“I think music is tied to the actual space a song is occupying.”
Anna Roberts-Gevalt shared this notion with me while describing how folk songs are made and sung, and how they are affected by or effect the environments in which they are played. Her initial description of folk music made me imagine centuries-old songs sung in farm fields, on ships, in kitchens and parlors.
These settings had nothing in common with the location of her collaborative performance earlier that day, the outdoor plaza beneath the Smithsonian’s Hirshhorn Museum—a multi-story concrete ring supported by massive pillars and dedicated to modernist art. Maybe I hadn’t quite grasped what she meant.
“Sometimes, when you create an outside-of-the-box situation, it’s a way of getting you to realize something new about this thing that you do all the time.”
Roberts-Gevalt, a multi-instrumentalist and one half of the Smithsonian Folkways group Anna & Elizabeth, was selected as an artist-in-residence for the Smithsonian Year of Music in 2019. She gave six performances in October, culminating in this one, where twenty ballad singers sat in chairs, some in groups of two or three, some isolated. I watched as they passed through their fingers a red waxed cord with colored ribbons knotted to it. Roberts-Gevalt sat in the center of the group, tying and removing the ribbons. Most of the singers sang a different song, starting or stopping their ballad when their color passed, the cord standing in for a notated score.
Initially confused by the untraditional setting, I soon became entranced by the overlapping voices and melodies that filled the open space. By placing folk ballads outside their normal context, Roberts-Gevalt had orchestrated a new experience for both musicians and audience.
“When I think about why I want to use ideas of experimentation in exploring traditional music, it’s because I feel curious about tradition—its complexities, its magic, its cross-time and cross-generational depth.”
Roberts-Gevalt considers both folk and experimental music as traditional forms. Both value sounds and songs that exist outside the realm of popular music. In her recent work, she creates situations that tie both streams together, allowing her to view folk music from a new vantage point. This gift of perspective gives her the chance to learn more about the relationship between music, identity, and beliefs.
“Let’s use the word ‘experiment.’ It’s something we can all do. It suggests uncertainty, risk, and, to me, the potential for discovery.”
Roberts-Gevalt’s first foray into musical performance occurred in the third grade when her school mandated violin lessons for all students. She continued performing into high school, intrigued by classical composers who used traditional music in surprising ways, like Tchaikovsky, who incorporated Russian folk tunes into his symphonies. She also recalled listening to Aaron Copeland’s classical compositions containing American jazz and folk sounds, an innovation in the early twentieth century.
These composers took music created for the home and presented it as public music for concert halls. Inspired by the versatile nature of folk music, Roberts-Gevalt began to delve into the folk genre, picking up the fiddle after her siblings began playing. She bought a banjo after attending an Abigail Washburn concert in college, inspired by the way the instrument could captivate an audience.
Folk music became a way for Roberts-Gevalt to express her ideas about the social role of music. She was fascinated by the history of folk musicians who incorporated music into their everyday life, explaining that folk musicians didn’t have to be professionals; they could be “farmers and banjo players,” or “accountants and fiddlers.” She was interested in how folk music was a part of everyday life in some regions, explaining, “I wanted to learn about the actual music I was learning. You’re learning the song ‘Cumberland Gap’ or something, and where’s Cumberland Gap?” This desire brought about her move to Kentucky to learn more about Appalachian folk music from local musicians.
“That was a life-changing trip,” she continued. “I was starting to think about how this music comes from a place, and from families, and from these different cultures. How do people from this place think about it? That kind of context, and the storytelling part of the music, is the part I really love and the part that blew my mind.”
During her week-long Smithsonian residency, Roberts-Gevalt took advantage of her setting at the Hirshhorn. She performed a freely improvised duet with Susan Alcorn, a pedal steel guitarist well regarded in the jazz world, as a response to Lee Ufan’s site-specific installations found throughout the museum’s sculpture garden. On the museum’s third floor, she sang and played the fiddle with local singers and musicians as a response to Mark Bradford’s mural of a Civil War battle.
The largest performance occurred that Saturday in the plaza, with Roberts-Gevalt’s ballad and cord experiment.
The cord was made of 2,000 feet of strands, dipped in red wax to symbolize human voices held by wax cylinders. It brought the performers together, both physically and visually. Roberts-Gevalt identified the inspiration for the cord as Lygia Clark, a Brazilian artist and sculptor.
“Clark made a lot of different objects that would make you interact with each other. That inspired me to make the red thread. If we all interact with the thread, then we can interact with each other.”
The audience was free to move about the plaza, coming closer to hear a particular song more clearly, or moving farther away to listen to the chorus of performers in their totality. During the performance, Roberts-Gevalt never addressed the audience—an intentional move. She told me she wanted to “create something subtle that invited people to pay attention.” She hadn’t wanted to prompt them in any way, or interpret the performance for them, hoping they experienced the music as a part of the plaza space. The design of her experiment was key to engaging the audience.
“To have a bunch of ballads occupy the space of the Hirshhorn for a little bit—how could we do it in a way that would feel magical or beguiling to someone walking by? It’s like how Georgia O’Keeffe wrote about wanting to paint flowers to help people notice flowers—not just her paintings.”
Roberts-Gevalt credited the performers for her project’s success. “There are all these amazing people all over who have chosen to learn all these old ballads. Some are performers, but a lot are not,” she said. “They are just inspired by loving this music and are so dedicated to carrying on this thread of storytelling.
Traditional music predates written records, so she described that Saturdays’ performers as “living archives” who carry traditional music in their bodies. Their performance took traditional music out of its usually private or community context and brought it to the public’s attention.
“If I can make something, and I can facilitate people hearing their voices, then that feels in the spirit of the music. My idea is to make pieces where it’s about creating these kinds of surreal communal experiences.”
Sarah Seaberg is an intern at the Smithsonian Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage and a graduate of the University of Notre Dame, where she studied anthropology and sustainability.