When it comes to the world’s most dynamic traditional Scottish music duo, everything old is new again. Over the past decade, Scottish-born fiddler Alasdair Fraser and Menlo Park-raised cellist Natalie Haas have turned the Celtic music scene on its ear with their dazzling partnership, a creative bond forged in the Santa Cruz Mountains at Fraser’s Valley of the Moon Scottish Fiddle School. While the instrumentation initially left many people scratching their heads, wondering about the lack of a piano, guitar or accordion, Fraser points out that in the 18th- and early 19th-century fiddle/cello duos were the standard combo for dances.
“It’s astonishing to me that the cello was so prominent, but it’s well documented that fiddle and cello was the dance band of choice,” says Fraser, 57, who performs with Haas on Friday at Freight & Salvage. “The more we play together the more we feel like the instruments really are bonded musically. It makes perfect sense, two string instruments that speak the same language.
“Our goal is, you have two voices, what kind of conversation can we have, and how full a sound we can make?” Fraser continues. “It’s about carving out a sonic space where we don’t actually say everything. We can allude to the bass notes, and the middle harmonies and touch in on them and leave. We both love the challenge of setting things in motion, and keeping the plates spinning.”
Born in the central lowlands town of Clackmannan and long based in the historic boomtown Nevada City, Fraser is one of the world’s most esteemed traditional Scottish fiddlers. But his exponentially expansive influence stems as much from his tireless work as a teacher and mentor.
Haas started attending Valley of the Moon in 1995 at the age of 11 with her younger sister, renowned fiddler Brittany Haas, and at 18 she joined the faculty. Fraser had long kept an eye out for a collaborator to bring the cello back into the fold, and he gradually realized Haas was eager for the challenge.
“As we increasingly played together I saw this graceful intensity,” Fraser says. “Here’s this young woman saying ‘let’s make this thing groove.’ I would say, can we pull this off just the two of us? And she would say, yep! She has the technique to go wherever our ideas take us.”While Haas wasn’t particularly familiar with Scottish music when she started Valley of the Moon, she got drawn into school’s tight-knit community and fell in love with the tradition.
“Scottish music has a wonderful spectrum, from beautiful, haunting slow melodies to fast rollicking reels,” says Haas, 29, a Juilliard graduate who taught at Boston’s Berklee College of Music for two years before she started delving into Quebec’s vibrant but too-little-known traditional music scene. “The melodies are really heart wrenching, but there’s always a glimmer of hope at the end.”
In many ways the duo embodies the tension between refinement and elemental exhilaration contained in traditional Scottish music, which blossomed when an infusion of Italian culture in 18th century Edinburgh led to a violinistic, almost chamber music approach to folkloric melodies.
Fiddlers continued to evoke the tradition’s ancient, wild roots as ecstatic dance music for communal celebrations, with tunes derived from the bagpipes. In forging the duo’s identity, Fraser believes that he and Haas are tapping into the music’s terpsichorean history, putting the rhythmic imperative at the center of their sound.
“The last century some of the greatest musicians played for dancing,” Fraser says, singling out Duke Ellington. “But now a lot of great musicians have never actually played for dance. Part of our paradigm shift is calibrating the music with a dance sensibility, which affects your bow arm incredibly. When you realize you’re trying to move bodies around the floor, it changes your whole approach.”
Their paradigm shift has influenced a brilliant generation of young string players, who have studied the duo’s 2004 debut “Fire and Grace,” which won Best Album of the Year at the Scots Trad Music Awards, and 2007’s “In the Moment.” Without other instruments cluttering up their arrangements (“Less really is more,” Haas says), they create a sumptuous orchestral mix through the subtle art of aural implication, an intricately textured sound built upon Haas’s extended cello technique. “What I’m trying to do is create different textures for Alasdair to sit on top of,” Haas says. “I’m going for different kinds of sounds, rhythm guitar, harp or upright bass. I can make up harmony parts, counterpoint lines, and I can play melodies as well. My classical training really helps with that. There are so many possibilities. We’re both still very excited by this. The two instruments are really made for each other.
On their third album for Fraser’s Culburnie Records, 2011’2 “Highlander’s Farewell,” they embraced a glittering cast of peers, including the powerhouse Irish duo of fiddler Martin Hayes and guitarist Dennis Cahill, Brittany Haas, and fiddler and pianist Hanneke Cassel (another Valley of the Moon alum). While never losing sight of the Scottish tradition, the album reflects their engagement with an international array of influences, particularly in the realm of rhythm and groove.
“We’re taking the music of the Highlands and looking at the Diaspora,” Fraser says. “As you become a cultural traveler, which I increasingly think of myself as being, you get to dine on these feasts of musical riches, meet kindred spirits in diverse cultures, and this album is a celebration of that.”
Andrew Gilbert, whose Berkeleyside music column appears every Thursday, also covers music and dance for the San Jose Mercury News, Contra Costa Times, Los Angeles Times, Boston Globe and KQED’s California Report. He lives in west Berkeley.