Tuesday November 29, 2011

It's Simply Childplay

Childsplay on tour earlier this year

By Gwen Orel

Childsplay are less an orchestra than a "fiddle choir," says Childs Childs.

He's a luthier, and all twelve fiddlers in the group, performing at Symphony Space ( on Dec. 1, play fiddles that he made - hence the name.

Fiddles have unique voices, and fiddles made by the same person blend together like voices in a family singing group.

The fiddlers also come from different traditions: Bonnie Bewick plays with the Boston Symphony; Sheila Falls-Keohane is an Irish fiddler, and Lisse Schneckenburger both plays New England/Scottish style. And Bob Childs himself.

But that's part of the appeal of the group, Childs explains: everybody's a little outside of their comfort zone and has to learn and work together.

"Everyone is an all-star in their band, so there's a great potential for harmony and rhythmic syncopation.

"Everyone's so talented, picking up the bow patterns and ornaments is very simple, they're very good at it. But they're out of their home base of music, and it opens everybody up and makes for a very creative rehearsal time."

The sound is completely dreamy. It's not like symphonic arrangements of trad music, nor like a string section; it's just its own thing.

In addition to the fiddlers, the group includes all-Ireland harpist Kathleen Guilday, Ralph Gordon on bass, Touchstone's Mark Roberts, and others for a total of 22 players.

Step-dancers Nic Gareiss and Shannon Dunne will also perform.

This year the group is doing some Christmas music. The group has often toured right after Thanksgiving and there's a festive feel to their traditional sound, but they haven't really done holiday tunes before. There will be a couple of Irish Christmas tunes.

It's the last outing for Aoife O'Donovan (Crooked Still) with the group, before she launches her solo career.

She's sung with the group for nine years. "She's a breathy singer, and there's something about the way she breathes that is in harmony with the violins," Childs says.

Recently the singer has been touring with cellist Yo-Yo Ma.

And there are new pieces for this year's tour, from guitarist Keith Murphy, flutist Shannon Heaton (who is also with the group Long Time Courting) and fiddler Hanneke Cassel.

Nic Gareiss is a new addition-his background is in Appalachian clogging, but has just finished a year of immersion in step-dancing in Ireland as well.

Folding Nic in has been a fascinating thing. "He's a musician's dancer; he can really dance to the tune. His eclectic background gives him the ability to lock in. Shannon Dunne is more of a Sean Nos dancing, so it will be a lovely combination."

Childs, who has been making fiddles for 35 years, didn't actually found Childsplay.

He got an invitation to play in a concert down in Washington, D.C., and it was only when he got there that he saw everyone was playing one of his fiddles.

They invited him to be part of it. "We haven't stopped since," he says. That was 26 years ago.

Childplay perform Thursday, Dec. 1 at 8 p.m., at the Peter Norton Symphony Space, 2537 Broadwat at 95th St., NYC. Tickets at or 212-864-5400
The group has toured Sweden, because Childs has six violins in Sweden. At this year's concert, they will play a Swedish piece.

"That's a good example of where we can go as a band," he says. "Swedish fiddling is really rhythmic so the technique is a little different, there are different beats. The emphasis is on the one and the three, which makes for a hypnotic and driving rhythm, when you have 12 fiddles blasting away on it."

The group is scattered, so part of their rehearsal takes place through the "magic of the internet."

Different people are in charge of different arrangements, which they put up on the back end of their website,

"It's when we get together that the nitty gritty happens, refining, culling out what doesn't work, putting things in. It keeps the music alive."

Rehearsing "is like a family reunion, when everyone gets together."

Because everyone plays by ear, they can get by without a conductor.

Whoever has put out the arrangement becomes the leader for an individual tune. "It makes for a real variety in the show. There's an organic quality of the music."

The website also has free, downloadable fiddle lessons.

"We're trying to expand our group, and our community."

The orchestra is "a musical cauldron, where we're forming the sound. It's not classical music, we're playing from the inside out. People learn the music by ear, and we rehearse and do everything on the spot. We always end up with our own sound." C

Gwen Orel runs the blog and podcast New York Irish Arts (

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