I have always been drawn to and inspired by the old melodies. From an early age I was surrounded by the Eastern European tonalites of the Jewish prayers that I heard and sang both at home and in the Synagogue. As a folk dancer and aspiring mandolin player growing up in New England, I became involved in the lively contra dance scene there which introduced me to the world of American, Irish, and French Canadian fiddle tunes. Shortly after this the old time clawhammer banjo caught my ear because of its unique percussive sound and the southern mountain tonalities that characterized many of the tunes that were so plaintively expressed on that instrument.
Writing my own tunes
After learning and performing hundreds of the old tunes, I started to write my own, and now have quite a collection of jigs, reels, waltzes and aires. Most of these have the traditional AB dance form, and the melodies, though reminiscent of the old tunes, are fresh and lyrical. Some venture into other genres including blues, cajun, funk, and beyond. My writing is featured on my two Rounder CD’s “Brand New Old Tyme Way”, and Steppin’ In The Boiler House. The latter features a configuration that I did some touring with from 2000 to 2003 which included Jim Hurst, Missy Raines, and Casey Driessen.
The Writing Process
The inspiration to write comes from different places. Sometimes it comes from playing a mixture of drills, exercises, and tunes that I already know or when I am improvising freely on the banjo or mandolin. Out of the latter a little melodic phrase may appear. I record this so I won't forget it then let this phrase lead to another, always in search of that beauty of melodic shape that I loved in all of the traditional tunes that I had learned and played so many times. After completing a standard 8-bar A-part (which is generally repeated in a fiddle tune, sometimes with a second ending, sometimes without) I'd look for a contrasting beginning for a B-part or perhaps go high if the A-part was low, or go minor if the first part was major, or use more languid phrases if the first part was notey, then let that lead me down a compelling path through the next 8-bars. I'd keep recording my progress so I wouldn't have to worry about forgetting something. Some folks might call this following the muse.
I try to name the tune immediately after writing it so there is some organic connection to the moment.
-The Fallling Waters of Arden I wrote that while out on my back deck with my sprinkler going back and forth, and the name of my neighborhood is Arden.
-All Full Up was written after a big meal.
-Chelsea Town was written while I was in London with Footworks, performing in the first London Run of Riverdance. They put us up in a nice neighborhood called Chelsea.The tunes are almost like snapshots from my life, helping me stay connected with my past experiences.
Then there are tunes that I have written when feeling some emotion.
-All My Children emerged while I was watching a video of my younger brother playing with his young children in far off Israel where he lived at the time.
-I wrote Julie's Waltz after a dream I had of an old flame.
From time to time I set out to write a tune for a particular occasion. This was the case with the Samolynn Waltz (recorded on Brand New Old Tyme Way), which I wrote for the wedding of Sam and Lynn Bush, good friends of mine who live in Nashville.
. I wrote Black Mountain Air for the wedding of some other friends who were married in Black Mountain, North Carolina. I wrote For Carol for a favorite aunt who had died.
I have worked for many years with a group called Footworks Percussive Dance Ensemble, and have on many occasions been inspired to write a tune by playing for the dancers or for dance classes that they are teaching. Calgary and Steppin' In The Boiler House are examples of this.
"Mark's Compositions" is a compilation of brief snippets of a handful of my tunes from two solo CDs that I recorded for Rounder Records: Brand New Old Tyme Way and Steppin' in the Boiler House.
Material Recorded by Other Artists
Some of my compositions have been recorded by other artists. I co-wrote “Shoulder to Shoulder”, the theme music for the IBMA Awards Show, with Jerry Douglas, which appears on his CD, “Slide Rule”. Other compositions of mine appear on Butch Baldisari’s A Day in the Country, and Pinecastle’s “Bluegrass '97, '98, and 2000. I am honored to have other artists record my material, and am always happy to send tapes of tunes to those who are looking for new material.
I am also enthusiastic about writing new material whether it be for a special occasion, a recording project, a choreographer, or a film score. I can provide a basic work tape and/or sheet music, or a fully finished studio recording, depending on the needs and resources of the client.