Mark O'Connor: where the musical maps end

by Kerry Dexter /
Kerry Dexter's picture
May 12, 2009 / 0 comments

Mark O’Connor has been going beyond where the maps end in music since he was a kid growing up in Seattle. Most recently, that’s included The Americana Symphony, a classical work which draws on the strains of country, folk, bluegrass, and jazz that O’Connor has lived as long as he’s been playing music. The symphony, in many ways an extension of the ideas of classical music seen through the lens of American folk music, draws on ideas and landscapes of Appalachia, Native American fire dance themes, the exploration of the country's wide open spaces, a country hoe down, many paths toward home, and a horizon of hope, all framed in classical ideas which clearly connect with sounds of older folk musics.

O’Connor is an accomplished classical composer, with many works including the Appalachia Waltz, Crossing Bridges, and a piece honoring Johnny Cash to his credit. His background, however, is not in rising through university studies and conservatory work. Instead, he’s played Texas fiddle, written bluegrass tunes, worked with a southern rock band, was a top Nashville sideman, and has fronted a hot jazz trio, all of which, in one way or another, play into his work in classical music. His path back in Seattle began, in fact, with classical guitar lessons, but going to compete in a classical guitar contest, he decided to play a flamenco piece, which he’d learned on the side. O’Connor doesn’t remember if he placed first of second in the contest, but in the top two, anyway. The other musicians were all college students. O’Connor was ten.

Soon, he began learning Texas style fiddle from master player Benny Thomasson, and also picked up bluegrass well enough to start winning contests across the country. By the time he graduated from high school, he had recorded four albums of mainly traditional American folk music. It wasn’t an easy road, though. Neither the musical world nor his high school teachers and classmates knew quite what to do with his talents, and his family was dealing with harsh times and illness. None of this deterred O’Connor from forging his own road. Hr auditioned for a spot as guitarist with the bluegrass jazz fusion group The David Grisman Quartet and there soaked up knowledge from gypsy jazz fiddle master Stephane Grappelli. Southern rock was O’Connor’s next stop, as he worked for a time with The Dixie Dregs. A bit at loose ends after his association with the Atlanta based band ended, O’Connor began getting calls to do session work in Nashville. He decided to move to Music City, and over the course of his years there contributed fiddle parts to hundreds of top country and bluegrass recordings. But his musical journey was calling him along in still other directions.


Mark O'Connor

As six years of Nashville studio work turned into seven, he was considering a solo career as a fiddler, and something else. “The last year of my session work, I was coming up with caprices, and what would be my fiddle concerto, although I had no idea what it was at the time. They were just phrases and thematic ideas, and I was coming up with these ideas during breaks in sessions. It was really invigorating, but frustrating at the same time, because what did that mean? Just because you have a ten minute break doesn’t mean you should switch your worlds. They were hiring me to be a country fiddler. I started to feel bad,” O’Connor recalled, “like what’s going on? That went on for a few months and ultimately I said I have to quit, I have to quit being a session player. I’m being urged, my creative muse is being urged, to do something and I’m not at all sure at this point what it is. I couldn’t really explain it to anybody,” It was hard to make the break. He decided it had to be a clean one, so he booked no more session work, moved his family from Tennessee to California, and for a time concentrated on doing a solo show that include elements of bluegrass, country, and his long held interest in jazz. He also began listening more closely to those ideas which had been coming up during his session breaks. They turned out to lead him in a classical direction, classical music infused with the sounds of America. Appalachia Waltz, a trio project with bassist Edgar Meyer and cellist Yo-Yo Ma for which O’Connor wrote the music, was his first classical recording. It became a calling card for his new direction. Appalachian Journey, which won a Grammy, came next, and there have been others including Fanfare for a Volunteer and a setting for a folk mass. O’Connor has also recorded jazz albums and other works along the way, and plays often himself with the classical groups, be they orchestra or string quartet, which perform his music. He is also a moving force behind a series of fiddle camps where all the genres he’s investigated, and a few more, meet and mingle and share in the persons of instructors and those who come to learn. Students, many of whom have gone on to teach at the camps as well as to professional careers in music, include fiddle players Natalie MacMaster, Laura Cortese, Jeremy Kittel, and Hanneke Cassel, cellists Rushad Eggleston and Natalie Haas, and mandolin player Chris Thile. “One of the things I think Mark is really great at is bringing all kinds of players from all different genres together,” says Cassel, who plays and composes folk style Scots and Cape Breton fiddle. “There’s this idea that classical players are stuck up and folk fiddlers can’t play, and when they get to together there’s this mutual respect because everybody sees that’s not true.”

O’Connor is now based, geographically, in the heart of Manhattan. Where will his musical path wind next? Somewhere unexpected, that’s likely, and also somewhere that includes his love of, and vision for, the heart of American music, folk,. jazz, and classical.






Kerry Dexter is the Music Editor for Wandering Educators.

Kerry's credits include VH1, CMT, the folk music magazine Dirty Linen, Strings, and The Encyclopedia of Ireland and the Americas. She also writes about the arts and creative practice at Music Road.. You may reach her at music at wanderingeducators dot com.