When you're told that someone plays the violin, or even the fiddle, you would be forgiven for thinking their recording would most likely be classical, country, or bluegrass music. Sure, there are occasional recordings of jazz music done by violinists and you'll sometimes hear a violin as a featured instrument on a popular music CD, but those are exceptions to the rule. Therefore, when I was sent the newest Casey Driessen CD, Ogg I wasn't expecting anything much different from what I had heard from other musicians.
However, nothing you have heard before can quite prepare you for the experience of Casey Driessen. Although he's playing the same instrument, more or less, that other violinists have played in the past, what he does with it, and the music he records, is altogether unique to him. Listening to Oog the first time was like stepping into a maelstrom; at first the music pushes you one way, and the next moment it's pulling you another, so you don't ever quite get your bearings. He even denies you the comfort of anything like a discernible genre which would help you get your bearings.
However, a quick read of the extended liner notes provided at his web-site goes a long way towards helping you find your bearings. "I wander and wonder with open eyes and ears…" he writes, and then continues to explain how he finds his inspiration in the work of other artists, both visual and musical, the forces of nature, and "that difficult to pinpoint personal inner well where emotions and experience become one." Listening to Oog (the Dutch word for eye by the way) with this in mind at least gives us a context within which we can place the material, while the notes for each song give specifics as to what inspired him to create it.
"Hummingbirds Vs. Yellowjackets", the third track on the disc, would appear at first glance to be one of the more obvious examples of how Driessen has turned his observations into music. For in the note about the song he tells us how he spent time one afternoon observing a gang of yellowjackets and hummingbirds competing for the nectar contained in a hummingbird feeder. However he cautions us not to expect to hear something literally representing the two creatures, for the majority of the tune had been written prior to him having witnessed the conflict, he merely finished writing the tune while watching them.
Well so much for the liner notes being of any help in deciphering the music, I don't think he could have been any more obscure if he tried. What the heck is he doing calling a song "Hummingbirds Vs. Yellowjackets" if its not about the creatures in question? However, he does say that it was written in harmony with them, which means the music should at least reflect something about the experience in general. The funny thing is, that when I listened to the track again, keeping what he had written about it in mind, I immediately visualized myself sitting outside in a backyard on a brilliantly lit sunny day, the type of day where both hummingbirds and yellowjackets would be out and about.
While there's none of the angry buzzing that one might expect from a conflict between angry insects and other creatures, the atmosphere Driessen creates with the music brought to mind the environment where the situation could exist. If you've ever stretched out in a backyard on a lazy afternoon where trees cast pockets of shade that contrast with bright patches of sun, and bumblebees float from flower to flower getting drunk on pollen, you'll begin to understand what he's talking about when he says the music is in harmony with the activities of the title creatures.
Of course this is only one piece of fourteen on the disc, and only begins to tell the story of Casey Driessen and Oog. He's also an avid experimenter in both form and style as can be seen with what he does on track seven, his rendering of Bill Monroe's bluegrass tune "Ashland Breakdown", and the approach he took for recording the ninth track "Lunar Cages". Instead of being merely satisfied with covering another's tune, Driessen takes "Ashland Breakdown" apart and literally puts it back together backwards. He learned the melody of the tune backwards and after recording it flipped it around and played it back "forwards".
What he ended up doing was recording both backwards and forwards melodies and rhythms for the song and then playing them back together. It had to be one of the weirdest listening experiences I've ever had, hearing the same bit of music being played backwards and forwards at the same time. It felt like you were standing on a train track listening to the sound of two trains approaching, as you could actually hear the music moving in two directions at once. You can't help but be impressed by the mind that came up with that idea, and like he says, "everybody likes a backwards solo". Although you're not going to hear any hidden messages in this one.
"Lunar Cages" uses an old Cajun fiddle technique known as "fiddlesticks" where the instrument is set to an open tuning and a rhythm is tapped out on the strings using small sticks. While his percussionist, Matt Chamberlain, established the initial beat on one fiddle Driessen wrote a melody that would float on top. The song itself was inspired by watching the lunar eclipse of February 2008, while the "Cages" of the title is a nod to John Cage and the pieces he created by rapping on the strings of pianos with a hammer. This time the piece is not only inventive in form, but the quality of the music is equally impressive. The thrum of the violin strings as they are being tapped by Chamberlain creates a beautiful harmonic sound that forms a backdrop for the other instruments to gradually build over while they simulate the slow eclipsing of the moon.
Casey Driessen is not what anyone would call your average fiddle player, and by no stretch of the imagination is Oog your average collection of fiddle tunes. On the other hand, if you come to the disc with an open mind and a willing imagination, I can guarantee you an experience unlike any you've ever had before listening to someone play the violin. While you may not like everything he does, you can't help but admire Driessen's intelligence and the spirit of creativity that drives him to explore his instrument's potential to its fullest. Music would certainly be a lot more interesting in general if there were more musicians as willing to take risks like Driessen.