Timothy's Blog

Timothy's blog on dulcimers, music, nature and life!

How I arranged 'There Is a Fountain (Cleansing Fountain)'

How I arranged 'There Is a Fountain (Cleansing Fountain)'

It seems as if everyone who knows the old Appalachian folk hymn ‘There Is a Fountain’ loves it, with its Civil War manner of simplicity and sentimentality.  The refrain that repeats the last line of each verse for a lingering contemplative moment is a dear American musical statement.

I certainly join with the throngs who are endeared to this piece.  And all my life I’ve heard it performed, at times as a beautifully quaint folksy instrumental, or as a formal congregational hymn, or a sweeping operatic showpiece, or a Bluegrass gospel number, or a jazz improv, or an Indie acoustic pop song, or a fundamentalist inspirational solo…

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Making good use of a dulcimer's suede hammers

Making good use of a dulcimer's suede hammers

Most hammered dulcimer players seem to prefer using the bare wooden surfaces of hammers to get a clear, brilliant sound, and occasionally the suede side can add a soft sound for contrast.

My personal taste says that the suede side of a double-sided hammer has more potential than merely making a soft or mysterious sound, but, like a piano, it can express a full range of tone as the player articulates phrases using dramatic body language. 

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'All Through the Night' using hammered dulcimer chord rolls

'All Through the Night' using hammered dulcimer chord rolls

There are many different ways we can arrange an exquisitely slow melody! 

One option is to mix and match all sorts of techniques for a colorful and interesting presentation.

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'The First Noel' in a new hammered dulcimer arrangement

When I recorded this celebrated English traditional carol for the Christmas album Hope from on High in 2008, I took advantage of the studio setting to develop it into a creatively enhanced ensemble work, changing keys and lead instruments and rhythms and moods --- on hammered dulcimer, guitar, bowed psaltery, bamboo flute, silver flute, etc. --- to have it develop in the form of the action story of which the words tell.

In retrospect, why did I feel the need to do it that way?  Well, perhaps I intuitively was concerned that the beautiful, fetching folk melody, though quite lyrical, has a lot of repetitious features, and as an instrumental it would benefit from special treatment, rather than merely being played as a tune.

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A spontaneous 'Shenandoah' on hammered dulcimer

In 1996 I set about recording the classic folk tune ‘Shenandoah’ in a special, new, expressive way with something of a sense of the epic in its flow.  So I chose to devise a pattern in which each verse would be in a different key and each new key would be either a major or minor third away from the previous one --- a somewhat startling and unconventional kind of key change!  

On top of that, I wanted to jump to each new key immediately at the end of each verse without playing the verse’s last note --- at least till the very end of the whole piece.

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