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

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


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