"There's Nothing Quite Like Playing The Heartstrings": A Q+A With Artist-In-Residence John Lionarons
Each year, the PAC selects an Artist-In-Residence. The program stemmed from a desire to create affordable and accessible art through interdisciplinary collaborations, bridging the gap between the visual and performative worlds. We strive to include artists of various disciplines, and previous notable collaborators have included painters Martin Campos, Jenn Warpole, and Madeline Adams; sculptor Rodger Wing; and photographer David Comdico. For our production of "Mary Stuart," we were lucky enough to meet award-winning hammered dulcimer player John Lionarons, and are proud to introduce him as our first "non-visual" artist-in-residence. John is a history buff, composer, multi-instrumentalist, and accomplished musician; in the sparse world of our production of "Mary Stuart," his soundscape is, perhaps, the closest thing we have to a scenic design. Artistic Associate Katherine Fritz sat down with John and asked him to share some thoughts about this process, his career, and just what a hammered dulcimer is, anyway.
Katherine Fritz: Hey, John! Welcome! Ok, so - let's talk about the hammered dulcimer. It's an instrument most people, myself included, aren't really familiar with! How did you become interested in this particular instrument?
John Lionarons: The dulcimer is a hammered harp, or struck zither. It's derived from the ancient "santur" or "santoor" of India and Persia and it's reputed to be as old as 2,500 years in design. It has been adopted by many, many cultures down through the centuries. I first saw a dulcimer at a folk concert my sophomore year at college in Buffalo, when traditional music was still mostly for nerds. A friend got ahold of one right away and I learned on his. Another friend began building them and I had my own before I graduated. With my piano training and folk guitar sensibilities, I was able to pick it up quite quickly, and owing to its rarity and amazing sound, it has opened more doors for me than I can count.
Fritz: Right... you had mentioned one of those doors was "Broadway's first hammered dulcimer player"? Can you talk a bit about that experience?
John: Well, it falls into the category of "It's not what you know..."
I was good friends with an Irish fellow named Mick Bolger, a fine traditional singer who also happened to be on the maintenance staff at the Denver Center for the Performing Arts. He arranged for us to play together at a party for some of the artistic staff at an Irish pub -- where else? -- one day in 1983. Fun gig. Didn't think any more of it. That year I got married and moved away. But they had my number, and one day the following year, out of the blue, I get this call from Denver. They're mounting a new musical called, "Quilters," about women in pioneer days, and there's a dulcimer part in the score. Apparently my pub gig served as the audition, and the job was mine for the asking, provided I joined Actors Equity, as the band would be on stage, in costume. And there'd be some traveling as well; we'd be doing shows in Denver, at The Kennedy Center in D.C., and then finally opening in a small Broadway house. Not a bad way to start one's professional theater career. I worked with some marvelous people and learned the ropes from real pros. An amazingly rewarding, enormously thrilling and practical educational experience, for which I was even paid. But more importantly, it set me on a completely unforeseen left-hand turn in my musical career, with Equity card in hand.
Fritz: That story is pretty incredible. It kind of leads me to my next question, which is about your regular gig as a performer in historic old city. I'm sure you must have some good stories from the tourists who come by. Anything memorable to share?
John: I do get a fair number of stupid questions while I'm playing the dulcimer in my 18th century garb. Kids are great. As they stand before me, watching me striking the strings with machine-gun rapidity, they will invariably ask, "How do you play that?" I've no clue as to what they are missing, so I always say, "Really well." The international tourists are also great. Once, when I was relaxing with my white cotton, stockinged legs stretched out from under the dulcimer, a woman came up and asked, "Are those your real legs?" I didn't know what to say. So I wiggled my feet and she jumped, and said, "Oooh!" I concluded that English was not her first language. Another favorite comment, asked while I'm playing is, "Nobody plays dose tings anymore, do dey?" to which I always answer, "Who are you calling "nobody?"
Fritz: Ha! We certainly don't think you're a nobody. Ok, last question. Is there anything about this specific time period in history that speaks to you as a musician and a historian?
John: Well, I play lots of styles, but I'm really drawn to this "early music." I've been working backwards in time since learning so much from 1776 (for my day job.) So I'm always trying to unearth and learn new tunes from the previous two centuries. So much of what survives today is chamber music, making it a good match for a soloist. I think this music finds a lot of its beauty in the simple melodic line, rather than from say, counterpoint, or contrasting different instruments the way you would in more complex arrangements. Playing solo also allows me more variation, and freedom with tempo and expression - perfect for this type of music which is often in minor keys with a melancholy feel. There's nothing quite like "playing the heartstrings."
John will be playing his own compositions, designed specifically for our production, live at each performance of "Mary Stuart." We are so thrilled to have him with us for this process. His CD's will be available for purchase at each performance, but they can also be purchased online at his website, www.johnlionarons.com., where you can also check out some audio and video clips, and read more about his work.
Thanks for reading the PAC blog, where we share what's happening behind the scenes, what we're thinking about this week, and what classic stories are inspiring us right now.