Interview with fiddler Katherine Moller

“I always like to set up outside so I really am talking to people as they’re walking by, and that’s great. There was a little boy who stopped by today and I love it when kids stop by. They’re just so cute. So he stopped by and he said to me, ‘can you whisper a secret song in my ear?'” – Katherine Moller

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Mark: Welcome to the show, Katherine.

Katherine: Why, thank you.

Mark: We’ve had the opportunity to talk before and I’m very happy to have the chance to talk to you again – the previous occasion was on the release of your Christmas album I believe. You’ve been at the Barracks before, am I right?

Katherine: Yes, I have been.

Mark: But this time you’ve got a very specific mission, I understand. I should say that you are a very accomplished performer and teacher of music. What else would you like to say to introduce yourself, I suppose?

Katherine: That’s really it. I teach privately in town, being, of course, Fredericton, both privately (I have a studio at the Charlotte Street Arts Centre) and I run some school problems at Park Street Elementary School and Nashwaak Middle School and Leo Hayes High School, and then I perform in various genres: baroque music, classical music with Symphony New Brunswick, Celtic music either as a solo artist or with my band Different Folk so you know, I keep busy here and there.

Mark: Is the residency a nice kind of, absolute break from all the business or just to the one focused thing; a chance to meet people in general? Or is it kind of a ‘working vacation,’ as they say?

Katherine: Well it’s a working vacation, but it is great because it gets me out of the house and it gives me large amounts of time all at once to write tunes. Every year I think “I’m going to write a tune every month” or some enthusiastic years I haven’t had one of these recently, I’ll think “I’m going to write a tune every day” and that doesn’t happen when you’re rushing between teaching and performing and doing the dishes and trying to clean the house, so being here from 10 until 5 each day just gives you that amount of time when there is nothing else to do. There are no dishes here. There’s no sweeping or dusting or anything, so that’s great because you’re just left with lots of time and really nothing to do but be creative.

Mark: I understand you have a specific project in mind for this year – what’s the project?

Katherine: This year the focus of all the residencies is on new beginnings and so given that I am a Celtic fiddler, I have decided to focus my energies on the arrival of the Irish in New Brunswick, and so this year I’m taking some of my inspiration from their voyage here so I have been, and I’ll be doing some more research as well, through the week, just to find out more about that voyage and about the hardships and about the excitement and about the challenges of new beginnings. It seemed a perfect fit for a Celtic fiddler.

Mark: Is this something you’d looked into before or something that you’ve always thought about looking into but had never had a chance to look into?

Katherine: Well honestly, I love these residencies. As you’ve said, I’ve been doing them for years, and every year they have a different theme. That kind of pushes me sometimes in a direction. The applications come out and they give us a theme, and I say “ok, what am I going to do this year?” What direction am I going to take within that theme? This is really nothing that I’ve contemplated doing before, so it’s great to have that little push sometimes.

Mark: How long did it take to come up with this particular idea for you? Was it something where the theme instantly spoke to you, or was it a search?

Katherine: Well in this case it was pretty instant, because as I say, that Irish connection is pretty strong and I spent some time in Ireland 15 years ago – I can’t believe it’s been that long now but when I graduated from university I decided that I wanted to go to Ireland and got a grant from the Canada Council to go over and study there so I spent a year in Ireland. More recently I went over again. So personally there’s that interest. Many of the people I know here have either roots in Ireland or have come from Ireland much more recently.

Mark: So how much have you been able to explore so far? I know the week’s just started but I’m sure you’re quite enthusiastic to get right at it.

Katherine: Yeah, well I have been doing a mixture of writing new tunes and also just reviewing past tunes – tunes that I’ve written in past years here. When I write tunes, there are a couple of different ways that I go about it. Sometimes I have something in mind that – you know, an event – that I want to write about and try to capture in my music somehow. Sometimes I just ‘noodle around’ and see what happens. Sometimes I set myself a bit of a challenge so sometimes I think “ok, today I’m going to write a jig in the key of A” and I like to do that to sort of give myself a challenge, because as human beings we tend to fall into the same patterns over and over and so to make sure my tunes don’t all sound the same I need to push myself to get out of the space that I’m in. I’ll give myself a little assignment and say “this is what you’re doing today.” The other thing I like to do is to examine some of the tunes that I really like that I haven’t written and to see what elements there are in those – what is it that draws me to these pieces and then try to include those elements in my music. When I’m writing, those are all the different angles that I take at it to get something moving but I try not to judge what I’m doing as it’s coming out and I try to just let whatever musically wants to flow out of me come. And then, normally I just shelve it for a while so it’s really fun, now, going back and reading through some of the material that I wrote last year. I’ve got to say, I wrote some good stuff last year, so I’m hoping for the same results this year!

Mark: Alongside the visiting of your own writing, what other material have you brought with you, or are you exploring this week?

Katherine: I am making use of a website, the Irish Portal, and that has a lot of information about the Irish coming to New Brunswick. Now, having said that, that’s more research that I’m doing at home because I have chosen not to bring a computer with me because I really want my time here to just be ‘me and the fiddle’ time. So I’m doing more of the research at home and doing more of the creative work here.

Mark: So you do you kind of load up on a bunch of ideas that you get to explore the next day?

Katherine: Yup.

Mark: I would imagine, too, that unlike with visual artists, if someone’s not looking in the right direction they’re not gonna see it. With a musical artist, as soon as you play you’re gonna turn heads. Has that been happening so far?

Katherine: Yes. I don’t know how familiar you are with the area but there’s the actual casemates inside where they used to store the gunpowder and then there’s kind of a deck outside and I always like to set up outside so I really am talking to people as they’re walking by, and that’s great. There was a little boy who stopped by today and I love it when kids stop by. They’re just so cute. So he stopped by and he said to me, “can you whisper a secret song in my ear?”

Mark: You are working on pieces as much as you’d be performing pieces you already know – probably more working – I know that whenever I’ve tried to, say, write something, I don’t wanna show it to anyone until it’s polished, at least a little bit. Do you ever have that kind of nervousness or are you having a lot of fun, working out and get halfway through a song and go, “that’s not what I wanted” or “I wanted to go a different direction.”

Katherine: The only issue that I have and which I try to contain is when I’m right in the middle of working something out where two notes aren’t right or there’s just something in the middle of it that’s bothering me and then someone stops by to listen – and I find that challenging because a lot of times I just circle around the problem spot and it’s really not musical – it’s really not anything that you want to listen to. But that’s fairly minor and it doesn’t happen all that often as far as people stopping by right at that moment. That moment happens plenty but I don’t often have an audience for it. The way that I write is that I work on my tunes and I have my phone handy with the little voice memo, and as soon as I hit on something that I really like, I record it. That way, if someone does want to stop and I’m in the middle of writing something, I have that moment captured on my phone. Once the person moves on I can go back to it so I don’t feel like having people stop by actually interrupts all that much because I am able to listen to what it is that I’ve been working on. I find that really helps, too, as far as writing it down – if I record what I’m playing, what I’m working on, and I don’t worry about writing it down until the whole thing’s done, and then I’ll transcribe what I’ve played.

Mark: So you create orally and then write it down?

Katherine: Yes.

Mark: It feels like that would be the natural, traditional way that a lot of this folk mood music you’re kind of exploring – the folk people – an oral tradition would be a natural one. Is that the case?

Katherine: It seems that way to me – it seems like it would make sense. There are a lot of fiddlers who don’t write their music down. Well-known fiddlers. I have an ex for example – he can’t actually read sheet music so he writes his own tunes and then someone else writes them down for him. And so it seems to me that it was probably very common, originally, for there to have been a lot of artists who wouldn’t have been writing down their music, because that would’ve been a more classical thing, to be able to read sheet music.

Mark: Is there a bit of worry that there’s some lost tradition, then, if people didn’t necessarily have another student to pass it on to?

Katherine: Oh, I’m sure there are a lot of pieces and even music from certain areas that’s been lost because it wasn’t written down.

Mark: Now are you also exploring some of the early music that people created, of the Irish settlers – or are you kind of trying to stay away from it so that you can create something new based on the stories?

Katherine: Well, you know, I hadn’t really thought about that. This week for me is all about creating – it’s all about writing new music. I’m sure that I do play a lot of music that was written in that time period, but I’d have to actually research the tunes that I know and find out which ones were written at which times. For some of them, that wouldn’t even necessarily be possible since there are a lot of traditional tunes where the origin has been lost at some point.

Mark: And there’s certainly a strong, traditional tapestry that’s hanging behind you in that musical sense.

Katherine: Yes, definitely.

Mark: So you’ve been looking at things so far: what sort of stories and themes have you found, and what’s feeding into your music this week?

Katherine: Right now it’s been mostly about the voyage over and the deplorable conditions that a lot of them came over in and it’s really quite reminiscent of what we’re hearing right now, as far as Syrian refugees trying to get various places, so it’s a lot of the history repeating in various ways. So yeah, we’re kind of in the sad part right now, but that’s ok, the Irish are resilient – there’ll be Guinness and laughter later on, I’m sure.

Mark: So what instruments did you bring with you this week? Is it strictly one violin or do you have a variety?

Katherine: This week I just brought the one violin with me.

Mark: And is this a particular violin? Is this your composing violin?

Katherine: This violin is the one that I term ‘the pub fiddle’ because it’s the one that goes with me to pubs when I’m headed out to play.

Mark: I did say violin, didn’t I? I should’ve said fiddle.

Katherine: Well you know what, it’s the same instrument. This is actually my pub fiddle, the one that I term that is the violin I took with me when I went to study music with me at McGill. This violin has been to McGill.

Mark: So it’s had an education, this violin, and it’s coming back to share what it knows. Do you get requests? I kind of wonder if people come by and say “can you play that tune or this tune?” or maybe hum a few bars until you know that tune?

Katherine: Not so much. People seem interested in what I’m doing as far as writing the music down. That’s when I tend to get people stopping and asking me questions, which is really quite interesting. If I’m actually playing, they’ll stop and listen for a moment, but generally not interact as much as far as finding out exactly what’s going on, but when I’m listening back to recordings and writing the music down, I’ll often have people stop by and want to know exactly what it is that I’m up to.

Mark: Are they curious about how you write this down? Or are they just kind of surprised, I suppose, that it gets written down?

Katherine: Well I think for people who are not musicians, the idea of being able to listen to a recording and write the notes down is kind of magic.

Mark: It’s definitely magic to me. I can’t imagine this is what people would look at as a regular musical notation, I’m assuming. There are a lot of things that a performer does on a fiddle. Can you reflect those in that writing or are there extra notes or extra finicky little strange characters which indicate the way it’s being played?

Katherine: You can. There are definitely ways to denote a lot of the slides or grace notes or double stops or any of that kind of stuff. I don’t tend to write a whole lot of that in. I tend, for myself, anyway, just to write kind of the skeletons, as far as the tunes. I have, on occasion, written down music the exact way that I play it, so added in the slurs that I used, and added in where there were slides and what grace notes I used because I know, as a student, that’s where I’ve learned a lot of my ornamentation – by picking up books where someone has painstakingly written down exactly how someone plays a tune. So that’s a really interesting learning tool. I don’t do it so much far as as wanting people to play it exactly the way I do – I mean, that’s not a problem if someone wants to, because we’ll still all have our own little flair, but it certainly can be handy as a learning tool to see “that’s what that person did” and “I like that – I’m gonna keep that grace note” but “I’m not so wild about that one.” I’m either not gonna do it or put my own little twist in there.

Mark: I often wonder when you look at some of those writings, and you kind of have to look at sideways going, “how do they expect this to be pulled off?” because some of that is really quite fancy – especially some of the very fast fiddling – but some of the ornamentation is incredible. Your writing – is it instrumental or are you writing lyrics for some of this music as well?

Katherine: I’m writing purely instrumental.

Mark: What’s it like to take stories and history and try and figure out how that sounds?

Katherine: My challenge, as far as that goes, is that you don’t want to be too cliché about it – you don’t want things to be too literal. It’s a matter of trying to express the mood or the feeling, or even sometimes it’s just wanting to commemorate something. So it’s not necessarily that a tune directly reflects something but it’s sort of a commemoration of that person or event or whatever it is that you’re wanting to immortalize, I guess.

Mark: Does the title ‘set the stage’ for interpreting the music?

Katherine: Sometimes they do, and then sometimes when an idea comes you just write it down and worry about naming it later. So it could go both ways.

Mark: So you’ve had a couple of days, and I’m going to play the over expectant tourist and say, so how many songs have you written so far?

Katherine: I have written – I believe it is 11 – it could possibly be 12.

Mark: Wow! In the last couple of days? Or has that been the accumulation up to this point?

Katherine: That’s the last couple of days.

Mark: Wow, okay.

Katherine: My goal is to write about 5 tunes a day.

Mark: I had no idea it could be done that quickly – that’s amazing.

Katherine: (Laughing) I remember my first residency, I thought, “maybe I’ll write 2 or 3 tunes the whole week and I went in the first day and I came out with 7 tunes and I was completely shocked. I had no clue either but I think a lot of it is just getting out of my way, getting out of my own way, and not being too picky right in the moment. And I say right now that I have 11 tunes written, but these 11 tunes – they will not all be performed, necessarily. I’ll come back through and I’ll play through them and say “oh, this one sounds an awful lot like this other piece that I wrote” so I’m not gonna use that one, or “I really like the second half of this piece and the first half of this other piece, so they won’t necessarily all make the cut for being performed or being recorded, but that’s my method anyway, just to pump out a lot of stuff and some of it will be great.

Mark: I’m sure a lot of it will be, and you’re gonna be entertaining a lot of these people with a lot of stories and this music for quite some time. Unfortunately, we’re running out of time here – we could talk for ages and ages and ages – I’m happy to talk with you but I wanna wish you a great week in the Barracks this week.

Katherine: Thank you.

Mark: Thanks a lot, Katherine, for joining me in this half hour.

Katherine: You’re welcome – thank you.

Mark: I just wanted to mention that if you wanted to find out more about Katherine Moller you can go to Thanks again for joining me and have a great week.

Katherine: You too.


Find the audio podcast of Katherine’s interview here:

The Lunchbox Interview: Katherine Moller (Music Creation)



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