North Bennington musician wins folk music award

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NORTH BENNINGTON — North Bennington native Matthew Christian still has strong ties to New England despite currently living as a New Yorker.

One of these ties is deeply rooted in music.

Christian, 27, was recently one of two recipients of the Flanders Award for Traditional Vermont Music for his fiddling talents. He has been playing the violin since he was 7 years old, but his playing has morphed over time from classical to his current energetic style of New England music.

The award, supported by the Flanders Fund at the Vermont Folklife Center, provides a stipend to a Vermont musician between the ages of 15 and 29 to support and encourage the perpetuation of traditional music that is so important to the state's musical repertoire.

The stipend is intended to offset the cost of travel to a Vermont archival repository so the recipient can work in person with collections of field recordings, manuscripts, and even rare books of music rooted in Vermont's cultural heritage.

Christian will use the stipend to work with musical archives at Middlebury College. Being from Bennington, he says he has not been able to visit the northern part of the state as much as he would like, and this will allow him the opportunity to do so. And of course, it will allow him to broaden his knowledge of Vermont folk music.

The archives are comprised of various songs and ballads relating to the musical history of the state. While he is mainly a fiddle player, he says he is interested in reviewing vocal aspects of the music as well.

"I am certainly much more a fiddle player than a singer, but I do sing from time to time," he said.

New England music

So, what exactly is New England music?

"For me, it's largely through the viewpoint of a fiddle player," Christian explained. "As a fiddle player, there's a whole genre of New England music that's very well-known."

It sounds a lot like a mash-up between Irish, French Canadian, and Cape Breton music, Christian said. Irish music has a focus on intricate fiddle style, while French Canadian focuses on high-tempo, energetic, syncopated rhythms and added foot tapping by the fiddlers, and Cape Breton has classical influences that appear in flat keys and arpeggiated chords.

Also, New England music is much less well-known and more difficult to find gigs in, Christian said.

"I think this award is a wonderful way to put the spotlight on it," he said.

Also, there's something "really joyful" about New England music, Christian added. It includes big chords and sometimes includes two different musicians playing in different keys, which makes for an interesting and dynamic piece. "For the music I'm writing, I try to do the same," he said.

Also, Christian believes the fiddle is best accompanied by another player. "If you're going to play the fiddle, you gotta be playing with someone," he said.

That someone for Christian is Max Carmichael, who sings and plays various fretted instruments. Together, the two complete a driving folk duo with energetic, tight playing. They met at a bar approximately five years ago when Carmichael came to New York for the Iona Scottish Session, and the two have been playing together ever since.

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Christian says he and Carmichael would like to release a record within the next year to "really define" their sound. He's hoping to tour Vermont and perhaps all of New England.

In late February, Christian played a show in Montreal as well as a local show in Bennington at the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship. In April, he plans to travel to Chicago to play another show, then will perform in Maine in June.

Awards

The Flanders Award isn't Christian's first; however, it is his first award that is truly focused on the New England genre.

When he was in high school, he won the 2007 Johnny Trombly Scholarship for his combined interest in classical and traditional music.

"Ironically, I put that toward the bagpipe studies at the time," he said.

Over the past year, Christian says he has put a tremendous amount of work into maturing as a fiddle player. So when he found out he won the Flanders Award, he says he was "very excited."

"[When I found out I won] I was just thinking about my family — where the music and dancing goes back a couple generations, as well as the folks in Vermont who have taught me so much," he said. "It's really exciting to be a part of that culture going forward."

For the next year, Christian says some of his goals are to connect with his fans and get more people excited about the genre, as well as work on his own record and further develop his own sound.

"I'm excited for people to listen to me," he said. "[But] I'm most excited for my collaboration with Max, as someone who's really thoughtful for music."

Christian is thankful to the Vermont Folklife Center for giving him the award despite his New York residency.

"As a musician, you go wherever the opportunity takes you," he said. "In New York, there's enough gigging, especially [in] Irish music."

A life of music

Christian began playing violin classically when he was 7 years old, but his style changed after he heard a fiddle player on the radio that caught his attention. When he was 12, he began learning how to play the bagpipes.

"I initially got interested in [traditional folk music] by playing for family dances in New Hampshire with Dudley Laufman, a close friend of my New Hampshire-based grandparents who received a National Heritage Fellowship for his work in reviving New England contra dance," he said. "It means a lot to me to be able to carry forward the tradition."

He also credits the now-defunct Bennington Contra Dance and the South Street Cafe Jam to being integral in "getting me up and running with the music."

Those interested in listening to Christian's music and learning about upcoming shows can visit his website at www.matthewchristianmusic.com or his YouTube channel at https://bit.ly/2EXssOZ. He and Carmichael also have a Facebook fan page at https://bit.ly/2TjCToy.

Christie Wisniewski can be reached at cwisniewski@benningtonbanner.com and at 802-447-7567, ext. 111.


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