Banjo at Bascom: Rich Remsberg ends week-long residency with concert
Photo Gallery | Rich Remsberg to hold banjo concert at Bascom Lodge
ADAMS -- North Adams resident Rich Remsberg is an artist, an author, an Emmy Award-winning archival footage and image researcher, a photographer, a collector of unusual objects and ephemera, a history enthusiast and plenty more, but one of his greatest passions is a simple one: Banjo. After a week's residency at Bascom Lodge devoted entirely to the instrument, Remsberg plans to prove his love for it with a performance and talk at the end.
The week will be one of immersion for Remsberg.
"The residency will give me the opportunity to spend more than five minutes at a time playing and thinking about the banjo," Remsberg said.
He will have and give plenty of practice time, as well as study. Remsberg will focus on old Library of Congress recordings, and particularly the music of Chicago banjo player Fleming Brown, a huge influence for him.
Remsberg picked up the banjo in eighth grade. It wasn't an immediate match, he said, but it raised enthusiasm and, sometime around the age of 19, it clicked.
"I was determined., he said. "I always had a great desire about the banjo as a kid. I was pretty good at it when I was young, but immature and derivative, and then I got interested in other things, photography first and then filmmaking, and then just came back to it a couple years ago."
Now, Remsberg has a room across from his office where he takes banjo breaks from his job as a documentary researcher. It's been about 20 years since he set the banjo down for his other pursuits, but he came back to it the day after Earl Scruggs died.
"I was asked what made his style so innovative and so unusual," Remsberg said. "I started explaining and then thought it would be easier to show it, so I got my banjo out and showed what made that style different from other kinds of banjo playing, and it just felt good to play. I figured with Earl dead, every banjo player in the world got to move up one notch, so for me, it just meant going back to active status."
Remsberg said banjo playing has its own unique feel, with a technique unlike any other instrument, an unusual mix of African and European hand positions and playing styles. He plays banjo clawhammer style, with the back of the hand, an unusual method among string instruments. He also plays two-finger style.
And crucially for him, therinstrument has a historical richness that allows him to delve into other sides of it.
"A lot of the music I've learned is from older players, so there's history implicit in that part of it, too," he said. "I'll be talking about some of the people I've learned from."
Remsberg said he doesn't play bluegrass music on the banjo. For that, he grabs his dobro. On the banjo, he plays an older style of music originating from the Appalachian mountains, and he does it in a style all his own.
"The way a lot of people approach that is with this laser-sharp focus on Appalachian old time musical traditions, and learning that note for note and very faithfully executing the style," he said. "Although I have a lot of respect for that, I'm not very good at that. I try to put it in my own voice, respecting the tradition it came from, but presenting it more in my own voice and my own style of playing, out of necessity as much as anything."
Any creative project Remsberg embraces has a historical component to it, and he views the music of the banjo as an ongoing text through the decades that reveals much about not only the music itself, but the people who performed it and the eras it came from.
"I think of folk music as a kind of American literature," Remsberg said, "and a lot of what I want to sort out during the week is approaching music the way a writer would approach writing a novel, with keen attention toward a good ear for voice and situation and story that has some integrity and cohesiveness to it, but isn't bound to a narrow musical tradition."
His intellectual and creative interests coincide with his own personal enthusiasm, which makes the banjo part of a larger and a more intimate story that he plans to investigate deeper on the residency.
"For me, after turning 19 and finally getting it, it's become such a natural thing," he said. "The instrument makes a lot of intuitive sense to me, and physically it feels very comfortable. It's like walking."
If you go ...
What: Rich Remsberg performs
When: Monday, July 21, 6 p.m.
Where: The lobby of Bascom Lodge, on Mount Greylock
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