You’re listening to the work of Rhiannon Giddens, a classically trained soprano who’s devoted her career to exploring the African American roots of country and bluegrass. As a solo artist and as a founding member of the Carolina Chocolate Drops, she’s equally adept at art song and country fiddle; deep musicological research has never sounded so riveting.
Luckily for us, essential music-making like this is getting recognition from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation - you’ve no doubt heard about their goal of “building a more just, verdant, and peaceful world.” These are the folks that award half-million dollar “genius grants” to creators who show "extraordinary originality and dedication in their creative pursuits and a marked capacity for self-direction."
Looking at musicians among past MacArthur fellows, I first tried to find what they had in common, but then realized the reason they were being recognized was because they were so radically uncommon. Conlon Nancarrow, for example, painstakingly punched holes in paper to compose complex works for player piano. There’s Lin-Manuel Miranda, who combined music theater with hip-hop; also improvised music pioneer Ornette Coleman, and Chris Thile, the new host of Prairie Home Companion.
The MacArthur class of 2017 has just been announced, and the three musicians on the list are certainly outliers. Along with Giddens, there’s opera director Yuval Sharon, who staged the opera “Invisible Cities” at Union Station in Los Angeles, with the musicians and a headphone-wearing audience moving through a working train station, and percussionist/composer/conductor Tyshawn Sorey, who masterfully combines the many threads of American music by destroying the cultural divides between them. “Just, verdant, and peaceful” indeed.