As told to Greg Cahill
Keep Connected chronicles the ways in which string players and organizations are supporting and keeping in touch with their audiences or students throughout the global coronavirus pandemic. States are re-opening public spaces and shelter-in-place orders are abating, but music festivals and concert performances are yet to resume. That makes internet performances all the more vital.
No one knows this better than Grammy-nominated fiddler and musical explorer Casey Driessen. His professional sojourn began in bluegrass, but has become defined by pushing boundaries and experimenting in the studio and in live settings. This five-string fiddler’s recent journeys have taken the form of Otherlands: A Global Music Exploration, a travel project dedicated to exploring traditional music throughout the world during extended stays in places like Ireland, India, Japan, and Scandinavia. At each stop, Driessen collaborates with local musicians, documenting these adventures with photos, videos, and recordings.
He recently served as director of the master’s program in contemporary performance at Berklee College of Music’s campus in Valencia, Spain. While abroad, Driessen helped spearhead The Chop Notation Project, a free resource that establishes standardized music notation to read and write the percussive bowed string technique known as the chop. He’s released three solo records (3D,Oog, and The Singularity) , toured as a one man band, and shared the stage with Béla Fleck, Steve Earle, Jerry Douglas, and others.
Where have you been quarantined?
My wife, 11-year-old daughter, and I have been quarantined twice since March. Quarantine No. 1 was in a cabin in Kaustinen, Finland. It’s a small town, about five and a half hours northwest of Helsinki, known for its fiddling tradition. I was headed there as part of my Otherlands project to meet with local musicians. We entered Finland just two days before the border closed and ended up staying there for two months. Quarantine No. 2 was out in the woods in a pop-up camper and tiny house, in Madison County, outside of Marshall, North Carolina. The recent quarantine was the recommended two-week isolation upon re-entry to the United States.
Tell me about your daily routine.
I feel very fortunate and thankful for both of our quarantine scenarios. For the first two to three weeks of arriving in Finland, the only outings we made were to the grocery store once a week and out for a few hikes in the woods. As time went on, I was able to meet with a few musicians in the area to share some socially distant tunes. General activities during this time were practicing—Finnish tunes, of course—mixing audio and editing video for my Otherlands project, a few remote recording or teaching sessions, cooking, homeschooling, puzzles, some binge watching, checking in with friends, and building fires.
For our camping quarantine, we are staying on our own land, so I’ve spent a fair amount of time working on it—clearing brush, weed eating, building a firepit, chopping wood, repairing the outhouse, and cutting trails with my new machete—in addition to cooking, doing lots of dishes, and practicing. We’re sharing one sim card for internet and the service is spotty out here, so there has been a lot less digital activity.
What have you learned about yourself as a person and as a player while working and living in relative solitude?
My wife, daughter, and I have been traveling to different countries since August 2019, so thankfully, lots of togetherness, living in foreign and temporary settings, working from the road, and homeschool were not new for us. But our planned adventures came to a halt and the amount of togetherness did intensify. It was important to make sure that each of us made time for ourselves and each other. I’m not sure if I learned anything new about myself, rather things I knew were reinforced—I like to practice, I like having some sort of structure or project, and I like to be outdoors wandering and exploring new places.
How have you stayed connected with your audience and/or students during the quarantine? Tell me about virtual sessions you’ve participated in.
For this past year, I haven’t been putting energy towards gigging or teaching, but have been focusing on musical collaborations in the different countries we’ve been to. I’ve been documenting those interactions and travels, frequently sharing them through videos, photos, recordings, and blogs. As a result, I’ve been much more active, and interactive, on social media this whole year, and it has continued through quarantine. Since quarantine began in March, I have virtually given two solo concerts, two group workshops, a few private lessons, recorded three audio overdubs and one audio/video overdub, and have two other audio/video recording collaborations in progress.
How have you selected your internet programming?
I’m always trying new ideas, so for the solo concerts, I decided to take this opportunity to work up solo versions of music I’ve been learning from other countries in my Otherlands travels. I presented material learned in and concepts inspired by Spain, Ireland, Scotland, India, Japan, and Finland.
What is the response like?
Judging by the views and the comments, which is pretty much all I can go by, the response seems positive. But, there are definitely friends and family tuning in, so they might just be being nice.
Why is it important to stay connected on social media?
Social media has been a big resource for me this past year in three important ways. First, it served as a great way to find and connect with musicians I had met previously. Second, while planning travels to different countries, and while in the country, I received many great recommendations of places to visit and musicians to meet. And last, I’ve been seeing/hearing/living some amazing cultural experiences recently, and I am eager to share them to build community and awareness.
What have you learned about your audience?
One thing that surprised me about the audience was all the live chat activity happening during the performance. It seemed like people were having a great time with each other. I wish I had a better way to interact in real-time but responded after the shows.
How do you rate your experience with virtual performance?
Although I’ve played solo quite a bit, this type of performance experience is new to me. I think the most difficult part is getting used to the dead air between the songs and knowing how much or how little to talk with the audience.
Is this something you will continue even as venues reopen?
Yes. And if venues are reopening, that means that we can feel more comfortable meeting with other musicians, so I’d hope to present some virtual collaborations on the road when my travels resume.
Any tips for other string players considering this path?
Playing solo presents interesting challenges. Since there’s an awful lot of me, me, and more me, I look for ways to vary the material from song to song so that it stays interesting—hopefully. This can be done through keys, time signatures, tempos, grooves, registers, adding vocals, improvisation, medley, and, of course, using different techniques at your disposal. Just like planning the set list, I plan the arrangements, but leave room for improvisation and spur of the moment changes.
I would also recommend planning a few spots that you want to speak to the audience and the general idea of what you want to communicate. And regarding the virtual-streaming aspect, make sure to test every aspect of your setup—connection, audio, video, lighting, et cetera—in the way you expect to do it for the performance before going public, at least a day or two in advance. There are lots of moving parts. YouTube can be your friend for solving problems.
What are your goals going forward as performance venues reopen?
Things are a bit of a clean slate for me right now. I’ve been out of the gigging loop for the last five years, after finishing a four-year academic appointment in Spain and then travelling solid the last year for family adventure and musical inspiration. I’m now returning to life as an independent musician. Gigging will surely be part of it, but I’m not sure of the nature. I’ve been inspired by my recent international collaborations and am hoping that I can find a way to present some of these.
How will you continue going forward as a player? Will the quarantine or limitations of the virus change your path?
I will continue in the same way that I have in the past—playing concerts, recording, teaching, and producing. The mediums may change at times and require adaptation, but the activity is still the same. International travel is a cherished experience in my life and that had certainly come to a halt. But, I believe we will get past this point and the ability to travel safely will reappear. Until then, I will look for creative ways to use this time, releasing new videos and audio, creating new instructional content, and brainstorming virtual experiences.
Is there a message you’d like to share with our readers?
Please wash your hands and consider how your actions may affect others. And if you’re one of the frontline healthcare workers, thank you so much. Hope to see you out on the road again before too long. Health!