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Strings Attached

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It’s the last place you’d expect to find Vermont fiddler Pete Sutherland — under a glowing sign for The Gap at noon in the Burlington Square Mall. But as soon as he raises wood to chin, you forget all about the neon call of “Khaki Country.” With original tunes that alternately conjure life and loss, Sutherland deftly scores the musical evolution of “The Neighborhood Project,” a site-specific dance-theater piece by Burlington choreographer Hannah Dennison that shows the cultural costs of urban renewal.

Dennison chose Sutherland as her musical collaborator after a performance he gave last winter with his wife Karen — the husband-and-wife team lives harmoniously with their 8-year-old son in a converted old general store in Monkton. “I was very moved by what he and Karen did — the honesty with which they gave of themselves,” Dennison recalls. Then she popped the question about composing a score. Sutherland, already eye-high in recording projects, folk festivals and programming at the Vergennes Opera House, couldn’t say no. “Pete is definitely a Yankee,” Dennison says, “but he didn’t blink when I asked him to create some music with an ethnic flavor to it.”

A mournful note on the accordion kicks off the sad tale of working-class families displaced by the historic demolition of seven square blocks of downtown Burlington. Even before the fiddle first joins in, there is a decidedly old-world feel to the tune — Italian, maybe, but without the cliches. As the immigrant lament builds into a symphony of sound, dancers of all denominations rise up from their dwellings. Each is paired with a miniature Chagall-like house that lends the piece visual interest.

“Urban landscapes are storehouses for social memories” the narrator clues in the audience to the point of the piece. Sutherland and his musicians give that notion a soundtrack that changes from the sad and sacred-sounding to the joyfully exuberant. Nostalgia plays a part in this multimedia remembrance of things past. “We deposit our money where tomatoes ripened in the sun,” a woman tells the audience. But even here, with the girders of Filene’s going up right next door, the forces of “change” get the last word.

That same tension between history and innovation exists in all of Sutherland’s musical projects, from the recordings he produces for bands like Wild Asparagus and Boston-based Bare Necessities, to the diverse groups he books for the newly renovated Vergennes Opera House. “It’s hard to be creative in the world of traditional music. If you are too creative, it’s not traditional anymore,” says studio producer Chuck Eller. “Pete is interested in new ways to approach harmonies, and voicings — orchestration is probably the best description of it — to give traditional music a new sound.”

Sutherland, a native of Shelburne, attributes his calling to a harmonic convergence of two major influences: the Beatles and the Girlfriend. Although he started piano lessons at 5, and took up the trombone in junior high, it wasn’t until he sat down with the intent to impress a high-school sweetheart — with a Lennon-McCartney tune — that he learned he could play by ear.

Sutherland taught himself to play guitar, and did “the hard-rock stuff” in high school. The fiddle came later — “I just went backwards,” he says — after he heard one at a folk festival campfire. The sound stirred him enough to adopt the instrument once played by his grandpa. “It’s like a language,” he explains, “It was something I recognized as part of me and just really wanted to speak it myself.”

Majoring in music at the University of Vermont never occurred to the soft-spoken Sutherland, who, with fair hair and wire-rimmed glasses, looks like a skinny version of John Denver. Figuring he got a good dose of music theory from high school, he decided to study English instead. He earned a degree in secondary education, but was not there to receive it at graduation — he had a gig. The Arm and Hammer String Band, which he describes as the “first Southern old-timey band up here,” was already in full swing when he was a junior in college.

“It was one of the first great dance bands that played in the early ’70s,” Robert Resnik says of the eclectic string band, which Sutherland explains was modeled after the New Lost City Ramblers. Describing its folk-loving founder as “one of my original inspirations” Resnik, a Vermont Public Radio deejay and multi-talented musician himself, recalls Sutherland was proficient in piano, fiddle, guitar, banjo and hammer dulcimer. “He was one of the best multi-instrumentalists I had ever seen at the time,” Resnik says. Arm and Hammer held together for nearly a decade.

In the summer of 1980, 29-year-old Sutherland put his skills to the test on a fiddle-contest circuit that propelled him through the Midwest and South. “They call them conventions,” Sutherland says of the “nonstop orgy of music” that introduced him to some of the best players in the country. In North Carolina, he made the acquaintance of Grey Larsen, one-half of the traditional Irish acoustic duo known as Metamora.

Larsen and his partner Malcolm Dalglish offered Sutherland a job that made the duo a trio. “It was a huge break for a little Vermont guy,” the musician recalls with characteristic modesty. And one that required he and Karen — who met at UVM and were already married by this time — move to Indiana, where the band was based. Sutherland spent most of the next eight years on the road in what he describes as “a workshop on wheels.”

In fact the “group creative process” worked well for the gentle, ego-free Vermonter with a dry, self-deprecating wit. Metamora recorded two albums on Sugar Hill and one on Windam Hill Records before it disbanded in 1990. One of its songs has since gone platinum. “This Rush of Wings,” written by Sutherland, was on a Windham Hill Winter Solstice compilation that went to the top of the New Age Music charts.

“We saw ourselves as composers rather than just songwriters,” Sutherland says of the trio. “We were well known for pulling apart traditional music and putting it back together. People said, ‘You are doing what classical composers do, like Copland and Bartok.’”

It’s no wonder Sutherland was also drawn to another Bloomington-based company: the dance troupe Rhythm and Shoes, which appeared in Burlington and Vergennes last week. Choreographer Sharon Leahy was doing a similar deconstructionist thing with traditional American folk dance — taking apart forms like clogging and tap and putting them back together in innovative ways. Sutherland threw himself into it, performing and composing as his touring schedule allowed.

“I like group energies,” he says. “The idea of soloing at this point is kind of strange.”

The Sutherlands returned to Vermont before Metamora had played its last waltz. “I’m a Yankee. I am,” Pete concedes over a take-out dinner of potato skins in the balcony of the Vergennes Opera House. Née Billings, his wife Karen had even deeper ties to the state. “We had to be here,” Sutherland says simply.

Of course, that meant finding a way to make ends meet and, once again, Sutherland got the timing right. Soon after Metamora broke up, he traveled to Denver to help a friend record her first album. Green Linnet Records picked up the disc, credited Sutherland, and he got three more recording jobs out of it. Before long, traditional bands and singer-songwriters all around the country were calling him.

These days, Sutherland spends half his time producing albums for people in studios from Williston to Brattleboro. In addition to formidable technique and an excellent ear, he offers some serious non-tangibles that make him the ideal studio mate. He exudes calm — even when the high-school tech guy fails to show up for a performance at the Opera House. “Excuse me,” he whispers, scampering down the balcony stairs. Two minutes later, the house lights dim. He never mentions the infraction.

“It is somewhat analogous to giving birth,’” Eller says of the recording process. “You want a midwife you can trust, someone you want to hang out with, that you feel comfortable with. It can be kind of intimate.” If a creative episiotomy is called for, Sutherland is the man to make the cut. He is friendly, but efficient. And decidedly personable and diplomatic, after all those years in tight quarters on the road.

“A big part of the job entails trying to get the job done on budget,” explains Eller, whose own Charlotte studio has ushered through hundreds of projects. Another part of the job is managing artists whose egos may exceed their bank balances. Sutherland goes the extra distance. For years, he and Karen hosted a “house concert” series at their home in Monkton, an old-time Vermont tradition of presenting performing arts in private residences. No concessions, no roadies — it was a direct entertainment, and one dollar off the price of admission if you brought your own chair.

There are more chairs, money and hours involved in programming events at the Vergennes Opera House, but Sutherland let himself be recruited for the job because he was crazy about the sound of it — the acoustics of the hall, that is, which are perfect for unamplified music. He also likes the idea of “impacting the community” with local acts like Banjo Dan, Village Harmony and New Nile Orchestra, and national ones like jazz trumpeter Lester Bowie. His first full season counted an ambitious 21 shows.

Now in his second season, Sutherland admits the job has its downside, like babysitting a sparsely attended rental on a Thursday night, without pay. Of more concern is the increasing pressure to program shows guaranteed to be lucrative. “It’s a little bit of a tug on me,” he says of the new mandate to make money. “I’d rather program a few things that are more daring, and guaranteed not to make money, like modern dance or classical music.”

There would certainly be plenty of projects to fall back on: Sutherland is busy putting together the programs for two local folk festivals, in Fort Ticonderoga and at Ethan Allen Homestead. He’s talking with Circus Smirkus about composing while he waits to hear on his submission for the “state song contest.” That’s his band in the dance scene from Vermont filmmaker Nora Jacobson’s My Mother’s Early Lovers, which opens next week at the Nickelodeon. Oh, and his own album — A Clayfoot’s Tale — is due out in May.

“I put a lot of irons in the fire, and I guess some of them are hot right now,” says Sutherland, acknowledging it’s been a busy winter. That week on St. Croix was no vacation. It was a paying gig at a contradance camp. And it was just what the choreographer ordered: five days of uninterrupted beach time to write an hour of original music for “The Neighborhood Project.”

“Maybe I am doing so many things because I can’t conceive of any one of them being viable,” Sutherland says with a chuckle. But he is determined to make a living from his art — this time without leaving Vermont. Artists like Hannah Dennison provide inspiration. “She has dedicated her whole artistic life to telling Burlington stories. Some people might think that is boxing herself in,” Sutherland says. “But it is along the lines of ‘think globally, act locally.’ Maybe that’s where I’m going.”


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