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String theories

Alasdair Fraser and Natalie Haas fiddle with Celtic tradition

The duo’s dazzling performances over the last decade have influenced a rising generation of Celtic and bluegrass musicians. The duo’s dazzling performances over the last decade have influenced a rising generation of Celtic and bluegrass musicians.
By Andrew Gilbert
Globe Correspondent / September 26, 2010

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When fiddler Alasdair Fraser and cellist Natalie Haas launched their duo about a decade ago, there were no other bands on the traditional Celtic music scene exploring the same instrumental territory.

Sounding like an ensemble at least twice as large, Fraser and Haas made the duo an ideal vehicle for investigating the traditional Scottish repertoire, bringing feverish rhythmic intensity and startlingly thick textures to tunes ancient and contemporary.

“I remember being increasingly amazed no one else was doing it,’’ says Fraser, 55, who opens a two-night stand at Passim with Haas tomorrow. “Often there would be raised eyebrows. Just a violin and cello? Where’s the piano, the guitar, or the other half of the quartet? Well, there are no more raised eyebrows. There are more cellists appearing in bands, and more violinists doubling on cello. It’s right at the center, and there’s great energy around it.’’

The energy flows from the duo’s dazzling performances and recordings that have profoundly influenced the rising generation of Celtic and bluegrass-inspired acoustic music explorers. On 2004’s “Fire & Grace,’’ which won Album of the Year at the Scots Trad Music Awards, and 2007’s “In the Moment’’ (both on Fraser’s Culburnie Records), Fraser and Haas forged an intricate, highly responsive approach based largely upon Haas’s extended cello techniques. Without other instruments to clutter up arrangements (“Less really is more,’’ Haas says), they create a sumptuous orchestral mix through the subtle art of aural implication.

“Our goal is, you have two voices, what kind of conversation can we have, and how full a sound we can make?’’ Fraser says. “Sometimes we use double stops, but more generally it’s about carving out a sonic space where we don’t actually say everything. We can allude to the bass notes, and the middle harmonies, and touch on them and leave. We both love the challenge of setting things in motion, and keeping the plates spinning.’’

Born in the central Scottish town of Clackmannan and long based in Northern California, Fraser is one of the world’s most esteemed traditional Scottish fiddlers. But his exponentially expansive influence stems as much from his tireless work as a teacher and mentor. Boston in particular is rife with formidable young players nurtured at his Valley of the Moon Scottish Fiddling School in the Santa Cruz Mountains south of San Francisco.

Fiddler and pianist Hanneke Cassel attended VOM, as did fiddler Mariel Vandersteel, cellist Emma Beaton, fiddler Amanda Cavanaugh, the sisters Ari and Mia Friedman (cello and fiddle, respectively), and fiddler Galen Fraser, Alasdair’s son who recently started at Berklee. Another impressive VOM alum arrives next year when fiddle phenomenon Alex Hargreaves, who’s already toured and recorded with Dave Grisman and Mike Marshall, enrolls at Berklee as the latest recipient of the full-tuition Jimmy Lyons Scholarship.

Though more interested in jazz than Celtic music (he’s joining the prestigious Berklee Global Jazz Institute), the Oregon native has paid close attention to Haas and Fraser’s music.

“The albums they put out are must-haves in the fiddle world,’’ says Hargreaves, 18. “They had a big impact, and everyone knows the tunes.’’

Haas, who grew up in Menlo Park, Calif., started attending VOM in 1995 at the age of 11, and at 18 she joined the faculty. Her younger sister, fiddler Brittany Haas, also attended VOM, along with her Crooked Still bandmate, fiddler/cellist Tristan Clarridge and his sister, fiddler Tashina Clarridge (who plays with Tristan and hammered dulcimer expert Simon Chrisman, another VOM veteran, in the Bee Eaters). While she wasn’t particularly familiar with Scottish music, Natalie was drawn into VOM’s tight-knit community and fell in love with the tradition.

“Scottish music has a wonderful spectrum, from beautiful, haunting slow melodies to fast rollicking reels,’’ says Haas, 26, a Juilliard graduate who taught at Berklee for two years before she started delving into Quebec’s vibrant but too-little-known traditional music scene. “The melodies are really heart-wrenching, but there’s always a glimmer of hope at the end.’’

Fraser emphasizes the tensions inherent in the Scottish fiddle tradition, which blossomed when an infusion of Italian culture in 18th-century Edinburgh led to a violinistic, almost chamber music approach to folkloric melodies. At the same time, fiddlers evoke the tradition’s ancient, wild roots as ecstatic dance music for communal celebrations, with tunes derived from the bagpipes. Scottish fiddlers are used to squaring that circle, but Haas has added the cello to the fray, and the duo is still working out the creative implications.

“What I’m trying to do is create different textures for Alasdair to sit on top of,’’ Haas says. “I’m going for different kinds of sounds, rhythm guitar, harp, or upright bass. I can make up harmony parts, counterpoint lines, and I can play melodies as well. My classical training really helps with that. There are so many possibilities. We’re both still very excited by this. The two instruments are really made for each other.’’

Andrew Gilbert can be reached at jazzscribe@aol.com.

ALASDAIR FRASER and NATALIE HAAS

At: Club Passim, tomorrow and Tuesday, 8 p.m. Tickets: $30. 617-492-7679, www.clubpassim.org.