Fiddler on the Phone

A kindred spirit with the Santa Cruz Mountains

By Staci Jameson

Do you remember the scene In the movie Titanic where the guards are chasing the two young lovers through the cargo hold? The music that made that scene so intense was done by world renowned fiddler Alasdair Fraser and after another successful "Fiddlers Camp" up at Camp Campbell, he agreed to an interview with Essay Magazine.

Fraser has a thick Scottish accent that was wonderful to listen to.

My first question for Fraser was what the difference between a "fiddler" and a "violinist" was.

"The term violinist is usually reserved for people who play classical music. Their job is to interpret the wishes of the composer, whether it's Mozart, Beethoven or what have you, and often refers to the more formal aspect of music. The instrument itself is exactly the same.

"Fiddlers tend to be a little more free-spirited. The job of fiddlers is to express themselves using material (music) that is out there. It's more a way of expressing emotions rather than just playing a tune. It's very personal."

During his teachings, he tries to get fiddlers to think of the notes they play as more of a language than a song.

While he dabbles with other instruments, the fiddle is his first love. "I have a love affair with the fiddle," he says. "It always asks more questions than I can answer. I've never found it to be limiting. I always want to go and explore with it so I never get around to playing any other instrument. The fiddle has led me into so many other areas and has given me an opportunity to play with some wonderful players and singers."

Fraser says he would love to see everyone play the fiddle.

He began teaching by asking questions. Then people began asking him questions and when he came here to the States in 1981 he was amazed at how many people were interested in playing the fiddle. He started spending time with people who wanted to learn, and his role as a teacher grew from there. He enjoys watching people explore different techniques of playing.

The camps are held in Scotland and here in Boulder Creek. The American camp started up in Sonoma County at Valley of the Moon, but they soon outgrew that one. Then they moved up to Gualala in Mendocino, and outgrew that camp as well. Then they found Camp Campbell. According to Fraser the feeling of the woods and the light through the trees is very inspiring. He feels he has a kindred spirit with the Santa Cruz Mountains.

Fraser spends his time traveling between Scotland and his home here in America in Nevada City. His wife and two sons travel with him as often as possible. His nine year-old son is beginning to develop his father's ear for music which is very exciting to Fraser.

"One of the things we try to encourage at the fiddle camps is that the music should go right from your ears to our fingers. We try to not allow written music to interfere with the musical process. Written music dictates to you rather than letting your soul show you the song the way it should be played."

I asked what the secret to getting into his camp was. He laughed as he told me "it's a lottery. We have a filtering system we use. If they have been to the camp before, they have a 70 percent chance of getting in. First-timers have a 30 percent chance. That way we know that the camp will be made up with some who already have experience. It breaks my heart when we have to tell people that they didn't make it in. We'd like to fix that by maybe going two weeks."

When I asked if they had considered holding more than one fiddle camp here a year, Fraser said that while the camp takes a lot out of him, it's very special to him. Kind of like an "all or nothing" week. If it were to be held too often, Fraser feels it might begin to feel more like a jobę He enjoys the annual check-in he has with his repeat students and seeing what they have learned throughout the year. One of his student fiddlers who started years ago is now playing on Broadway. That kind of evolution makes him proud of his teachings.

"We have a lot of older people who have rediscovered their music making ability and some classical violinists who have found a lot more potential for expressing themselves through Celtic music," he says.

Although he has threatened to sing, Fraser does not sing. He loves working with singers. "The fiddle and voice can go together really well," he says.

Fraser was taught to play by a classical violinist when he was eight. He was taught the classical technique which gave him the ability to play whatever he wanted. Then he would go home and play along with his father who plays the bagpipes. At home they would play the traditional Scottish songs and at school he was learning classical music.

The traditional songs that he plays aren't usually written down on paper. He travels to people and people come to him. He says he spends a lot of time listening. Usually, he can remember where he heard a song and then when the song is ready in his head, he begins playing it.

"Scots are very good at documenting tradition, so there are mounds and mounds of books to go through for different music. I sight read them and occasionally I'll find one that I haven't gotten to in a long time. Then I'll start to play it again or for the first time."

While he doesn't speak Gaelic, he says that his grandfather spoke it and so he understands the sound of the language or what he calls the "musicality of the language".

For years Gaelic, the wearing of kilts and the bagpipes were discouraged in Scotland by the British. It is just recently that children were allowed to be taught the language spoken by their ancestors. Gaelic lyrics are becoming more and more popular.

The kilt that he wears during the concert at the end of the camp is the Fraser clan tartan which is a hunting tartan with rich blue colors.

When I asked Fraser the one question that almost every American wonders-what does a Scotsman wear under his kilt-he laughed and told me to come to the next camp to find out.

The invitation to go to the camp was too much to pass up. Next year, hopefully, there will be an interview straight from the camp instead of over the phone from the road!

Fraser's band, Skyedance has another CD coming out in November. Check your local music stores-band member Paul Machlis lives In Ben Lomond, after all-or online at Culburnie Records at www.culburnie.com.