Andrew Conklin’s Field Reports is a contemporary composer’s engagement with one of the most important archival projects in the musical history of the United States. Between 1938-1940, ethnomusicologist Sidney Robertson Cowell (wife of composer Henry Cowell) secured funding and support from the Library of Congress, the Works Progress Administration, and UC Berkeley for the Northern California Folk Music Project, one of the earliest surveys of folk music in a specific region of the country. Over the course of two years, Cowell and her team assembled 35 hours of sound recordings in several languages and from many musical traditions reflecting communities living in Northern California. Scored for three singers, three percussionists, double bass, and fragments of Cowell’s original recordings, Conklin’s Field Reports uses this archive as source material to be deconstructed, integrated into collage textures, and viewed through the distorting lens of time and a transformed national landscape.
Opening with a woman’s voice lamenting that she had forgotten a verse, the first track layers two songs on top of one another, a haunting hymn from the Russian Molokan Church in San Francisco performed by Conklin’s ensemble, and fragments of the folksy “Granny Does Your Dog Bite,” heard on one of Cowell’s recordings. Percussion and electronics play a superimposed polyrhythmic figure over the ternary lilt of the hymn, setting up a childlike chanting of “Granny.” The track ends with a playful setting of the now bluegrass standard, “Old Dan Tucker,” with snippets of the melody and harmonies accompanied by slightly off-kilter figures in the bass and vibraphone.
“Adeus Alina” is a Portuguese song of farewell, set here with the main melodic line surrounded by melismatic countermelodies taken from other songs in the archive, and disjointed accompaniment in the marimba. Cowell’s recording of the original performance enters midway through the track, transporting the listener back to the mid-20th century, both in terms of recording fidelity and performance practice.
“Why Don’t You Write a Letter Home” also begins with a recording of a woman speaking, while the bass plays a solo over a pad of jazz harmonies in the voices and pitched percussion. English and Spanish texts (the latter from the folk song “La Noche Está Serena”) are layered on top of each other briefly, before the piece ends with disembodied invocations in Spanish. Conklin’s setting moves through foley sounds, material in the percussion that lies squarely within the contemporary classical vernacular, and various vocal styles.
“Old Dan Tucker/Andrew Batan” opens with a drum corps-eque groove that persistently subverts regularity, before it is interspersed with a recording of “Old Dan Tucker” from Cowell’s collection. The vocal ensemble wraps the recording of English song “Andrew Batan” in a halo of harmonies, before performing a version at half time underneath the recording, as the bass and percussion return to the off-kilter material from the short appearance of “Old Dan Tucker” in the opening track. In the final track, “Field Hymns,” we hear musical ideas from the others, before Conklin settles into the melody from the introductory “Russian Hymn” while percussion and bass accumulate an increasingly complex texture that provides a contrast to the simplicity of the wordless vocal melody.
On Field Reports, Andrew Conklin has created a multi-dimensional dialogue with folk music traditions in early 20th century California, the pioneering folklorist who archived them, and his own poly-stylistic contemporary compositional sensibility. Through this dialogue, we can reflect on a rich musical history captured with diligence 80 years ago, how American music has evolved since, and how the present and past speak to each other through the decades.
– D. Lippel
released August 16, 2019
Lynn Kiang, voice; Valerie Madamba, voice; Tina Šćepanović, voice; Kurt Kotheimer, bass; Russell Greenberg, percussion; Sam Ospovat, percussion
Producer: Andrew Conklin
Engineer: Michael Coleman
Recorded at Figure 8 Studios, January 18 & 21, 2016; February 6 & 17, 2016