When leukemia took the life of Canadian fiddler Oliver ("Oli") Schroer on July 3, 2008, he was just fifty-two years old. Schroer left behind a remarkable legacy as a composer, teacher, producer, collaborator, and as an innovator of traditional musics. Oli was, in his own words, an "extended folk" musician; his website, www .oliverschroer.com, describes his own tunes as "stories, flights of fancy, explorations of melody, all told with the warm twang, the familiar brogue of a language called 'fiddle.'" At the peak of his career, around 2003, he traveled the world making frequent appearances at folk and Celtic music festivals, but Schroer's music invariably bore the mark of experimentation in whichever form it took. The two albums reviewed here, Camino and Hymns and Hers, date from 2006 and 2007, respectively. Both, however, were re-released in 2009 by Borealis Records in Toronto. Schroer's music on these records is of potential interest to folklorists not only because the fiddler was one of Canada's most prolific composers on the instrument (he claims to have authored over 1,000 tunes), but also because it bridges traditional and modern vernaculars in its stylistic fluidity. As a composer, Schroer finds meeting points between popular and traditional forms by writing tune-based pieces with few chord changes and verse/chorus structures, but they are difficult to categorize. As a player, Schroer incorporates non-traditional performing techniques into his fiddling, such as, for example, string harmonics and close mic-ing to accentuate the tactile, physical interaction between bow and string. This review will explore these two albums as examples of Schroer's "extended folk" music, contextualizing them within larger issues of genre boundaries, and the dichotomous construction of tradition versus modernity in music, one which might better be considered as merely two points along a continuum.
Schroer was called an "investigative fiddler" by Toronto's Globe and Mail newspaper (Brad Wheeler, "Don't Expect a 'Maudlin Tear-Jerky Affair,'" June 5, 2008:R1), and the epithet is appropriate, but not altogether sufficient. Schroer was more than a fiddler: he queried music's ability to communicate and bring people closer to each other, and his investigations assumed many manifestations, often ignoring circumscriptions of genre. My own introduction to Schroer's music came via O2, his 1999 double album of solo five-string fiddle tunes (Big Dog BD9901CD). O2 might be Schroer's most experimental album in that it defies classification of every sort. Across two discs of mercurial adaptations of jigs, reels, dances, and other modified forms, he pays tribute to avant-garde composers (Frank Zappa and John Cage), Norwegian fiddle music, Baroque forms, and, of course, Celtic fiddling traditions. Schroer's accompanying essay to the music on O2, found in the disc's liner notes, offers us a glimpse into how his playing and writing moved beyond those traditional paradigms: "There were prayers, incantations, whimsies, melismas, mysteriosos, heisenbergs, fractal reels, forest blues, blessings. . . . They are not so much entertainment tunes, but music that expresses other important things about my relationship to life. This music is, dare I say, more spiritual" (p. 1).
The spirituality that inflects Schroer's tunes on O2 marks a watershed moment in his career. In the last decade of his life, he released five full-length CDs, taught and mentored extensively in the rural community of Smithers, British Columbia, and undertook a pilgrimage along the Camino de Santiago trail. His final disc Smithers contains fifty-nine tunes Schroer composed for each student he taught over his seven years in the community. The album was recorded over three days in 2007 as a way of thanking his students, who held a fundraiser in his honor when he was first diagnosed with leukemia.
The first album reviewed here is Camino (originally released on Big Dog Records in 2006), recorded in twenty-five churches during his 2004 walk along the Camino de Santiago pilgrim trail, which runs through France and Spain and terminates in Santiago de Compostela. Along with his...