George connected with Julie Vallimont while working with her band Nor’easter and had mentioned he would be interested in calling a techno. “It was a personal connection -- that’s how these things tend to work.... It was fun, I enjoyed it a lot.”
“It seems to me that people have always been experimenting with dance music,” he says. In the span of George’s “folkie” career, many changes have occurred in the scene. Some of the changes have been organic, happening out of necessity rather than a conscious choice. “Especially for dance music, they’ve used whatever they’ve had at hand.” In the 1700s, 1800s, and even 1900s, the bands used instruments that may have seemed “weird at the time,” but it was really a question of acoustics. Clarinets and saxophones were loud instruments before they had amplification.” Drums were the same way. Bands were larger so that there was more sound to carry across the hall.
All along, bands have been “using what’s available.” Looping and sampling are a relatively recent innovation, and so “adding it makes all the sense in the world to me.”
As George explains, “In the early days, contra bands almost exclusively played traditional tunes, and Wild Asparagus took an interest in the French-Canadian and Irish influence, but the big thing in that day was arranging. Before, everyone just played the tune, and banged it out. There were no added dynamics.” Also at that point, “contra bands started touring, not quite as extensively” as they do now.
That evolutionary move in contra music was met with some resistance, much as the electronic dance music infusion to some contra dances has been met with some resistance.
“People tend to like what they hear first and get warm and fuzzy about it, and then they decide that this is what contra music is.” Meanwhile, “people play what they’re interested in,” and “contra dancing is flexible. Anything with 32 bars is danceable, and sometimes you don’t even need that.”
To that end, while George says he “had a great time” calling Spark in the Dark, he did draw a careful distinction between the series and a straight-up “techno” contra. As he explains, “I tend to think of [techno contra] as a DJ with no breaks.... Double Apex felt like what I do with my bands, and with live musicians.... Calling a Double Apex medley was probably the closest thing to Jordy [Williams]’s idea of a techno.”
The main difference between recorded music and live musicians is that live musicians can play to the choreography. “Double Apex is transcending that barrier” using both live and prerecorded sounds. “They mix and create the pieces live and can really match the dance.... It was so well-phrased; you don’t need a guide to do that” with Double Apex the way you might with prerecorded music. In more “pure” techno, as George explains, the music isn’t sculpted to create phrasing: “It’s more like modern Western square dance’s patter calling. The caller is the guide, and the dancers trust that what you’re told is what you’re supposed to do. When you have a more structured dance [like contra], there’s some skepticism of whether the caller is right. But when you hit the groove, it’s magic.” Also like modern Western square dancing, in techno contra “the caller uses beats, as opposed to phrases, to call.... In modern Western square dance, it’s a series of maneuvers. The caller can’t drop out.”
To illustrate this point, George tells me a story about a wedding gig that Wild Asparagus played, where both the bride and groom were avid contra and square dancers. The reception became half-hour sets alternating between modern Western square dancing and contra. “I watched dancers do complex calls on cue during modern Western square dancing -- incredible things. And when we switched to contra, they could hardly do anything. The caller dropped out and the entire thing fell apart. The dancers were able to respond to the caller, but they weren’t necessarily thinking outside f that. In contra, the dance pattern gets memorized and dancers can go from there. It’s different muscles, mental and physical. And that was a real ‘aha!’ moment for me. In modern Western square, the caller is calling all the time, and the dancers are dancing to the caller’s phrasing” just like in a techno.
For George, contra dance is very much a “continuum of experimentation.... I think techno is up there with singing squares” and “in 30 years, it’ll be interesting to see what they do.”
Right now, as many of us are aware, there is a tension between live and recorded music. Particularly given his dual involvement as a caller and as a live musician, I asked George to weigh in. He replied by telling a story abut a contra dance in Nashville, TN that Wild Asparagus payed in the 1980s.
“The people were dead quiet during the teaching; we thought they must not like us very much, but then they were appreciative to the band afterward. We came to find out that they’d never had live music before. They had only ever had recorded tunes, on this old record player with a microphone attached. They had to be quiet in order to hear the tunes. And in those days, no Nashville musician wanted to get the reputation for being willing to be paid so little as to play a contra dance.”
“In a way, technos are like this -- technos that play pop tunes,” George continues. “People may see it as a lot less expensive. One person paying fees to ASCAP is going to be a lot cheaper than paying a band; big bands have pretty much been priced out of existence. But then you look at Double Apex, and it fits in with what has come before. A large number of people find this attractive and fun and exciting. People like to be excited. It’s not just going to be a footnote [to the tradition].”
George continues, “The contra revival of the ‘60s and ‘70s came with the back-to-the-land movement. [Contra] was old-timey, and our ancestors must have done it. It was also amazingly good fun, and was relief from the bar scene. It was a place with structure. To paraphrase the T-shirt, you came, you danced, you sweat, you left. It was the social contact, things like the ‘intimate stranger’ and the contact with a large group that are really powerful and are basic human needs.”
“I don’t see recorded music replacing live entirely. It’s a great experience to play to the dance. It does create pressure [on live musicians], but it creates more dancers, and more dancers are great. And those dancers may look at each other and think, ‘hey, maybe we should go to one of these with live music.’ And there are more opportunities for everybody that way.... It’s a bit of a conceit to think you can make a living [as a musician] on contras, but I don’t see recorded music as a threat. There are a lot of places that include different bands and a lot of different musicians.”