You can tell a lot about a musical scene by looking at the settings in which it thrives. Two very different events in the coming days embody the way that the demands and practices of a particular tradition can shape its presentation.
On Thursday, Freight & Salvage hosts Alasdair Fraser’s Freight Fiddle Summit, a communal celebration that marks the beginning of the 29th season of his Valley of the Moon Scottish Fiddling School in the Santa Cruz Mountains. And on Saturday, the Transbay Creative Music Calendar presents the 11th/12th Annual Bay Area Skronkathon Bar-B-Q at the Berkeley Arts Festival space on University Avenue, a sprawling all-day event that brings together a vast and varied menagerie of improvisers.
The Summit features the startlingly accomplished Menlo Park-raised sisters Brittany and Natalie Haas, the former a fiddler heard at the Freight last week with Darol Anger and the Furies, and the latter an innovative cellist who often performs in a celebrated duo with Fraser. Reaching beyond the Celtic world, the program also showcases New York accordionist Rob Curto, who tours with Mexican-American vocalist Lila Downs and leads Forró For All, and Claudio Rabeca, who plays his namesake instrument, the rabeca, a fiddle from the northeastern Brazilian state of Pernambuco, where he’s been an essential creative force for the past decade.
“Each season we bring together three different fiddle traditions, and over the decades Valley of the Moon has developed a tradition of displaying the themes for the year before we go off to explore,” says Fraser, a tireless teacher and one of the world’s foremost traditional Scottish fiddlers. “We get to know each other, put on a concert and head off into the redwoods with 200 other people. The whole thing is a journey.”
Traditional Scottish fiddling might seem like a constricted portal through which to view the world, but Fraser has turned the sturdy, soaring melodies of the highlands into a confident art form eager for international engagement. Over the years he’s communed with musicians from across the Celtic world and Scandinavia and from various American roots traditions.
The proof of Fraser’s pedagogy can be found in the dozens of exceptional young musicians who have grown up at Valley of the Moon, including many who have graduated to become faculty (and acclaimed professionals). Nashville-based Brittany Haas fell in love with Scottish fiddling as a tyke at VOM, and went on to join the popular Boston-based alt-bluegrass band Crooked Still. She’s toured internationally with Darol Anger’s Republic of Strings, Yonder Mountain String Band, and The Waybacks, and played on Steve Martin’s Grammy Award-winning CD, “The Crow.”
A South Bay native, Haas is familiar to Bay Area audiences, but Brazilian fiddler Claudio Rabeca is a new face on the scene. A singer, songwriter, and the director of the Olinda Quartet since 2005, he also plays the 10-string viola and guitar.
“It was only a matter of time before we brought in the South American continent,” Fraser says. “There’s so much to explore, just incredibly rich traditions of rhythms and dance. I love the idea of taking three different vibrant fiddle styles and finding where they can come together and where they’re interestingly different. I live in awe of what happens when you follow the fiddle.
While traditional fiddling can lend itself to an all-hands-on-deck jam, free improvisation has become such a broad and multifaceted set of practices that impromptu musical encounters are often more rewarding in smaller settings. The Bay Area Skronkathon, which runs from noon to 10 p.m., features a succession of half-hour sets by acts of one to four performers. Attendees are encouraged to bring their own grillables for the on site barbecues.
“It’s a community event, more a party than a concert, though there’s music all day,” says Tom Duff, an electronic musician, computer graphics pioneer and longtime Pixar employee who has produced the Skronkathon in recent years. “There’s no money changing hands. The small amount of money that it takes comes out of my pocket, and someone else will throw in a few dollars. It’s extremely open. I try to fit in as many people who sign up as possible. I think I got everyone in this year, and there are a lot of people I’ve never heard before.”
Launched by clarinetist Matt Ingalls back in 2001 at Tuva Space, a lamented storefront venue near the Ashby BART station, the Skronkathon was created to bring together an amorphous and ill-defined community of musicians united by a keen sense of inhabiting a fragile realm far outside mainstream music tastes. The name reflects the scene’s penchant for gentle self-mockery, as skronking is an often pejorative description of extroverted free improvisation.
Held at Oakland’s now defunct 21 Grand gallery and performance for several years, the event didn’t happen in 2011 because no appropriate space was available. This year’s Skronkathon is billed as the 11th/12th Annual because Duff “decided we’d do last year’s event with this year’s.”
The program reflects the aesthetically polyglot nature of the scene. Duff opens the event with a duo set featuring his son, bassist Tim Duff, a student at Boston’s Berklee College of Music. Guitarist and composer Henry Kaiser, who is too little heard on Bay Area stages these days due to his gig as Antarctic research diver, plays an early afternoon set, followed by Respectable Citizen , an electronic improv-core ensemble “that simply eludes any classification beyond eclectic,” according to their press material.
Evening highlights include duo sets by reed player Michael Zelner and percussionist Suki O’Kane, and pianist Scott Looney and saxophonist Aram Shelton; a solo saxophone recital by Phillip Greenlief; and the closer, Ghost in the House, a quartet that creates eerie and evocative soundscapes featuring Karen Stackpole on gongs, David Michalak on lap steel, Tom Nunn on self-invented instruments, and Kyle Bruckman on oboe and English Horn.
“It’s all adventurous music,” Duff says. “It’s all stuff that is firmly out of the mainstream. Almost everyone is interested in free improvisation. They come on stage with no preset idea of what they’re going to do, and in the course of listening to each other play the performance evolves as they go. Some of the groups have things that are fairly well worked out in advance. Suki O’Kane always has a carefully planned thing, though in its details it might not be fixed in advanced. Most of the people who are playing really like to challenge themselves, working without a net.”
Andrew Gilbert, whose Berkeleyside music column appears every Thursday, also covers music and dance for the San Jose Mercury News, Contra Costa Times, Los Angeles Times, Boston Globe and KQED’s California Report. He lives in west Berkeley.