The conference draws hundreds of “faculty, administrators, graduate students, independent scholars, composers, publishers and music business personnel who share a common interest and dedication to the improvement of music and its relationship to the other academic disciplines of higher education,” according to the CMS web page.
For the 62nd annual event, the selection panel requested presentations addressing the music and issues of the region.
“It is quite a boon to ETSU that two faculty have received this honor,” said Heather Killmeyer, who along with Nate Olson, will be presenting at the conference. “This particular conference is notoriously selective and averages a 32 percent acceptance rate for applications.”
Killmeyer, an associate professor of double reeds in the ETSU Department of Music, will give a performance of Brian DuFord’s “Coal Trails on Rails” for oboe with a pre-recorded soundtrack featuring field recordings of actual coal and freight trains collected throughout the region.
This piece was commissioned in 2018 through an ETSU Research Development Committee Small Grant. Using a Zoom recorder and wind screen, Killmeyer made field recordings of train sounds from the Norfolk Southern Railway yard in Norfolk, Virginia, and the CSX line in Kingsport.
When DuFord received the recordings, he spent hours listening to them and began to hear “musical” sounds. The whistles, rhythmic clicks and other sounds “inspired certain compositional elements,” he said, as he worked on the score and digitally recorded the guitar, banjo, upright bass, piano, brass, percussion and other parts to accompany Killmeyer’s oboe.
The result was a “bluegrass-inspired soundscape” that Killmeyer premiered in her faculty recital in September 2018, with subsequent performances associated with the Johnson City Sesquicentennial Celebration and the national conference of the Australasian Double Reed Society in Melbourne, Australia.
Killmeyer, who grew up in Baltimore and has lived in various places, found inspiration for “Coal Trails on Rails” in the different sounds of various railroads and in the influence of the railroads on the Appalachian region and its people.
“The majority of the population around Baltimore lives in the suburbs, like I did, and trains aren’t part of the suburban landscape,” she said. “To me, Johnson City is unique compared to my hometown and other cities where I’ve lived in that I can hear trains from my home even though I’m not residing in an industrial area. The trains are as much a part of the soundscape as birds and church bells.
“It’s always interesting to me how this area was shaped — how that concept of moving people or goods around just completely shaped the people, shaped the culture — and you have very different immigrant groups here as opposed to where I’m from,” Killmeyer said. “And I was intrigued by the sounds that I heard from the trains. The ones I heard in Roanoke were different from the freight trains you have crossing State of Franklin.”
Olson will present a paper, “Developing a Culturally Responsive Music Theory Sequence for Bluegrass and Old-Time Musicians.” As assistant director of Bluegrass, Old-Time and Country Music Studies, band director and bluegrass fiddle instructor in the Department of Appalachian Studies, Olson works daily with students who learned music in a much more organic way than the Western Classical way in which he learned.
“Students in our program typically learn about musical style, repertoire and performance practice from friends and family, often in informal jam sessions and knee-to-knee aural and imitation-based settings, and increasingly through recording and video archives,” he said. “Though they are skilled and talented performers, a sizable percentage have very little formal music theory training.”
“When I came in and tried to share with them my classically trained background, the students pushed back a lot,” he continued. “They asked, ‘Why do I have to know this? This has nothing to do with the way I play music.’ ”
Olson said this was challenging, and led him and his colleagues to rethink the way they approached music theory so they could “meet students where they are.”
“I became increasingly uncomfortable with the ethnocentric way that we approached theory,” he said. “My colleagues and I understood that the cultures of these musics required a unique theoretical approach based on their repertoire, customs and desired capacities. Instead of trying to fit or assimilate bluegrass and old-time music into a classical paradigm, we made the decision to fundamentally reshape the way we taught theory courses.”