Brooklyn, New York: The Star-Spangled Banner has been America’s love song for over 200 years, but does it still represent what America sounds like today? To find out, composer Michael Markowski chose to travel back in time, to dig up our roots, to explore a sound so quintessential that it’s impossible to disassociate it with American life: the fiddle. Like an old cowpuncher alone during a long winter with nothing to read but Dickinson, the result is sophisticated, elegant, folksy, dusty, twangy, and tuneful.
On September 28, Markowski’s Star-Spangled Variations made its digital debut streaming on Spotify and Apple Music performed by former Rochester Philharmonic Orchestra violinist and fiddle enthusiast, Robert Simonds. Simonds, who recently left the orchestra to study public policy at Harvard University, says, “Michael’s piece is built on familiar source material but he upends our expectations, taking the listener through wide-ranging styles and emotional territory. He’s added an important new piece to the American solo violin repertoire and it was an honor to bring it to life for the first time.”
The Variations are composed in eight short movements, each with its own unique personality, dialect, and drawl. Movement one, although ambiguously named by its roman numeral (“I.”), instructs the musician to play “simply, like the opening credits of a Ken Burns documentary.” It’s not too hard to imagine this modest Irish slip jig underscoring the next great American miniseries, be it on Warhol or cornhole. The remaining seven movements transport us to a West Texas opera house where each vignette brings a new character to the spotlight. With so many different musical costumes, it’s easy to forget that the Star-Spangled Banner still hides under each disguise.
Markowski’s piece is more than a set of academic theme-and-variations. It’s a cast of characters so distinct and different yet united by the same musical DNA that they all seem to hail from the same small town in rural North Carolina. “I know this isn’t the American sound, especially in the year 2021, but I do think it certainly is an American sound. One of many,” says Markowski. “To truly paint a vibrant landscape, I’d have to write another 330 million variations.”
Star-Spangled Variations was recorded at Futura Productions in Boston, Massachusetts, engineered by John Weston, mastered by Brian Losch, with original folk art from Chilean artist María González. Download on Spotify, Apple Music, and most other major streaming platforms.
Robert Simonds, violin
Markowski Creative (ASCAP)
No known errata.