Pick-Up Strings 

The classical ties of the String Orchestra of the Rockies

Some of the most curious and beautiful things in our culture have been brought about by isolation. The writings of Malcom X and Jimmy Santiago Baca, for example, were both the result of lonely jail-cell conversions. Artists whose work now line the walls of glimmering big-city museums, like Georgia O’Keefe, Joseph Cornell and Edward Hopper, were all studious recluses. And it can well be argued that much of American music, at least in its more folkish strains, has also been shaped by the forces of solitude. For proof, you need look no farther than the American West.

Things like jamborees, hoedowns and dance calls can all be traced back to the days when it seemed like much of the West had not yet been trod upon by European feet, and most of it never would. Who knows what the distances that separated settlers back then sounded like—windswept and empty, probably—but it grips the imagination to consider that the lonely homesteader who longed to hear a familiar tune would always have to wait until the next fair, the next rendezvous, the next church social, until enough folks with enough instruments were gathered in one place. Then they would each pick up a fiddle or guitar and, sheet music unseen, begin to break the silence of their separation.

It’s a tradition that has informed lots of music that you can still hear these days, from Americana to folk to backwoods country. But it’s enlightening to consider that those same scratch-ankle conditions might also have spawned something as polished, professional and, well, classy, as the String Orchestra of the Rockies.

Begun some 16 years ago, the SOR was conceived by a handful of musicians strewn around Montana who were looking for an outlet. Eventually, they came up with a rather unusual rationale to perform as one: a small, long-distance symphony that would meet only a few times a year, and which would consist of nothing but strings.

“The rationale was the string players themselves,” SOR board member Ed Milburn corrects. “They just wanted an opportunity to play together.” The impetus behind it, he goes on, was to create an orchestra that was quick and informal, and, listening to him describe the group’s origins, it’s hard not to hear the influence of those old, frontier traditions. “It’s easier that way because you don’t have to worry about brass and woodwinds and tympanis and that sort of thing,” he says. “This all just started because this is a big state and there were a lot of string players who wanted to play together.”

But the elegant simplicity of the SOR doesn’t stop there. Orchestra members—today numbering around 15—practice all of their work at home, alone, uncounted miles apart, until the weekend of their concerts. Then they convene, usually on a Friday, and again on a Saturday, before they play for the public. To further democratize the project, they do all this without so much as a conductor.

“Everybody can make their comments about should it be this way or should it sound like this, and everyone arrives at a consensus,” Milburn explains. It’s a format, he adds, used by only a small number of groups around the country.

And there’s one more thing. “They play, by the way, standing up,” Milburn says. “Except for the cellos. They just prefer to do it that way.”

While there’s no doubting at this point that there’s something wonderfully unstudied about the String Orchestra of the Rockies, it’s still worth mentioning that the group places its emphasis above all on the music itself. The selections they make try to walk the line between the enticing and the comforting, between the type of music that brings people together and the type that draws you into a kind of contemplative isolation. It’s classical, in other words, streaked through with the backcountry traditions of the pick-up symphony.

“We want to play things that are fresh and lively,” Millburn says, “but not ruggedly so.”
The String Orchestra of the Rockies debuts its 2000-2001 season with its Fall Colors concert, featuring guest piano soloist Paul Hersh, Sunday, Oct. 1 at UM’s Music Recital Hall at 7:30 p.m. Tickets $12 general, $10 students and seniors.

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