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JMT 1.07 Lady Mary, a dulcimer journey

Jane's Musical Takeaway
bits and bobs and my two cents

Episode 7: Lady Mary, a dulcimer journey

The most intriguing and unusual instruments seem to be found either in the avant garde or in folk music traditions from around the world. My favourite folk instrument from the United States is a descendant of the European lap zither called the Appalachian or mountain dulcimer. Award-winning dulcimer artist Irma Reeder recently released a phenomenal CD entitled Lady Mary: a Musical Journey of Wood, Strings, and Voice that I cannot wait to share with you. In the interest of full disclosure, I will freely admit that I've known Irma for longer than either one of us cares to admit, but friendship aside, this is still an amazing album. Let's find out why.

First of all, here's a short excerpt from the documentary Hearts of the Dulcimer with some background on this evocative instrument:

Irma Reeder (bio here) has been involved in music all of her life in a myriad of genres and stylistic choices, both with and without her husband, Scott. Under the name Music for All Seasons, the Reeders are multi-instrumentalists who perform, compete, and teach; they are also two of the founding members of the New Mexico Dulcimer Festival, for which Irma serves as director. Lady Mary, however, is Irma's baby; Scott contributes vocals on one track and guitar on another, but everything else you hear on this enchanting album (voice, dulcimer, guitar, percussion) is performed by Irma. Let's listen to the opening track:

The origins of 'Shady Grove' are lost to us, but it's typical of the Appalachian folk repertoire. Irma's arrangement however, provides a whole new take on the piece through the use of unexpected variations. Here's one more track from the album, and it's anything but a traditional mountain piece:

Jane's Musical Takeaway:

  • 1. 'Music of the Night' is a show-stopping number from Andrew Lloyd Webber's musical Phantom of the Opera (1986). Here's a link to the performance by the original Phantom, Michael Crawford; if you're unfamiliar with this musical theatre classic, now would be a good time to stop and have a listen.
  • 2. Lady Mary contains another showtune, 'Oh What a Beautiful Morning' from Oklahoma, by Rodgers and Hammerstein, as well as the song 'Moon River' from Breakfast at Tiffany's. Certainly the music from Oklahoma could be seen as a good fit for dulcimer, due to the time period and locale of the musical, while the gentle strains of 'Moon River' for voice and guitar could easily translate to another folk instrument. Arranging a number from Phantom of the Opera for mountain dulcimer, however, seems to be an impossible leap until you actually hear it. Reeder's innovative take begins with three single notes imitating the striking of a clock. It's an ingenious device which instantly demands the listener's attention. From the very beginning she has not only claimed this piece as her own, but is in the process of transforming 'Music of the Night' into a valid solo piece for a non-standard musical instrument.
  • 3. The mark of a good arranger is not only to understand, but to accept the limitations one has to work with. The mountain dulcimer cannot possibly mimic a full orchestra, nor is it capable of duplicating the range of Lloyd Webber's original instrumentation. But it's equally important not to rule out the possibility that music from another genre, or time period, or style can be played in a non-traditional way. Irma's intimate knowledge of the instrument serves her listener well. Despite any perceived inadequacies such as the lack of vocals and the availability of only a few strings, her remarkable arrangement provides more sensitivity and even greater emotional depth than the original.
  • 4. After the clock strikes, the first stanza is played quietly yet emotionally; the dulcimer is made to sing with human-like expression. The second stanza begins at 53 seconds in the lower range of the dulcimer, where the melody is more confident and self-assured; this is where Irma begins to slip in tiny variations on the theme. The middle section at 1.36 is filled with such yearning, that it's hard to believe this isn't the high point of the arrangement - but that is still ahead. Once again, the opening melody is played on the high end of the instrument at 2.15, but within 5 seconds Irma has dropped to the low end of the instrument providing us with yet another remarkable variaton on what has gone before. At 2.48 a series of unexpected rising chords take the listener once more to the clock chiming 3.
  • 5. Each person will hear and interpret Irma Reeder's arrangement differently. For me, this is no longer a powerhouse Broadway lovesong, but a reflection of the intimate relationship between performer and instrument, creator and melody, in the dark and often lonely hours of the night when all is hushed and still.

Lady Mary is clearly Irma Reeder's lovesong not only to her instrument, but to the gift of music in her life; she provides the listener with remarkable insight into what can be done with a mountain dulcimer in the hands of a sensitive and gifted performer and arranger.

Irma's website
Irma on Spotify
Lady Mary on CD Baby
Extra: Brett Ridgeway's introduction to the dulcimer

If you enjoyed this episode of Jane's Musical Takeaway, buy me a cup of coffee :)

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