Casey Driessen is the new Contemporary Performance (Production Concentration) Program Director at Berklee’s campus in Valencia, Spain. Casey recently performed at the Viljandi Folk festival in Estonia and shared his thoughts with the local publication Eesti Ekspress:
“I spent last weekend in Viljandi, Estonia, for my first solo gigs since arriving to my new life in Spain and the EU. It was my first time to Estonia and traveling there was similar to flying across the USA. I’m no stranger to long travel, but in this case, residing within the EU now makes getting places like this much more probable—which was a big attraction to moving here. I love music, of course, but more specifically, I love the cultural exchange that happens through music.
The Viljandi Folk Festival is in it’s 23rd year, and this year’s message was “freedom.” Represented on stage were Estonia, Finland, Sweden, Norway, France, Russia, Moldavia, Poland, Belgium, Niger, Spain and the USA (myself by way of Spain). Throughout the course of the weekend I heard many new musicians and made many new friends. I performed my scheduled solo sets but also got in a few others. Most notably in the hours after midnight, I would saw down on American fiddle tunes for a culturally diverse dance floor full of couples, solos, and impromptu lines. It was on that same dance floor that I quickly found I had two left feet when it comes to some traditional Estonian dances.
On the Sunday afternoon set, in a courtyard outside the town museum, I tried to give back a bit to Estonia for a gift they’d given me. About two years ago I began listening to Estonian composer Arvo Pärt. He inspired a new direction in my solo material—one involving tranquility, taking my time, and consonance—which has manifested itself in an improvised solo looping piece. Realizing I was heading to Estonia, I transcribed a portion of his composition Fratres to incorporate, and performed it as the final selection in my afternoon show. From speaking with people afterwards, I believe I connected.
It was a special weekend and I am scheduled to return in October of this year. I will be collaborating with Estonian fiddler Eeva Talsi, looking for common ground and shared experience through our folk musics and love of fiddle.”
Here is an excerpt of his interview with the Eesti Ekspress:
The theme of this year’s Viljandi Folk festival is “freedom” which seems to be the best word to describe your way of playing the fiddle. Would you agree? How important is musical freedom (as opposed to different rules and conventions) for you?
Musical freedom has always been an important part of my life. This doesn’t mean that I believe it is appropriate to play anything at any moment—I always try to respect the music I am playing. For many years I played as a sideman for other peoples music. I was very fortunate that I wasn’t required to play exactly what was on their records. Instead, I was trusted to interpret their music in my own voice. In those situations my goal always trying to find the way to best serve their music, which could be playing or NOT playing. In another sense of freedom, I never wanted to play just one music or music that was only standard to the fiddle/violin. If the music felt and sounded good to me, I wanted to be a part of it.
How much do you improvise while performing live? Do the songs sound close to what they sound like on your records or do you prefer to develop them in completely new directions?
Improvising is a major part of my live performance—as well as on my records. I like taking chances and being out of my comfort zone—that keeps life exciting and interesting to me, and hopefully to the listener too. Solos are always improvised. However, I might be working on a particular solo concept or starting point for a while, but it will develop differently every time. Arrangements are often fixed—because of how the looping technology operates—but within those arrangements I often work in flexibility for improvisation. In the case where all the parts are set, I am still varying the phrasing, bowing, tempos, etc… nothing is exactly the same. To push the freedom and improvisation in my performance, I have begun improvising a whole piece… I never know what might happen—tempo, key, mood, shape, etc.
Please tell about the roots your style. Could you name some of your main influences?
My roots are as an bluegrass fiddler. Bluegrass is an American music with its “sound” first recognized in the mid 1940’s. It is an instrumental and vocal music that developed from Appalachian mountain music, Scots/Irish heritage, African American blues and early country music. I began learning bluegrass from my father who played the banjo (a standard bluegrass instrument) and the pedal steel guitar. The pedal steel is found in country and western swing music, which my father also played, so I was also learning some of that repertoire. When I was about 12 years old, I started a bluegrass band with some other young friends. A central sound of bluegrass is the mandolin and its percussive “chop” that acts like a snare drum. In our band, there wasn’t a mandolin, so I began to develop a percussive “chop” technique to assume that role. Around that same time, I joined a local college jazz ensemble and began to learn that music. So I could compete with the volume of the drums in the jazz ensemble, I started electrifying my fiddle… which led to playing in some rock contexts. For college, I attended Berklee College of Music in Boston where I was introduced to funk, r&b, and music from around the globe. As you can probably imagine, I have many influences. Here’re a couple that come to mind: Stuff Smith, Vassar Clements, Tony Rice, Charlie Parker, Sonny Rollins, Stevie Wonder, Oumou Sangare…
Your latest record is called Singularity. What’s the story behind that name?
I’ve always wanted to develop the ability to play a solo show—partly for the challenge of it but also for the ease and freedom of travel. The concept of this project is very singular in nature. With regard to the music, it is all arranged or written on my own and performed on one fiddle through one pedalboard—all live (nothing pre-recorded). Continuing the singular nature, the album is produced, recorded, designed and distributed by me as well. In addition, there’s also this term “technological singularity” in which man and machine become integrated in the future, and at that point no one knows what the possibilities are. That concept feels a bit like this music to me. Through the combination of my analog fiddle with digital effects pedals in a live setting, I feel the possibilities are endless.
Do you use multiple fiddles in a concert? How many do you have and how are they different?
I use only one fiddle, but it’s has five strings—the same standard four plus a low C—making it a violin+viola. Rather than use different instruments to create different textures as in some solo looping shows, in this project my goal was to us only one instrument and find as many sounds and textures within it, in combination with the effects pedals.
Your playing style is quite intense, using several new and untraditional techniques. How does your instrument hold up to that – fiddle is often considered sensitive and gentle?
The fiddle is sensitive and gentle at times, but it is also aggressive and intense—and every color in between. The violin and bow are not as fragile as you may think, as long as you understand where their strengths are. I don’t think the form and build of this instrument would have continued virtually unchanged for 400 years if it wasn’t strong and versatile. There are so many amazing sounds possible on the fiddle, from beautiful and soft to nasty and loud. Contrasts help me express and I’m looking for them all.
What’s the story with your red shoes?
I’m sorry, that information is top secret.