Tweaking and twisting tradition
From the July, 2016 issue
The story behind Ensoleil's band name (meaning "in sun") is that the women who make up the quartet first began playing music together a couple of years ago on sunny Saturday mornings at the Ann Arbor Farmers Market. Nadine Dyskant-Miller, Christine Hedden, Tanner Porter, and Annika Socolofsky will return to that old haunt on July 5, but this time they'll be playing indoors at the Kerrytown Concert House, right across the street from where they started.
There's a certain stereotypical image of "girl" groups: three or four female vocalists backed by a handful of male instrumentalists. That's not Ensoleil. All four women are expert instrumentalists and singers--and more. Between them they play fiddles (violins and viola), cello, flute, guitar, bouzouki, and feet (more about that later). They also have, between them, six recent composition degrees, four BAs, and two Masters, all from the U-M, and Socolofsky is now working on her PhD at Princeton.
Ensoleil plays the whole range of Celtic and Quebecois dance tunes and American folk songs in traditional styles--and unconventional ones. When they choose to, they accompany contra dances locally and elsewhere. But in concert they also make full use of their extensive training in music theory and composition to tweak and twist the melodies.
Their mix of traditional folk tunes with elements of contemporary classical musical vocabulary is on display in their rendition of "The Wren." Porter starts the familiar old Irish reel on her cello, and Socolofsky adds a drone on her fiddle, the two of them hinting at the sound of the uilleann pipes. Dyskant-Miller adds first her flute and then her feet, tapping out the driving rhythms of Irish step dancing. When Hedden brings in her viola, the quartet begins to sound almost like a full-throated accordion and drum. And then suddenly "The Wren" flies into the twentieth and twenty-first centuries--they're playing the tune polytonally, in two keys at once, and then in three! For a minute "The Wren" sounds like Stravinsky--but
you can still dance to it.
The members of Ensoleil are not classical snobs slumming among folkies. You can hear that when Dyskant-Miller taps out the Quebecois-style seated foot percussion to start "Le Reel a Bouche," and then the women add the multisyllabic lilting that's common across many different traditions of Celtic music. Whether playing centuries-old tunes or repurposing them in postmodern styles or composing new pieces--like Hedden's gorgeous waltz, Planxty Angela--that grow out of these traditions, Ensoleil treats them all with deep affection and respect.
[Originally published in July, 2016.]
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