10 String Symphony - Take five, times two
There’s a touch of the Henry Fords about Nashville-based duo 10 String Symphony. Ford famously offered customers his model T automobile in any colour so long as it was black; 10 String Symphony will play any instrument – as long as it has five strings.
This doesn’t leave many options. Five-string double or bass guitar might offer possibilities. For now at least, however, Rachel Baiman and Christian Sedelmyer, who embark on their first Scottish dates as a duo on July 15, are sticking to their two-fiddle arrangements with the former’s occasional clawhammer banjo offering variety since even these fiddle nuts need a break from their chosen instrument.
Baiman and Sedelmyer got together around six years ago just after both had acquired five-string fiddles. The extra string, a low C, gives them the range of fiddle and viola and as long-time players of the conventional four-string version – Baiman is a former Illinois state fiddle champion in the old time tradition; Sedelmeyer a classically trained violinist with much orchestral experience before he began exploring America’s folk heritage – they wanted to see if they could create a self-sufficient sound as a duo.
“We’d been part of the same musical community in East Nashville since I arrived there a couple of years beforehand,” says Baiman. “There’s a regular bluegrass jam in a bar we both go to and we thought it would be fun to explore this new instrument together. To begin with we’d go out busking on Broadway and the idea was to make as big a sound as possible to attract people’s attention. We were really just seeing how we could make two fiddles work as a band but we soon began to develop a style that was less about volume and more about using the sound of the instruments in an interesting, hopefully unique way.”
From playing tunes and songs that they already knew they began to introduce material that was either specially written with the two five-string fiddles in mind or written on other instruments – Baiman plays guitar as well as fiddle and banjo – and arranged to suit their unusual instrumentation.
“There’s a lot of stuff been left on the cutting-room floor, as it were, because we’d try things and some of them just didn’t work,” says Baiman, a Scottish fiddle music enthusiast whose previous visits to Scotland involved a semester spent studying Scottish traditional songs and music business at Edinburgh University and a tour as a stand-in fiddler with Canadian roots band Oh My Darling. “After a while you begin to get a feeling for what will work, though, and it helps that we both have other outlets because songs that don’t fit 10 String Symphony might fit into the solo shows I do or something else that Christian’s involved with.”
Having other outlets also allows breathing space and gives them a chance to bring different ideas to the 10 String Symphony format. As Baiman speaks, the Pennsylvania-born Sedelmeyer is out on the road with dobro master and Transatlantic Sessions mainstay Jerry Douglas, one of his regular employers as a respected Nashville session player, and she has full diary of gigs before the pair leave for the UK.
“If we’re both at home, we’ll get together two or three times a week to work on 10 String Symphony things,” she says. “It’s really important to us that we don’t repeat ourselves, so we’re always looking for different sounds, a new chord or anything that expands our palette. We like to take risks and play things that people maybe aren’t expecting to hear two fiddlers play but we tend to do that from the basis of having a strong core to what we do. For instance, in May we both had the whole month off and we spent a lot of time working on new material and developing new arrangements.”
Based on, she admits, fairly short-term experience of audiences over here, although she keeps in touch with a fiddler friend in former Young Scottish Traditional Musician of the Year Rona Wilkie, Baiman gets the impression that people in the UK are more open to experimentation in traditional music than their American counterparts. She hopes this will act in 10 String Symphony’s favour.
“Some of the music I’ve heard from the UK is quite a bit more progressive than you’d hear in the US, where it’s much rarer to find, say, classical and folk music blending together,” she says. “That’s not to say that we’re trying to be British. We definitely sound American – it’s just that I think we live dangerously in a way that you guys might relate to.”
From The Herald, June 29, 2016