I Had a Hammer:
By N. Scott Robinson
from Dulcimer Players News 26, no. 1 (February/April
NSR: What was your
performing experience before you got into hammer dulcimer?
Mostly theater except for an early fifth and sixth grade
experience with the American Boychoir in New Jersey, which
was very formative. We performed all over the world, working
with major orchestras, and powerful directors like Leonard
Bernstein, and Eric Leinsdorf. We went through a lot of
repertoire, and I was good at learning by ear, so the music
really became a part of me. The voice is an instrument you
can't just put away; like a trumpet after your high school
band days are over. It stays with you. There wasn't much
music where I went to high school so I became more involved
in theater. At Oberlin College, I joined a really exciting
experimental theater group. We did a lot of stuff that was
very obtuse and not what you'd call "for the audience."
We experimented a lot with vocalizations that went beyond
words and language. These emotive sounds were inherently
musical. Well the experience opened up a desire to do something
more "for the audience" . . . something with roots, and
something with sound. That's when folk music and the hammer
dulcimer came along.
NSR: You encountered the dulcimer
in your undergraduate years?
I was working as a carpenter in Tennessee one summer, and
I saw Guy Carawan playing a hammer dulcimer at a music festival.
As an actor, I felt that I was going to be spending a lot
of time waiting for a part, possibly literally waiting on
tables, so I thought, "What better way to cope with a life
on hold than to have a really fun instrument to fill those
empty moments." Did you know Whoopi Goldberg keeps a hammer
dulcimer in her bathroom?
NSR: Must be hard to keep that
one in tune! So you just saw one, and then built your first
It wasn't that easy. I went back to Oberlin, and I drew
up a lot of plans, actually multiple, optional, versions
of plans, all from memory. Then I sent them to Guy Carawan,
Bill Spence, and other people I knew who played dulcimer.
I had little blanks for them to fill in the measurements.
"Do the strings go this way or this way?" I was trying to
make it easy for them. Well, to sit down and sort through
those illustrated conjectures would easily have taken up
the better part of an evening. Maybe some of those dimensions
didn't even exist. Nobody filled out the form. I did get
some replies and some tips on where to go for more info.
I found Howie Mitchell's book How to Build a Hammer Dulcimer,
describing the building of something like fifteen dulcimers,
each one having problems. I found this process of "how NOT
to build a dulcimer" coupled with a pamphlet by Sam Rizzetta
on how to build one in two hours; just what I needed to
design my first one, which I did for a month long winter
term project at Oberlin College. I didn't know how to use
woodworking tools very well, so some of the joints I made
with a hacksaw. It was huge and way overbuilt, with five
strings per course, and a soundboard donated by the Baldwin
Piano Company. One thing led to another. I dropped out of
Oberlin. Got fired from my gig as a night time manager of
a chili joint in Cincinnati, started building them for a
living, and built about sixty instruments in a period of
three or four years, experimenting with different designs.
Pretty soon I got a job playing one in a pizza joint. Finally,
I did a recording of Irish tunes with Grey Larsen called
Banish Misfortune. Eventually, we had a recording
and performing career happening, and I didn't have enough
time to build anymore.
NSR: How did you learn tunes
on the dulcimer?
I'd listen to recordings, mostly of Irish tunes, and slow
them down, maybe draw some dots to grab the contour of the
tune but I'd always sing them out a little bit.
NSR: What drew you back to singing?
When I began performing and going to festivals, I'd hear
different singing groups using different kinds of vocal
textures. I was attracted to the Word of Mouth Chorus from
Vermont, led by Larry Gordon. They sang in a very pure style,
not classical not pop, but with a very hard-edged sound.
It was a non-blended type of texture, really gutsy. I was
moved by this kind of folk choir sound with its raw musicality
and a personality that really seemed to flesh out the vast
poetry of those early hymns. I enjoyed the use of the voice
as an instrument, drawing inspiration from Bobby McFerrin,
and other singers who play with a broad pallet of vocal
NSR: Were you singing with Metamora
at this time?
Yes, Grey Larsen, Pete Sutherland, and I liked to sing in
our concerts. Hymns, folk songs, original singer-songwriter
stuff, and some ballads, but we were known mostly as an
NSR: Did you ever study composition
Once I was out gigging with the dulcimer, I decided to get
serious about a career and applied to the Conservatory in
Cincinnati. The admissions guy came to my gig at the restaurant
and accepted me on the spot. I studied some theory there
but never composition. The composing grew out of the way
I learn music which is very imitative, monkey see monkey
do. By the time I'd figured out a bunch of tunes, usually
from other instruments and newly arranged for the dulcimer,
the process of invention was underway so it was a short
leap to coming up with original tunes. I learn in a tactile
way; I like to have something in my hands, or in my voice,
or in my imagination, before I can work it out. In one sense,
it's kind of a crippling feeling, but in another sense,
it's a process that renders something that's really organic,
connected, and alive because it's born out of play. The
tools of our modern communication technology, things like
tapes, videos, and digitized information, are in many ways
better suited to the transfer of these structures than the
written page. Folk music looks way too complicated when
you try to capture its essence on a page. It's hard to read
through my scores and get the true fun of the music. My
songs are like playground equipment, you can't be holding
a piece of paper with instructions.
NSR: How did you
develop your technique on the hammer dulcimer?
Mostly through imitation and improvisation. When I imitate
other instruments on the dulcimer I fail but in that failure
I discover new sounds that are inherently dulcimer. The
dulcimer is set up so that it's very easy to recognize arpeggiated
patterns. I found Irish tunes very accessible on the dulcimer
because the melodies are constructed of very danceable arpeggios.
The trick of embellishing the melodies improvisationally
was very difficult to do with the freedom of a fiddler.
I learned some wonderful techniques in that process though.
The more I played, the more I wanted to explore the possibilities
of the dulcimer as a percussion instrument; playing things
on it that were easy to do on this instrument, that were
more difficult to do on other instruments. I tried to find
the true voice of the dulcimer; what it does that's easy,
yet extremely musical. I think the most important thing
on any instrument is to discover what it wants to sing.
NSR: So what's the inherent
sound of the hammer dulcimer, and how do you improvise on
It's a drum with a high end, a very bright ringing attack,
and a mysterious and long decay. It's really fun to let
these left right mallet feet go hog wild, but what's fun
to play is not always fun to listen to. Fast melody leaves
a trail of sustain that can be pleasing but if you get too
busy with your melody and harmony and rhythm you lose that
mystery. You're kind of thunking around in a big wash of
sustain, trying to collect your saliva. I developed a way
of visualizing the instrument through what I call "constellations."
When you look at the stars, you see this chaos of twinkles
up there not unlike the chaos of strings on a dulcimer.
I pick out the points of impact that create a chord or sonority
and connect the dots. I then have a constellation shape.
I play on that constellation shape as though it was a drum.
I simplify the harmony in order to intensify the rhythmic
story, or I simplify the rhythm in order to bring out the
purity of the melody. It's all a give and take with the
wonderful limitations of the instrument. Its also nice to
leave some holes where that mystery of decay and clarity
of attack can be enjoyed. Imagine the mirrored surface of
a lake. Too much thrashing around and you never experience
the amazing visual of geese landing or taking off. I love
these dulcimer metaphors. Some of my favorites come from
dulcimer haters who liken the sound to a wild and abandoned
set of rusty bedsprings or the sound of a birdcage falling
down the stairs!
NSR: How do you compose music
on the dulcimer?
I deal with the terrain of what's available on the instrument,
and come up with voices and ideas through discovery on the
instrument. It's a process not unlike when you want to build
a fire; going out into the woods and collecting kindling,
you say, "Oh, this'll work, I could use this, this is good,"
and you bring it back. You don't know how you're going to
use it, until you build something out of it. It's a gathering
process, rather than one where you invent right out of your
head. Most of my pieces I arrive at through improvising.
When I improvise I try to create moments with those new
discovered sounds, moments that can later be found in full-blown
compositions. I keep tapes of my improvisations. When I'm
looking for a way to start a tune, I will listen to some
of them. In perhaps an hour or so, of just playing around
on the dulcimer, I'll find a way to connect these moments
or at least a context for creating new material. Pretty
soon I will have constructed a tour with scenic viewpoints,
returnings, developments, and all that compositional stuff
that transports a listener.
NSR: You rely on
an intuitive approach?
I really do, and on falling down and picking myself up again.
I guess itís the art of capturing an idea and developing
it. You ask yourself, "Why did I like that? What was it?
What was it that made that work?" You put it together and
then you use it somehow. When I was building dulcimers,
I can remember spending four weeks building six dulcimers
that pulled apart, and never amounted to anything. I tried
a new idea, and that idea was a total flop but I learned
in the process.
NSR: Jogging the Memory
is a pretty innovative CD of instrumental pieces for solo
hammer dulcimer, what was the process in creating that?
Jogging the Memory was a process where I was just
experimenting with the sounds that the dulcimer could make.
Playing some of the Irish tunes on the dulcimer was fun,
but I wanted to expand on that a little bit, and make a
theatrical experience that was fun to listen to, and where
the dulcimer could take you on a journey. Working with multitrack,
I would record something I really liked, improvise until
I came up with the next phrase then connect them. I look
at improvisation as not so much a thing that I enjoy listening
to; I like doing it. It's a wild forest of ideas that you
can walk into, and get lost in, and have a good time. I
like the tension and release of structure and lack of structure
that occurs in music. I get an idea, and I set that down,
get another idea, and set that down. When it's an actual
performance, you're telling a story live, and a lot of other
things can come into play. People are watching people; they're
seeing someone transformed from a human being into a storyteller,
or a clown, or a zombie, or a bad guy. In performance, that
happens, and it captivates us. I always feel great when
the music is transforming. An improvisation can be used
in a lot of different ways. It can be used as a learning
technique. You discover something, perhaps dampening one
string while plucking another. It might be very awkward,
and perhaps not musical. So you work on it. It can be just
an impressive technique that never gets musical but in the
process you might learn some new ideas about the instrument.
But you will never find it unless you go through this process
NSR: What are your sources of inspiration?
I listen to everything from The Beatles to Igor Stravinsky,
Vaughn Williams to Egberto Gismonti from Brazil, Alex De
Grassi on guitar. I listen to vocal groups like Zap Mama,
Sweet Honey in the Rock; fiddlers like Kevin Burke, Martin
Hayes, singer-songwriters like Greg Brown, and musicians
who are household names in my own community of Bloomington,
Indiana. I like music that creates a living theatrical world
not just an atmosphere. I think we're moved not necessarily
by technical prowess, but by the music's poetry, how it
draws some connection between our lives and the world, between
our feet and the floor, between our experiences and what
we recall later.
NSR: How did you arrive at working
with choirs? It seems like an out-of-the-ordinary combination,
dulcimer and choir.
I like hymns and what hymns are about; getting a community
of people singing in a group about the big stuff thatís
important to them. I also liked the pure straight sound
I remember from the Boychoir. I thought it would be really
interesting to write some vocal music calling for those
sounds and that texture. I thought it'd be very spiritually
rewarding. I didn't have any other expectations. Hymnody
of Earth was the first choral work I did. First, I went
through all my records and CDs, those where I really liked
the singing. I made a tape that had different sacred styles
of singing, from Georgia Sea Island singers to Bulgarian
and Balkan women's choirs, Georgian men's choirs, Word of
Mouth Chorus to Irish singers. I had nothing to go on, in
terms of the text, until I read some of Wendell Berry's
poetry. I thought that his poetry had a formal eloquence
that could easily take flight into hymn song. So I set to
work putting his poetry to music. This was quite a different
process from arranging chords behind a folksong and quite
a dramatic and personal way of experiencing poetry. I would
read the poem into a tape recorder, in a way that seemed
to have the most meaning to me. I would then morph these
spoken rhythms and the pitch fluctuations into an improvised
song that I might later color with harmonies or fragment
their syntax with counterpoint. Each song had a different
recipe. Some of the songs were settings of Shaker hymns.
One song, "How Long the Watchman," a song about the apocalypse,
borrows from two different sources; a sea island African-American
tradition and a southern white spiritual.
NSR: You didn't actually compose,
or write the music of these songs down?
No, I recorded them, with multiple retakes and overdubbing.
I started off just singing, creating a melodic line. Then
I would add another voice, weaving a melodic musical idea
around each section. I slowly worked the sections together,
and the sequencing. The actual writing down was the final
step. I had the initial batch of songs transcribed by Peter
Strickholm, here in Bloomington. I then, through a process
of proofreading and imitation, started transcribing the
tapes myself, which was exhausting for the barely literate
musician that I was. Hymnody of Earth, which is a
cycle of nineteen songs, was completed in 1990. I've just
made a new revised recording of it with my group the Ooolites.
We recorded a second CD of choral works called Pleasure
at the same time.
NSR: How did Pleasure
I decided that I wanted to make another choir recording
using songs born out of folk music. Pleasure has
story ballads, mouth music, lullabies, laments, old hymns,
and dance songs. I brought together some of the most powerful
young folk singers I'd ever worked with to record it. That's
how the Ooolites came into being.
NSR: What is an "Ooolite?"
An oolite with two 'o's is a spherical particle with concentric
layers found in the famous bedrock limestone of southern
Indiana. Add another 'o' on the front and you have a singing
sound. That would be us.
NSR: Were all the pieces on
Pleasure settings of folk songs?
No, maybe a third of them were written from scratch, like
the title cut, but they all have folk connections and stories
like "Quil 'O Quay," the scary tale of a monster wild boar
that I learned from Nimrod Workman, an Appalachian coal
miner who learned it from his Cherokee Indian grandfather,
whom fought in the civil war. He sang the song in this real
hard nasal tone, that high and lonesome Roscoe Holcomb kind
of sound. The Ooolite girls bring this real chesty hard
sound of a Balkan women's chorus onto the song and it really
works. Then there is my story based on a Scottish legend,
"The Selchie and the Fisherman," in which a seal assumes
the form of a wild and beautiful woman. She marries and
eventually rescues her lover before returning to the sea.
At one point in this song the melodic line morphs into the
vocal imitations of seals barking. A similar hound dog-barking
thing happens in "Bushy Tail." I try to make it like a visual
illustration rather than a cutesy thing. There's an Ohio
River roustabout song, "Bayou Sara," about the largest river
boat disaster. I use a detuned dulcimer to mimic an old
honky-tonk piano on that one. The finale turns this old
American tune, "Sail Away," into a song of liberation ending
in a big improvised jam of voices, flying feet, and scrambling
NSR: Is "Pegasus"
an original folk based song?
Well there's a little scrap of melody there from a fourteenth-century
laude, which was a kind of Italian folk song. Many
of my songs launch the singers into free style Celtic sounding
mouth music as in the title cut "Pleasure" or the French-Canadian
"Reel aí Bouche." "Pegasus," a song about rising from the
depths of despair in dreams of flying, takes off from this
dark and modal melody of the laude and closes with an ethereal
flying carousel of horses in air, with voices pulsing close
to your ear on the word air. The original laude was
sung in Latin. I liked the open vowels of Latin but also
enjoyed not knowing what the words meant so I went for instrumental
sounds by using invented syllables. "Swifts" was commissioned
to be sung by a multi- generational festival choir in Naperville,
Illinois. It had to be easy, fun, and thematically connected
to family. Using folk elements was a natural. I can remember
going on hikes brainstorming lyrics into a mini-tape recorder,
or sitting in a school library where I was performing, combing
through a thesaurus making lists of words related to flight.
NSR: Is any of this choir music
It's published with Plymouth Music in Fort Lauderdale, Florida.
Also, Boosey and Hawkes has three pieces. I've got my own
publishing company, Ooolitic Music. Eventually, I hope to
have every piece that I've written available in my dulcimer
constellation tablature. I'm also going to make tapes of
the dulcimer parts soloed out.
NSR: What about your theatrical
side and the one-man show you do?
The Wild, Wild Word Show, that I do in schools, is
a celebration of imagination, language, and the connection
between words and music, words and rhythm, and storytelling.
I begin by juggling three tennis balls and drop them all
so it's a total failure. I pick up the balls and say, "Maybe
I can juggle with two balls on my arms, like this."
My arms become a frog, and that develops into a story. We
do things the kids can do; playing spoons and bones, making
mouth music, and doing body percussion. The show explores
the process of working out ideas, of being a little weird.
I tell the story of writing "Jogging the Memory,"
where I'm working on the dulcimer, developing musical patterns.
I get bored and drift into the kitchen, to look in the refrigerator
for something good to eat. Then I go outside and fresh ideas
come to me when I'm running and not even thinking about
the music. I want to show the kids the way ideas come to
you. The idea comes and you grab it, you dance it out or
you write it down, or you work with it; you don't let it
just go away. So many kids are in a mode where they'll collect
stamps, or baseball cards, or coins, but they won't collect
ideas, songs, or poems. I'm just trying to get them interested
in the process of collecting these things. Once, when I
was in Aspen, Colorado, a dog was charging at me. I opened
up my coat, and I squealed really loud. It freaked the dog
out; he turned around and took off. I thought, "Weirdness
is a defense mechanism." I tell that story just so
kids can see that it's okay to be different, just seeing
things slightly differently, and holding on to new ideas
that may seem silly in their embryonic stages. The whole
idea of The Wild, Wild Word Show is that, this is
what you do to entertain people, and move them in some way.
This is not necessarily to impress people, but to move them,
somehow. When you get into the idea of impressing people,
that's when kids feel as though they have to do something
difficult, rather than something that's poetic; something
phenomenal rather than something that just makes a connection.
I use a whole potpourri of stories, rhyme, and rhythm. I
show them how to play the spoons, bones, the dulcimer, and
do body percussion in the context of a story.
NSR: What would you say is the
message in your show?
I like to spark kids to be expressive, and to follow the
inclinations of their imaginations, I try to show that there
is talent in the joy and love of doing something and ones
tenacity to move and please an audience. Talent and genius
does not reside in "sudden flashes of brilliance."
I've had my sessions in schools with some of what would
be considered the rowdy crowd, or the kids that aren't into
music, or those who can't maintain their attention span,
or ones who don't conform to the teacher's rules of being
quiet. I've had those kids light up to music, sometimes
more instinctively to the things that I do, than some of
the quicker and more accomplished "good music students."
When you work with folk music, you work with music that's
traveled the corridors of the oral tradition for a long
time, and you're working with a material that kids want
to be a part of. They want to be a part of some kind of
family, some ethnicity, some place, some way of going about
things. The sounds, textures, rhythms, dances, and shapes
of things that occur in the structure of folk music have
worn themselves into an accessibility that presents a dependable
ride for the soul.
Malcolm Dalglish Discography
Malcolm Dalglish & Grey Larsen
|The First of Autumn
Metamora (Malcolm Dalglish,
Grey Larsen & Pete Sutherland)
|Root Crops and Ground
|The Great Road
|Jogging the Memory
|Hymnody of Earth:
A Celebration of Songs for Choir, Hammer Dulcimer &
|Hymnody of Earth
|Into the Sky
Slats Klug & Friends
Bench: Musical Portraits of Brown County
My Brown County Home
Ghosts of Brown County
|Off to California
|Step by Step: Hammer
Dulcimer Duos, Trios, and Quartets
N. Scott Robinson
Things That Happen Fast CD 2002
New World View Music NWVM CD-02
The St. Olaf Choir
|O Yule Full of Gladness:
Songs of Christmas from Around the World
||St. Olaf Records
Various Artists (Live & Soundtracks)
on the Roof, Fire in the Furnace: Cincinnati Area
Traditional Musicians (recorded
by Malcolm Dalglish & Grey Larson)
|The Shape of the
|A Winters Solstice
|The Story of Naomi
|A Winters Solstice
|In Search of Angels
|Hymnody of Earth
|The Selchie and the
||Live Multimedia, Inc.
||Live Home Video
|The Story of Naomi
|A Souk Family Almanac
|In Search of Angels
[For more on Malcolm Dalglish, see http://www.oooliticmusic.com].
©1999 - N. Scott Robinson. All rights reserved.