Grey Larsen and Cindy Kallet mix traditional Irish, Scandinavian, Balkan and American folk music on their album Cross the Water.
Cindy Kallet and Grey Larsen are renowned American folk musicians. Larsen is known for his expertise in traditional Irish music, while Kallet is known for her songwriting and her pure, unadorned voice. After decades of producing solo albums, they've released Cross the Water, their first recording together.
Kallet is also known for playing what she calls the fiola: a hybrid fiddle that uses half- or three-quarters-sized viola strings. "It has the string sound of a viola," Kallet says, "and it has the low string of the viola, which I really love. But it's small enough that I can handle it easily."
Many of the pieces on the record possess elements of Scandinavian melody and harmony, yet remain Balkan in rhythm.
"Cindy and I love to play Swedish and Norwegian traditional fiddle tunes in which the fiddlers play in harmony with each other," Larsen says. "It's a beautiful sound, and you can get four-part harmonies going with just two people."
Larsen says they wanted to write a song in that style, but that Scandinavian music typically does not operate in such asymmetrical rhythms and time signatures. Larsen decided to add the odd metered rhythms found in the Balkan countries of Eastern Europe.
The song "Playing with a Full Deck" employs this Balkan influence. It was written as a present for Kallet's 52nd birthday and plays off the number. Larsen says he thought it would be fun to try to write music around that idea.
"I was playing around with the number 52 and thinking, 'What can I do with that?'" Larsen says. "And then realized I can divide it by four and you get 13. So I decided to write a song that had 13 beats per measure and four measures in each section, and then you'd have 52 beats in each section of the piece."
"He was also too cheap to buy me a present," Kallet adds with a laugh. "We also put a few jokers in — added a few measures with 14 beats. We really advise people not to try to count; it can kind of spoil a day."
Larsen says that exploring these cultures and old song forms helps folk music remain relevant today.
"The roots of traditional music go way back, sometimes many generations," he says. "But it's a continuous lineage that has never stopped. It's an unbroken living tradition that is going through a golden age right now, where people are learning the older tunes and then creating new tunes that enter back into the tradition. It's totally relevant to us and reaching out and understanding people in other cultures."
"We get to play all of these kinds of music that are so close to our hearts," Kallet says, "and it's a real joy."