Interview With Folk Icons Jay Ungar & Molly Mason “We Can Almost Read Each Others Minds.”

Folk icons Jay Ungar and Molly Mason join us for a day of live music, from upstate New York direct to your home. From 2:00 pm to 3:30 pm the duo will lead an online workshop, with a live stream concert later that evening at 7:30 pm. Included in the concert will be a Q&A with SFMS Board Member Autumn Moore. More information as well as tickets for both the Concert and the workshop can be found at the SFMS website.

Earlier this week Jay and Molly spoke with SFMS Staff Writer Peter Winter via email about playing in a duo, making and teaching music amidst a pandemic, and the enduring quality of a slow waltz.

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You are one of the most revered duos in acoustic music. What is special/different about playing in a duo as opposed to a larger ensemble? 

It’s more flexible and allows us each space for spontaneity. We have been playing together for so long that we can almost read each others minds. While bandmates who’ve played together for years can read each others minds, we each have only one mind each to read. When one of us introduces a spontaneous musical idea the other is able to follow. We each also carry more responsibility. I play most of the solos and fills, while Molly functions as chord player, bass player and drummer. But with more responsibility comes more opportunity as well.

It’s so impressive that you two have been able to move your revered fiddle camps and workshops online due to the pandemic. What was that experience like? Was there a learning curve moving your operation online?

This year was the 40th anniversary of Ashokan Music & Dance Camps. From April through August we offered ten camps ranging from weekends to full weeks and for lots of different instruments, plus singing and dancing. You can check out our future lineup of camps at ashokan.org. The lock-down hit just a few weeks before our first camp in April, the Old Time Rollick. We were fortunate to have Debra Clifford as the director of that program. She’s very social media savvy and had hired a staff who share that interest and talent. They were all a huge help in making the Online Rollick a success. None of this would have happened without our daughter Ruth Ungar Merenda, you may know her from the Mammals. As director of communications and the arts at Ashokan, Ruth headed the team that created our online camps. The Old Time Rollick has usually been capped at 110 people including staff. But the Online Rollick was three or four times that size with participants from around the world. Ruth and her team did a great job and learned a ton doing it, which they were able to apply to our next camp, the Cyber String Fling with Alasdair Fraser and Natalie Haas. By mid summer they were pros and were being asked to consult with other organizations that were building online music camps. We’re still offering an online series of weekly music and dance workshops along with an interactive lecture series called Catskill Conversations. You can check it all out at ashokancenter.org/events. All the camps and events are archived and are available to participants for a year and a subscription service is also being offered. Frankly we’re blow away by it all!

 What can musicians expect from participating in your fiddle/guitar workshop prior to the concert?

We start by demo-ing the tune we’re teaching together as a duo, then split into two zoom rooms. Molly teaches the basics and subtleties of her approach to chords and runs for guitarists (piano and bass players might also be interested). Jay teaches the melody, ornaments and expression for fiddlers—with all melody instruments welcome.We then get back together and everyone has a chance to play what they’ve learned with the two of us from their own homes. 

How have you two adjusted to the experience of performing virtually? 

We’ve been doing a concert from our home every Wednesday at 8pm on Facebook Live. We play some of our regular concert material and other music that we’ve recorded. But to keep things fresh from week to week, we also play tunes that we haven’t done in years and we dig up new material for each show. It’s a challenge that we both welcome and thoroughly enjoy. It gives shape to our weeks during these crazy times. And most importantly it gives us a way to share our music and connect with people on a regular basis, something that’s so important to us both. We read online comments and have started communicating directly with some of our regular viewers. It’s an exciting new world!

You two are famous for your love of a good waltz! What about that melodic 3/4 time calls to you?

Wow, what is it about waltzes? Our tune book, Catskill Mountain Waltzes & Airs, ventures into slow tunes in 2/4 or 4/4 as well. I think we both love music that makes an emotional connection and touches the heart. Who doesn’t of course. But we have somehow found that waltzes and airs are where we both make the deepest connection with audiences and with one another.

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Peter Winter lives in Harrisburg where he writes, teaches music, plays in the Celtic group Seasons, DJs, runs half of the record label His & Hers Records and serves on the board of the SFMS. He is on instagram

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