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Big Sky Over Ithaca

The playlist of life follows patterns, tends to the familiar. We don’t need Silicon Valley algorithm makers to seduce us into routines. We fall into them ourselves. Once these tastes are formed, we continue to pursue them—or, perhaps more accurately, let them pursue us. Music platforms have simply sought to monetize our reflex to like what we like, and then get us to like—buy—other things that confirm our inclinations.

I don’t use Spotify. In this non-binary world, I reject the tyranny of ones and zeroes.

But even if I’m un-connected from the umbilical cord of musical big data (or naïve enough to think it so), I am a creature of musical habit, not having moved on much from the fascinations of my youth: Bach, Charlie Parker, Dexter Gordon.

Having kids can help jolt one towards the new. You begin by foisting parental tastes and ambitions onto them with lessons (classical, of course), the family record collection, and other forms of intergenerational warfare.

Then they start getting ideas of their own. The next thing you know, the kids are grown and you’re heading to an old-time concert at a farmstead on the outskirts of a picturesque town called Trumansburg ten miles north from Ithaca.

Among the many subcultures in this part of the world is a thriving folk music scene. Ithaca and the surrounding area are home to many celebrated singers, fiddlers, banjo players. Young musicians travel from afar to learn from them.

I’ve lived in Ithaca Upstate New York for twenty-five years and even though I’ve encountered that scene at the local farmer’s market and other gatherings, I’ve never gone out of my way to partake.

Last Saturday night a brilliant young duo, Vivian Leva and Riley Calcagno, came to Big Sky Studio outside of Trumansburg. The duo has been pitching their recently released, eponymous recording on the present tour that brought them here, and that has them in Nashville this weekend to perform at the Americana Fest 2020.

The studio is on the Sweet Land Farm, held by many to offer one of the best CSAs in the county. Big Sky is a simple clapboard structure with a red metal roof set behind the old farmhouse. The studio’s porch gives onto a lawn bordered by trees and a wild hedge. An outbuilding at the back of the bring-your-own-camp-chairs-and/or-blankets seating area serves beer and wine and excellent homemade food at the concerts.

The initiative of musicians Rosie Newton and Paul Martin, the concert series that welcomed Leva and Calcagno came as a vital response to the hardship visited on them and their colleagues by the pandemic. Rather than succumb to the cancellation of their outside engagements, Newton and Martin did what has to be done against the forces of global mayhem: they fostered the local.

Recently graduated from Oberlin, Calcagno is a college friend of one of our daughters, who invited us to the show along with a group of Oberlinites come to Ithaca to celebrate her birthday. The Leva and Calcagno CD happily made its way to us through her and has been a kitchen favorite in advance of the pair’s appearance here.

The disc delivers an upbeat wistfulness with a pure and compelling musicality that sounds utterly natural but is clearly the product of tremendous practice. Leva’s parents also form a noted folk duo, and she was reared in the tradition in the Shenandoah Valley. She first met Calcagno at an old-time music conclave in his native Washington State. Exchanging geographies, he went to college at Oberlin in Ohio, she at Lewis and Clark in Portland. At Oberlin, Calcagno did two degrees, one in religion the other in violin performance. He’s one helluva of a fiddling, banjo-playing, singing apostle. The duo command an impressive, uplifting store of organically cultivated talents.

As the sun set before the show our party strolled through farm. The tomatoes and peppers were still abundant in the hoop houses. The apple trees sagged with auctumnal fruit. The darkening land stretched towards the horizon. A chevron of geese flew south, silhouetted a golden-pink sky.

After the informal welcome and thanks from the duo for the invitation to play at what is already a cherished folk venue, Leva and Calcagno began. The audience knew right away that this music was so good, it was great: Leva in full voice singing natural and true, chugging along at her guitar, with Calcagno harmonizing with supporting nuance and offering improvised commentary on his guitar. Did that first song begin “How can I tell you that I was untrue” (the opening line on their CD)? I can’t remember now, but tell us they did, and in myriad ways.

Leva inflected her vocal lines with the yodeled catch and drawled twang. Descent to her chest voice underlined pointed observations of life and love. Calcagno was an always sensitive vocal accompanist (and occasionally a soloist), his instrumental prowess deployed on guitar, banjo and violin. The last of these encouraged flights of flamboyant virtuosity.

The duo’s songs are enriched by canny feints away from the harmonic expectation, often evoking a sense of love slipping through the fingers or the dissimulations of “making believe you’re telling me everything,” as the song On the Line has it, the seemingly comforting routines of relationships giving way to dark doubts. In Will You (still love me?) the counterpoint between two vocal lines chooses kindred moments of challenging poignancy and registral shifts to express uncertainty, even perhaps deceit.

The lyrics have a knack for orchestrating unanticipated collisions with poetic truth, as if suddenly turning to come face with an unexpected square-dancing partner. Many songs expertly choregraph avoidance and desire. These moves also take the form of personal confessions made universal, as in Leaving on Minds when Leva sings “there’s nothing I hate more than Sundays.” There’s nothing sweet about such parting of these song’s lovers—except the music.

The music draws its energy from that paradox: finely crafted, it resounds with spontaneity; even when lamenting lost love and the way things could have been there are wellsprings of joy in it.

As these optimistically regretful strains fled into the night, they began towards the end of the concert to mingle with the sounds of rock and roll coming from a party from the next property over. A blast from that unseen sound system caught Calcagno’s ear as he grabbed his fiddle for the encore. “Hey that sounds good,” he said, and meant it. The world and its music are indeed good, especially on such a Finger Lakes evening just past the middle of September.

(David Yearsley is a long-time contributor to CounterPunch and the Anderson Valley Advertiser. His latest book is Sex, Death, and Minuets: Anna Magdalena Bach and Her Musical Notebooks. He can be reached at dgyearsley@gmail.com.)

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