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A night of reinvented folk tunes with Sam Amidon and the Winona Symphony Orchestra

“Driftless: Sam Amidon and the Winona Symphony Orchestra” takes place Saturday, May 20 at 7 p.m. at the Riverwalk Gardens of the Minnesota Marine Art Museum in Winona.

Composers Katherine Bergman, Manami Kakudo, Nico Muhly, and Darian Donovan Thomas
Composers Katherine Bergman, Manami Kakudo, Nico Muhly, and Darian Donovan Thomas

Liquid Music is heading to Winona on May 20, for a new collaboration with the Minnesota Marine Art Museum, taking place on the banks of the Mississippi River. 

Once a project of the Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra, Liquid Music is now its own entity, fiercely taking on ambitious projects that entangle classical, contemporary and jazz music with other art forms in inspiring ways. It’s the brainchild of Kate Nordstrum, who is also the chief programming officer of The Great Northern (Nordstrum formerly was executive and artistic director at The Great Northern, and now will share leadership duties with new executive director Jovan C. Speller). 

In “Driftless,” named after the region that includes southeast Minnesota untouched by the glaciers, fiddle, banjo and guitar player, composer and music maker Sam Amidon teams up with four composers and musicians from the Winona Symphony Orchestra for a night of reinvented folk tunes. 

Composers Katherine Bergman, Manami Kakudo, Nico Muhly, and Darian Donovan Thomas have composed new orchestrations for Amidon’s fiddle tunes, which themselves are recontextualized from folk tunes. Amidon performs the works with members of the Winona Symphony Orchestra, musician Shahzad Ismaily, plus two of the composers — Darian Donovan Thomas and Manami Kakudo. Here’s an interview with Amidon about the project. The interview has been edited for length and clarity. 

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Have you always had an interest in folk music? Where did that come from?

Sam Amidon: I was plunged into it by my parents and the area I grew up in. I’m from southern Vermont, from Brattleboro, and there’s a very rich folk scene there. It’s less about singer songwriter guitar strumming, and more about different forms of community music making like, contra dancing, and folk dancing and harmony singing — participatory singing that anybody can do and fiddle fiddle tunes where people are sitting around all playing tunes.

Sam Amidon
Sam Amidon
My parents are great folk musicians. I was sort of raised with a lot of that just going on around, and I was a fiddle player as a kid. Then in my teenage years, I started discovering different kinds of experimental music and free jazz, avant-garde jazz and indie rock, and all these different kinds of things, but I was just playing the fiddle still. My playing and my listening was two different worlds. Then in my 20s, when I came to New York City, I started to merge them.  I was going out and hearing a lot of music and trying out different things, and slowly, I kind of hit upon this thing of singing the traditional folk songs, but just changing the musical settings of them — reworking, and re-composing the backdrop for the songs from different traditions in the U.S., like Appalachian and Southern, and New England. It’s having the songs be part of a tapestry of sonic elements in the music, often working with new composers and improvisers. 

SR: For the Liquid Music performance, the composers are re-arranging your songs? 

SA: So yeah, basically, they are traditional folk songs, and that’s in terms of the melody and the lyrics, although sometimes I’ve changed the melody and in some cases, I’ve composed new music entirely. In most cases, the melody and the lyrics are from traditional folk songs. And then the musical setting, like my guitar part, which sets the harmony, is mine. I’ve shifted the meter and the harmony and the musical setting has been just re-shuffled. Then the composers that have been commissioned for this concert write the orchestral arrangements. They’re in charge of everything that’s not me on the stage. There’ll be a chamber orchestra — a string trio, and some woodwinds and brass. It’s a super cool group of musicians. One element is Shahzad Ismaily will be playing an improvisatory role within that space as well. 

SR: Have you collaborated with any of the composers you’re working with before?

SA: Yes and no. Ten years ago now, I made two of my first albums — called “All as Well,” and “I See the Sign.” Those albums both featured chamber orchestra arrangements by Nico Muhly, who is one of the composers here. And so for all these years, whenever I’ve done concerts in collaboration with classical orchestras, I’m using those arrangements from those records. I’ve always just had those two. I’ve made four albums since then that do not have orchestral arrangements on them. So this material for this concert is going to draw on those four more recent albums and so it’s a range from on the one side, Nico, who I’ve worked with for many years, and he’s the connection to those earlier records, and Katherine Bergman, who I have not even met yet, and I’ll meet at the concert. 

Then Manami and Darian I’ve played with a bit over the last couple of years, but they’re very new relationships. I met Manami in Japan last during 2021. I went during lockdown. I actually made it into Japan, and I had to do the 14 day hotel quarantine and everything. I couldn’t bring any musicians from America, because the border was so strict. So they had this artist Manami Kakudo, and I just found her work very inspiring. 

SR: What did you find inspiring about Manami’s work? 

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SA: Well, I had 14 days of quarantine, and then they only could give me a 17 day visa. Once I was out of quarantine, I basically had to just go right to the soundcheck of the show and then play and then go home. We had no rehearsal. Manami came with a small suitcase and opened it up on the floor backstage and we were just like, gonna run through songs for 10 minutes. She had all these odd little objects — a  tin can, and these homemade music boxes that you twist around and it makes the music, and a teeny little xylophone, all these little teeny objects, and she made all this beautiful music, just using these things in this box. It was so cool. And I think she’ll bring a little bit of that  element to her arrangements. 

SR: Have you done anything like this before?

SA: I haven’t done it to this degree of ambition and wildness. I would definitely say that this is one of the most ambitious and epic type things in terms of the amount of musicians and the way we’re bringing it all together, which is really much really through Kate Nordstrum’s vision as much as mine, to be honest. Kate and the museum being and everybody being up for this, 

SR: Any songs you might mention that you’re excited about sharing? 

SA: Darian is doing this epic ballad called “Lily-O,” which is a murder ballad, but it has this incredibly detailed story. It’s quite a long, kind of wild piece. It’s quite an ambitious one for him to take on. “Spanish Merchant’s Daughter” is one that Nico’s doing ,which is this back and forth conversation. It’s from the Harry Smith Anthology of Folk Music. And “Blue Mountains” is one that Katherine’s working on. 

SR: In your work you are bringing these older forms of music into a contemporary context. Do you ever bring in contemporary issues as well? 

SA: One of my things that I found inspiring in terms of this project of these albums where we were using folk songs more as a platform for improvisation is to kind of decontextualize them. When we think of folk songs, like in “Oh Brother, Where Art Thou,” we’re kind of connecting it to this sort of old-fashioned thing. It’s very particular images we have of quaintness and folksy or rustic or whatever. And that’s beautiful. But I think sometimes to take the actual words and melodies and put them into a different context — it kind of allows them to speak differently in a different emotional way. 

“Driftless: Sam Amidon and the Winona Symphony Orchestra” takes place Saturday, May 20 at 7 p.m. at the Riverwalk Gardens of the Minnesota Marine Art Museum. Gates open at 5 p.m. with food and drink, plus a makers’ market, available before the show ($35). More information here.