Rhiannon Giddens: A 'genius' presents new work at FreshGrass

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NORTH ADAMS — Listening to a work by a musical genius live is a common delight for studied concertgoers; hearing that piece before anyone else, though, is a rare experience for even the most tasteful music fans.

On Friday night, FreshGrass ticket holders will have a chance to watch MacArthur Genius Grant awardee Rhiannon Giddens debut new music commissioned by the annual bluegrass and roots music festival. In collaboration with multi-instrumentalists Francesco Turrisi and Eric Robertson, bassist Jason Sypher and drummer Jamie Dick, Giddens will offer a song cycle guided by both vocal and instrumental sections at the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art's Hunter Center. Giddens' banjo will figure prominently on the stage, where Sarah Jarosz premiered "The Blue Heron Suite" last year.

"We're going to make some cool sounds that aren't always heard on stages at bluegrass festivals," Giddens told The Eagle during a Monday telephone interview.

Giddens has been picking away at the tunes since finding out that she was the 2018 FreshGrass Composition Commission recipient; Jarosz and Bill Frisell were the program's first two awardees last year.

"It's not that I sat down and, in three days, wrote this composition," Giddens said. "It's really been in the back of my mind for a while."

Bluegrass history has served as an inspiration for the work.

"I've been thinking a lot about the origin of these instruments that go into what we call bluegrass instruments, particularly the banjo," she said. "I've also been doing a lot of research, and my research has taken me back across the sea to Africa and to the Middle East, and to Southern Europe. and finding these connections. It's not a historical piece, per se," she said. "It's things that are inspiring [the piece]. It's always women's voices with me, connecting ideas of spirituality and life from one area to the other through the instruments and, concerning where the banjo comes from, making another connection through the tambourine, which is a very big part of minstrel music, which then kind of goes on to inform every following American genre of music."

History has informed much of Giddens' latest work. She has been creating a musical theater piece related to the Wilmington, N.C., insurrection of 1898, and her second solo album, "Freedom Highway" (2017), includes Civil Rights era songs and others that mine African-American history.

"I came to it as an adult and just realized how much more it enriched the music when I knew where it came from and what it came out of," Giddens said of her interest in history. "The more that I do that, the richer it gets for me."

In a subsequent FreshGrass performance at 5 p.m. Saturday in Courtyard D, she'll play songs off "Freedom Highway." During the Friday show, she'll drop in some of her other music, but it won't sound the same.

"There will be some songs that I've done before, but they'll be in different incarnations," she said.

Giddens has made two previous appearances, in 2012 and 2014, at FreshGrass. Both of them were with the Grammy Award-winning string group, Carolina Chocolate Drops, that she co-founded. She likes that the festival pushes sonic boundaries and puts its musicians first.

"It was a really good vibe. I remember that feeling of community with other musicians," Giddens said of her first time at FreshGrass. "You don't always get that at festivals. I kind of feel like some festivals are musician-oriented and some aren't, and I just feel like FreshGrass is definitely one that's a musician-oriented festival."

Benjamin Cassidy can be reached at bcassidy@berkshireeagle.com, at @bybencassidy on Twitter and 413-496-6251.


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