“People say — and it’s not just me — that the violin is maybe the most expressive and the most human-like instrument of all the instruments in the Western world,” said the state’s most recently appointed artist laureate, Rodney Miller, during an interview at his home.
He was sitting at a sunroom table, settled in the back of his quaint, old wooden house in Antrim, where he and his wife Jane live at the end of a long dirt road.
“The use of the bow and the string and the inflection you can give it make it almost like a human voice. I think it’s something I realized immediately while I was learning it,” he said.
It had been just a week since Gov. Maggie Hassan confirmed his nomination, and Miller was already quite busy with gigs at the time of the interview — he’d performed with his new title the first time that weekend in Missouri and had many other interviews set up, not to mention his regular violin lessons, one of which was scheduled for that afternoon.
The nomination came as something of a surprise for the fiddler and craftsman, who also makes the fiddles he play. (He’s been a maker for Stamell Stringed Instruments in Amherst, Mass., for the past 24 years.)
Only a month prior, Lynn Martin Graton of the New Hampshire State Council on the Arts informed him that she, Arts Commissioner Van McLeod and their committee had put his name forward as their recommendation. They’d been able to do so without his knowing because they had his resume and paperwork from last year, when Miller was nominated for a National Heritage Award.
Miller is the first fiddler and the first instrument maker in this position. Prior to that, the two-year position was held by furniture maker David Lamb, painter James Aponovich, theater artist Marguerite Mathews, composer James Bolle and potter Gerry Williams. The honorary position was established in 1997.
At the time of this interview, Miller hadn’t yet chosen a fixed agenda for this two-year position, but likely, he’ll be expanding on what he’s already been doing. During his trip to Missouri, for instance, he led a fiddle and contra dance workshop and taught some of New Hampshire’s traditional dance music.
“Contra dancing began when the settlers came to New England. … It’s something they used to do in the 1700s,” Miller said.
That tradition died out in Boston for a bit when ballroom dancing became popular, he said, but never in New Hampshire.
“It became more of a rural, rustic thing to do.”
Contra dance music is his specialty, and he commands a reflective fiddle style; the sounds he makes on the fiddle are an attempt to imitate the sounds he hears on dance floors.
“The town floors are wooden, and people trek in dripping mud according to the season. The grit on the floor has a really strong sound,” Miller said. “I shape my fiddling to sound like dancing feet.”
Contra dancing, he said, is actually more prevalent in the state and across the country now than it was when he began his fiddle-playing for contra dancing gigs in the ’70s. Some places, like the Town of Nelson, have notoriously held contra dancing events for the last 150 years.
“And it’s going stronger than ever,” Miller said. “I like the idea of providing music for people to dance to. … It’s so fun to do. It’s interactive. It’s a place where people can meet one another and then dance to a live band, which is a little unusual, too.”
Miller began playing fiddle when he was just 7 and learned on his grandfather’s.
“I started on the violin fiddle, whatever you want to call it — it’s the same thing, just depends the way you play it. If you play the fiddle folk-tunes style, it’s a fiddle. If you play classical, you call it more a violin,” he said.
Miller comes from a musical family; both his grandfathers played the fiddle, and his mother and siblings played the piano, cello and flute. His parents were fully supportive of their kids dipping their toes in the arts world early on.
“When I graduated from high school, my parents gave me a violin that was made by a local violin maker. I went to his house, saw his shop, and that really intrigued me; I thought, maybe I should make my own instruments if I’m playing them all the time,” Miller said.
He met Jane at Oberlin College in Ohio, where he spent three years putting together a studio arts and musicology major; they married when he was 20 and she was 21.
“Then, in college, my German professor said to me, if you want to pursue fiddle-making, I know people in Austria who can teach you,” Miller said.
So, shortly after they married, he and Jane moved to Vienna while he better learned the craft, but they returned to the States after a year so Jane could earn her master’s degree in education. Miller also felt some pressure to get an “official career,” so he went back to school, too, and earned a B.S. in civil engineering. (While he was at UNH, the continuing education program was in the process of developing a violin-making institute, which he said still operates today.)
Working as an engineer for three years ultimately allowed Miller to buy their rustic Antrim house; after that he quit his job to devote himself full-time to his real passion, fiddle playing and making, which till then had been relegated to weekends.
Miller said he’s looking forward to promoting music, instrument making and contra dancing during his time as artist laureate, to remind or inform locals it’s a thing here.
“I think we’re sort of an independent state, and that some of the traditions we’ve had in the past are those not all people are aware of,” Miller said.
As seen in the April 3, 2014 issue of The Hippo.