BRATTLEBORO—Keith Murphy — Brattleboro resident, founder of the Northern Roots Festival and renowned multi-instrumentalist — is joining Childsplay on their final farewell tour, with several tour dates across the Pacific Northwest before concluding in Somerville, Mass., on the eve of the release of their seventh and final album, The Bloom of Youth.
“Childsplay is a group of musicians who all play fiddles handmade by the violin maker, Robert Childs,” Murphy says. “The group consists of about a dozen such fiddlers, supported by about a half a dozen other instrumentalists playing instruments such as the cello, banjo, harp, and what I play, the piano and guitar. After some years, Bob also added a singer as part of the group’s configuration.”
Led by Childs himself, Childsplay is made up of more than 20 musicians from around the U.S. and Ireland.
“With so much energy from so many great musicians, Childsplay puts on an exciting show,” Murphy says.
“To imagine what is unique to Childsplay, picture what a family that sings together sounds like, all the voices of the violins have a familial tone,” explains the press release for the tour. “Add in 30 years of touring, a film on PBS, and the recent release of their seventh album and you begin to get a sense of what makes this tour and The Bloom of Youth so special.”
Taking fiddle music further
Childs adds, “Since our first gig in 1988, our band of talented musicians have strived to take fiddle music beyond mesmerizing repetition and into the realm of harmonies and counter rhythms — traditional fiddle sounds in a contemporary world. We are so grateful to all of our fans for their continued support as we tune our strings for the final time, and hope to meet new fans along the way!”
Childs was introduced to violin making by a skilled luthier, or maker of stringed instruments, Ivie Mann in Maine, where Childs grew up. He apprenticed for six years with Mittenwald-trained violin makers Anton Smith and Michael Weller and then set up his shop in Cambridge, Mass.
He says he drew his inspiration for his craft from his own difficult early years.
As Childs writes at his website, www.childsplay.org, after “my early years living in foster homes, and a dream I had in my 30s, after having finished my violinmaking training and having opened up my own shop: I am trying to enter a country in Europe. Border guards tell me that I must stop at the customs house.
“Once inside, I am led through a series of rooms until I come to one that is totally dark except for a single light shining on a table. The guard points to a violin lying on the table and motions for me to pick it up. I do as I’m asked, and when I turn the violin over, I see, inlaid in its back, an image of a small boy crying.”
To Childs, the dream integrates voice with violin as “part of my own maturation, as well as that of Childsplay. The revelation [is] that there is a power in words, that one’s capacity for expression can keep developing, especially when you are around people who constantly encourage and inspire you to explore the means of expression,” he writes.
In addition to traditional and contemporary Irish, Québécois, Cape Breton, bluegrass, Appalachian, and Scandinavian fiddle music, Childsplay is well versed in jazz, swing, and classical music.
“Childsplay existed long before I came into the group 14 years ago,” Murphy says.
An evolving sound
The basic configuration of players has remained the same over the years, although the people playing the instruments has morphed somewhat.
“Childsplay has also had several singers over the years, yet there is usually only one at any given time,” Murphy adds. “In the past there were additional singers, from the band itself. Some of the instrumentalists who also were singers, like myself, would join in singing at the concerts, but we don’t do that any longer.
“For the last two years Childsplay has been lucky to have as its singer an amazing Irish artist Karan Casey, one of the most innovative and celebrated voices in Irish traditional and folk music. I have known her for years and years, and she has also been part of Childsplay’s most recent CD.”
While it includes other instrumentalists and the singer, Childsplay nonetheless is clearly based on its fiddle players.
“Childsplay has fiddlers who come from the Irish tradition of fiddle playing, as well as Scottish, Appalachian, and even classical music; they’re what we call instrument siblings,” Murphy says.
Murphy believes that Childsplay is unique in that it combines several diverse genres and backgrounds of music.
“It’s a remarkably diverse mixture,” he says. “The ethos of the group is based around collaboration and sharing.”
A member will bring a piece of music and teach it to the rest, a special process that makes Childsplay unlike any other group Murphy knows of.
“A musician attuned to playing Irish is encouraged to play in another context, say, Appalachian fiddle music,” Murphy says. “Other fiddlers are taught how to play a piece by someone who specializes in another genre of music. So someone who plays Irish music will teach a certain Irish piece to the rest of the group.”
Tradition and innovation
The music of Childsplay is a mix of traditional and new music, often — but not always — composed in a traditional style.
“We have explored some ambitious new material brought by various members of the group, myself included,” Murphy says. “While a lot of the new material is done in the respective traditional styles each member brings, some bridge genres. The material I bring to the group is inherently mixed, as it reflects the intermingling of separate traditions.”
Yet however seemingly disparate, the music combines harmoniously.
“The core of all the music is organically related,” Murphy says. “For instance, Scottish and Irish traditional music have an overlapping history, so then they easily flow into each other. Therefore, as a group the music we play remains cohesive and coherent.
“But then again, Bob will throw in something here and there from left field that will shake things up. For instance, one member of our group who is a Boston Symphony member brought a piece of Russian gypsy-inspired music done for jazz violin. It is an incredibly dramatic piece, which creates a moment of surprise for our audiences.
“We also do an arrangement of Van Morrison’s Moondance revamped in a modern jazz arrangement. When my son saw a recent show of Childsplay, he said Moondance was his favorite moment in the concert.”
So why is Childsplay going into retirement?
“The Childsplay tour is a huge operation,” Murphy says. “There are about 20 musicians in the show, as well as 10 others who work lights and sound. Everyone in the band is a professional musician who has commitments elsewhere, so to organize the tour is complicated, perhaps too complicated. Such a big endeavor is hard to sustain.”
But ending Childsplay is more than just performance logistics.
“Over the years, the group has evolved and developed until now it has reached a very high level of musicianship,” Murphy adds. “Although Bob will be the first to say it is difficult to walk away from, Childsplay has said what it needed to say.
While it took a long time to realize the distinctive sound of Childsplay, it has reached its musical goal, and there is nowhere for it to go artistically.”