James Connolly’s Musical Meanderings
by Brett Leigh Dicks
When James Connolly takes to the stage with his Gove County String Quartet, the ensuing sounds only hint at the musical meanderings its founder undertakes. Along with the quartet, Connolly directs the more expansive Gove County Philharmonic, composes soundtracks for the Lit Moon Theatre Company, plays double bass with some of Santa Barbara’s finest jazz and contemporary musicians, and keeps most of the city’s pianos in tune. While he may be better known for the philharmonic, the smaller string ensemble has become his more regular musical chariot. But rest assured, when the quartet plays Center Stage on Sunday night, his philharmonic friends won’t be too far behind.
You’re the musical heart of both the Gove County Philharmonic and the Gove County String Quartet. Gove County? Gove is an old English word that means to stare stupidly, and it is also a place in Kansas. What I’m doing musically is Americana. It comes from Stephen Foster, Charles Ives, and early radio music, and I thought it would be a nice idea to pick a place like Gove County in Kansas — who don’t have anything let alone an orchestra — and be their civic orchestra.
How do the folks in Gove County feel about this? They think we’re just crazy Californians. And that’s about right!
Outside of your own music, you’ve worked with people like Nate Birkey and Kirstin Candy. What typically draws you to a specific project or artist? A vague sense of adventure, mostly. It’s fun to play someone else’s music and to get outside of my own world. I like to do things that I am not sure about. And I like to feel a little bit uncomfortable.
Uncomfortable? In what sense? Like being out of your element. A few years back there were those high school kids who were lying down on the dividers of freeways. I think people do that to feel alive. They’re not in total control, they don’t know what’s going to happen, and they’re putting themselves in the universe’s hands. The music that I’m really drawn to gives me that feeling. This is my safe way of lying on the divider.
Let’s talk musical nomenclature for a moment. What gives rise to titles such as “Satan’s Square-Dancing Monkey” or “Noodling for Flatheads”? I like things that have a resonance to them so I look for ideas that can mean something. What they mean isn’t important — I just want them to mean something. I try not to be very literal about what’s behind them so the listener builds their own image.
I believe you once wrote a musical score for a stage production of Hamlet. How do you approach a task like that? It is so hard because the text is so musical already and you have to cut it to make room for the music. Part of why it works is because of John Blondell (of Lit Moon Theatre Company), who is so adventurous and open-minded when it comes fitting the text and music together. When we are building scenes, I am trying lots of different things — things that are never going to work — but in that you get a sense of what will work. So it happens by trial and error.
Where in town would we find the hardest piano to keep in tune? My place, because it’s the easiest piano not to keep in tune!
4•1•1 Iridian Arts presents the Grove County String Quartet at Center Stage Theater on Sun., July 2, at 8pm. Call 963-0408