve played in a lot of great halls but that’s my favorite. I actually live just a few blocks from Carnegie Hall, so I get to see it every day. I played there for the first time with Stephane Grappelli when I was 18. And then I made my solo debut as a billed soloist in ’93 when I was invited to play there by Isaac Stern.
9) What’s on the horizon for you in terms of your composing work?
My new release next year will be a DVD and it will be of my Improvised Violin Concerto and my Triple Concerto. The Triple Concerto is for violin, cello and piano. There are very few triple concertos that are performed besides Beethoven’s. Almost none. My hope is that this will catch on. And then my Improvised Violin Concerto is something I’ve been thinking about for a long time. The idea is that to truly be improvised you would have to be able to quit playing. The orchestra must carry on, so there needs to be something there at all times that’s substantive enough to carry the piece of music. But then I had to score it in a way where there was room for me to do about anything I could on the violin; play fast, play slow, play high, play low. It was a real serious writing effort to be able to choreograph a sound palette that could support the improvised violin but at the same time was doing nothing other than what’s written on the page, and would sound like a symphony.
10) I have one last question for you: Why BMI? You mentioned that you registered your first pieces with BMI when you were 13 years old, so that’s quite a longstanding relationship.
Yeah. I have a funny little story. My very first royalty check when I was a kid I kept. I got this check and it was for two cents. But I remembered the address, and it was 57th Street New York. And then all these years later I moved to New York. My assistant finds the suite that I’m going to move into, and it’s on 57th Street. And I come into the new place and I look out the window and see a Starbucks down there and another building. I went, “Oh my gosh! BMI! Right across the street!” Then I went and found the check and I checked the address, and sure enough, it was the same address. So that kind of brought it all home.