Mike Marshall epitomizes the performers who play Festival Mozaic’s Fringe Series: ecclectic, erudite, accomplished, and loads and loads of fun. Here, we talk to the world’s second-greatest living mandolinist (“second to Caterina Lichtenberg,” he says, in reference to his fellow musician for their July 14 performance with the Festival Orchestra at Chapel Hill and their July 15 performance at See Canyon Fruit Ranch) about what it means to devote one’s life to an artform.
Festival Mozaic: How did you wind up on mandolin?
Mike Marshall: I began my studies after my family moved to Florida when I was around 10 years old. I was lucky to have studied with Jim Hilligoss, one of the great string teachers certainly in that part of the country. I began as a guitar student, but Jim was a master of all the stringed instruments and also many styles of music. We studied classical music but he also had me playing by ear and learning to improvise. He also started a teenaged bluegrass group with some of his students. I went to my first bluegrass festival when I was about 13 and that is what really got me inspired and lit the fire in my heart. He also played all the other stringed instruments so I worked with him on violin, banjo, dobro, bass and eventually mandolin and for some reason that is the one that really stole my heart. Maybe it’s the size of the instrument or just the fact that not so many people were exploring its potential back in those days. So it always seemed to me to be this instrument that you could find your own voice with and really create your own musical path.
FM: Who are your musical role models? Heros? Inspirations?
MM: This would be a very long list but I suppose the main thing to understand is that I love so many styles of music so I would put J.S. Bach, Glen Gould, Zakir Haussain, Hermeto Pascoal, Miles Davis, Django Reinhardt and Earl Scruggs all together in the great place of creators who have pushed the limits of their instruments, created their own musical voice and showed the way for many generations of musicians after them where the music will be going.
But again, this is just a tiny, tiny sample of the musicians who I have learned from, been inspired by, and in some cases, even played with. There are probably fifty or more that I would include here as well.
FM: Do you approach different musical styles differently? How?
MM: Music is really ‘one’ thing, and certainly I have made it my life’s work to attempt to shine a light on this. Of course there are many styles and cultural differences and social and historical things that are important to understand about each form of music. So to become a master at any one style can become a life’s work, but in the end we musicians are all trying to do the same thing with the same twelve notes. What is really exciting for me is to finally begin to see a very natural bridge happening between music which is groove-based and has a component of improvisation in it and music which is written down and you play what is on the page. These two musical worlds have lived separately for many years and I believe we are beginning to see a generation that understands that the two can live side by side and that you can study both concurrently and they will both only enhance each other.
The important thing however is that you must begin to learn to improvise at a young age side by side with your other musical studies or the improvisational language seems to be very hard to acquire.
FM: What differences do you notice between different listeners? E.g. A classical audience vs. a bluegrass audience?
MM: I think that people are people and given the right setting they will be open to any music that you wish to play for them. I think the thing that has separated audiences is not so much the music but the atmosphere of the concert setting. If it’s in a bar or in a church or at an outdoor festival with ten thousand people, those are social settings that are each very different and demand something of the performer to be aware of, but the audience is made up of people who are all just people. So the differences might have to do with social things, like what you are supposed to wear at this event or how you are supposed to behave during the concert.
But in the end we are all just people and given the right setting and a chance to experience something intimate and great we will respond, but we have to first feel comfortable walking into the room. These are social barriers rather than musical ones and seem to separate people from the music in a way that is unfair to the music. So thank you all at Festival Mozaic for doing exactly that: creating a world that invites all of us all to celebrate this music together and makes us feel welcome.
FM: What is your all time desert-island favorite piece of music to play?
MM: J.S. Bach’s Chaconne from the solo violin partita number 2 in D minor (on the mandolin). I really hope to be able to hear Mr. Yoo’s performance of it this coming July 12th. Without a doubt, this is one of the most important works of art that has ever been handed down to us. It is a monumental achievement as a composition. Such a simple concept and yet such a grand walk through Mr. Bach’s seemingly unending imagination.
Thanks to Festival Mozaic for creating such an amazing event this summer. Caterina and I are very excited to be a part of things.
Mike Marshall is one of the world’s most accomplished and versatile string instrumentalists in American today. A master on mandolin, guitar, mandocello and violin, he has created some of the most adventurous instrumental music for over 35 years and his concert tours have taken him around the globe.
Whether playing bluegrass with Edgar Meyer, Bela Fleck or Chris Thile, Brazilian choro music with Hamilton de Holanda or Baroque classical with German mandolinist Caterina Lichenberg, Mike is able to swing gracefully between all of these musical styles with a unique blend of virtuosity, depth and musical integrity that is rare in the cross cultural musical world of today. For more information on Mike Marshall, please visit www.MikeMarshall.net.