You might not think of the word “intense” when you think of mandolin music, but there is definitely something intense about the bond forged between Noah Fishman and Baron Collins-Hill. Their four minute stints of melody-splashed serenades on their stringed instruments is akin to two hands on a piano, or something even as close as two improvisational dancers reading each other.
“We’re both so willing to ‘go there,’” as Fishman puts it. “If any opportunity opens up within a song, we run towards it together; if one of us plays a wrong note, the other responds with ‘Oh yeah, I’ll play that wrong note too.’ Or if we just start speeding up together, whatever it is, we’re down for it.”
Mid-interview, the word “telepathic” is suggested to explain the way they’re able to read each other in the midst of a live performance (or even during recordings, like the one you’re watching above). “It’s about getting the sense of the playing field you’re on,” says Collins-Hill, with a potentially unintended pun.
“Having the technical and mental side of what you’re doing down pat is the way to get into that form of nonverbal communication,” Collins-Hill continues. “But also, and I tell my students this all the time, try to play through the tune and don’t concentrate so much on what the arrangement is, so you’re able to look up from your instrument and experience what’s going on around you. If you get a couple of people who have spent hours and days and weeks and years together, you’re able to create a little rulebook that’s, of course, always able to be broken.
Collins-Hill mentioned students: He’s the founder and facilitating instructor for a series of online music courses for the instrument, mandolessons.com, but before that, he was a teacher at Maine Fiddle Camp in Montville (where he actually met Fishman, who was a student in 2011, and would go on to become a teacher there himself several years later). Born and raised in Oakland, Maine, Collins-Hill recalls discovering the Americana/indie-bluegrass ensemble Nickel Creek (featuring famous mandolinist Chris Thile) at age 11. In fact, within two minutes of hearing a Nickel Creek song and verbalizing his curiosity for the sound of this instrument amid a room of family and friends, someone was able to fetch their own mandolin and put it into his hands right then and there. But, and Fishman emphasizes this so that Collins-Hill can retain his modesty: “Baron is now a prominent figure for anyone who wants to learn to play the mandolin online. Baron himself actually learned how to play mandolin basically online, and fell in love with the instrument through research he was able to do on the internet.” In fact, the duo have recently been releasing dual-led lessons with online videos.
For Collins-Hill, the horizons for the mandolin widened considerably when he first attended the Maine Fiddle Camp, discovering its role in traditional music from all around the world. The same can be said for Fishman when he came there later and first met Collins Hill as a teacher.
Meanwhile, Fishman’s background essentially sparked through jazz; he started out as a bassist and was actually gigging around his local music scene while still in high school. He fell in love with traditional music, wound up heading to Maine Fiddle Camp and even requested a mandolin for his 18th birthday. He was still doing jazz and classical music on his bass during his studies at Princeton, but “I would always come home and play traditional music with Baron and our friends.”
Fishman is currently in Ann Arbor, starting the 2nd year of studies at the University of Michigan school of music for a Masters in Composition. Collins-Hill, just like Fishman, has performed in several cities and states (and even outside the U.S.), but he’s excited for the upcoming event at Kerrytown, which will be Collins-Hill’s first formal performance inside the Mitten State. Their album, Fine Times was recorded at Fishman’s home, upstairs in his father’s painting studio. In fact, these videos they’ve released capture actual moments from their recording process.
The album is named after a much-covered old traditional song from the 1940’s, (“Fine Times at Our House”) which is celebrated and oft-returned to for just how fun it is to perform. “One of my favorite things about traditional music,” said Collins-Hill, “is that there’s some part of it that’s very scripted, and there’s not a lot of ornamentation or improvisation that happens in the way we’re playing that song on our album. But we also use that tune as a starting point, and we’re able to spice it up together, make it our own; we turn it into a jig and we take solos and we play around with it together. “
That ability to explore and return, to swing out to left field but fall right back onto the track, is heightened by both of these players’ having backgrounds in free jazz improvisation. Fishman said that with his other collaborators he tends to “rehearse” in the conventional sense, but with Collins-Hill, “there’s 15-20 minutes of us just making noise together or inventing tunes on the spot or deconstructing other tunes. There’s plenty of room for interpretation in traditional music; even though we’re playing a pre-written thing, we’re still improvising.”
“I did study jazz,” Collins-Hill says, “but every style of music I’ve learned about or listened to definitely does seep into my playing and makes me more comfortable to go out on a limb and be able to stray away within the standard traditional accompaniment of a straight-ahead chord system.”
That kind of sounds acrobatic. Maybe even thrilling? You didn’t expect that with mandolins, maybe; hear for yourself when you check out Noah Fishman and Baron Collins-Hill for at Kerrytown Concert House on October 11. And while you’ve spent this entire article reading about their mandolins, you can expect a variety of sounds at this concert; both players are multi-instrumentalists and will be incorporating a few different things into the show, including, quite possibly, a secret special guest.
Noah Fishman & Baron Collins-Hill Debut Album ‘Fine Times’
Friday, Oct 11. Kerrytown Concert House. 8pm. $10-$40.
415 N. 4th Ave., Ann Arbor. Kerrytownconcerthouse.com