by Marty Demarest
Sometimes success is all about how you define yourself. But for the stars of the show Barrage, performing at the Spokane Opera House this Tuesday night, the definitions can get a little bit tricky.
The show's seven stars go from playing the violin to dancing and back again. They mix classical, bluegrass and world music influences. Even the instruments that the musicians play make the show hard to pin down: Are they violins or fiddles?
"In the music of Barrage, it's a fusion of those two elements," explains one of the founders of the group, Tony Moore. "The show itself uses as its premise the difference between a violin and a fiddle. We don't try to explain as a teacher would describe the difference, but we try to show the different elements that you might listen for in violin music -- like lyricism and harmonies -- and the fiddle -- like rhythm, and a more song-like quality. So it's a loose and fun exploration of the instrument."
It's also an evening in which the lines between dance and music, and rhythm and melody, are crossed. Described in the past as "extreme violin," the seven primary performers rarely stop playing throughout the evening, even as they glide, flip and dance their way through the show's choreography. Solo numbers alternate with group pieces, as the violinists perform with an additional component of musicians who aren't usually found at violin recitals.
"The back line consists of drum kit player, some percussion for the world beat flavor, a bass player and a guitar player," laughs Moore. "And the violinists are multi-instrumental, so we have mandolins and tin whistles which we can all play at different points in the show to get a world music texture."
That idea -- playing around with the possibilities inherent in the violin as much as playing straight-ahead music on it -- is what launched Barrage in the first place. Moore and four friends founded the ensemble in 1996, when they took their act from Calgary to the prestigious Edinburgh Fringe Festival and received rave reviews. Combining one of the most soulful sounds musicians are capable of producing with an evening's worth of choreography, Barrage has been an international hit ever since. The group has gone on to perform on PBS, and their CD Barrage: The World on Stage vaulted into the top five on the World Music charts.
"We'd been involved as performers across the world ourselves," Moore says, explaining how a group of five Canadian friends generated two international touring productions. "So we wanted to take it overseas immediately and build a career from a wide variety of sources. We were involved in spreading it internationally right from the beginning. Because there's no other show that's doing what we do. There are the conventional four-piece bands, which barely move at all, and then there are the high-flying productions like Stomp, which is what we're more like. But we've got violins combined with a state-of-the-art light show, and an incredible amount of movement."
In addition to the unique style and presentation of Barrage, what helps to make the show appealing on an international level is the variety of music performed. Rather than confine itself to the familiar ensemble-style classical playing and the solo, rhythmic fiddle music, Barrage draws on a surprising variety of influences. "It's a theatrical-style musical show which focuses on the violin and the versatility of music it can play," Moore explains. "We try to look at influences from around the world, and then filter them through the unique sound of Barrage that's fronted by seven violin players. So it's more of an orchestral sound than a solo sound. But it's still fiddle music. We explore calypso, bluegrass, also Indian raga music -- inspirational religious music. We also do a style we invented ourselves which is kind of Chinese jazz fusion."
Pulling together a group of musicians who can handle the wide-ranging diversity of musical styles may be increasingly possible with conservatories and music teachers emphasizing a growing amount of world music. But finding performers who can handle the varied types of music while dancing, and even occasionally switching instruments, is not as easy. "We look for players who are just out of high school or music school, but not yet established in professional careers," says Moore. "When we audition players we look for two primary qualities. First is a facility with the instrument -- they have to be good players. But the second is the attitude. They have to be open to exploring the kind of show that Barrage is. That means they have to be open to movement. A lot of players come from a classical background -- sturdy and stiff. And since we haven't really found players who are well-trained dancers who are also violinists, we look for flexibility and the ability to loosen up a little. From there it's up to the choreographer to mold them into the athleticism that the show entails. It's a long process, but it stems from finding the right players."
One of the violinists who will be at the Opera House on Tuesday is Lynae Oliver from Sandpoint, Idaho.
Despite the challenges in mounting the show, Moore and company are already working on a new show for Barrage. And like everything else Barrage does, don't expect the definition to fit easily.
"Our first show was called 'The World on Stage,' and this one is 'A Violin Sings, A Fiddle Dances.' We're working on the foundations of a new show now, which we hope to debut in Europe next year. It will be even more of an exploration of world music through the guise of the violin, but we'll explore some more popular music as well. So it will range from big band to pop music."
For any other group, that would sound like a stretch. But after seeing the musicians from Barrage moving around the stage, we're willing to bet that, for this group, stretching won't be too much of a problem.