For thousands of years, before the invention of the player piano or gramophone, one of the most reliable ways of sharing music was through sheet music; the written form of what poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow called “the universal language of mankind.”
While some may dispute Longfellow’s claim — fools though, they may be, if current research has any say — notation still remains a time-tested way to preserve the melody, meter, pitch and more, of a specific song from a specific time.
In this sense, Maria Cherwick is releasing her first record this week, with her new book of sheet music, “Home From Away,” a collection of original tunes written for the violin and viola, in a variety of styles, including Ukrainian folk music and traditional tunes from Newfoundland and Labrador.
As a child, Cherwick learned a lot about her instrument by ear, she said.
“(But) as I started learning more complicated classical pieces, I started using sheet music,” she said. “There’s something really cool about having them written down.”
Cherwick mentions Kelly Russell’s collections of the fiddle music of Newfoundland and Labrador, and says, “If not for that, a lot of those tunes would have been lost. I think that is a really important part of just documenting these things as they go by.”
Between laughs, she says she’s not certain anyone will be interested in the documentation of her own tunes.
“But it feels pretty special to have that and know that it’s out there in the world now.”
Sitting in a corner booth of The Ship Pub in St. John’s, a low rumble of conversation hovering in the air with the occasional high-tuned clink of cutlery and pint glasses and the scent of steaming food, Cherwick says the traditional folk sessions The Ship Pub hosts was one way she was introduced to traditional Newfoundland fiddle playing, after moving here from Alberta five years ago.
“Newfoundland music is so interesting to me because it’s already this hybrid,” the classically trained violinist and violist said. “It’s a little Irish, sometimes it sounds a little French. … And there’s a lot of it that’s just totally its own thing.
“It definitely has a really distinct flavour and that really appeals to me.”
Cherwick enlisted the help of St. John’s based graphic designer and illustrator Caroline Clarke to make illustrations based on a number of the songs.
“I was really thrilled (to be asked),” Clarke said. “With music, it’s all about the story. This was a little trickier because the tunes are all instrumental. So, I didn’t have the lyrics to hang my hat on.”
Through chatting with Cherwick about the inspiration behind the songs, the pair worked out a series of companion illustrations.
“The book is very personal to her and the tunes mark certain times in her life,” she said. “I was able to incorporate that into what I drew.”
A portion of the book was funded by MusicNL’s Press On Program, the goal of which was to provide funding for projects during the COVID-19 pandemic, while musicians’ main source of income — playing gigs — wasn’t possible.
To cover the remaining portion of the printing costs, Cherwick turned to the fundraising website, Kickstarter, where she took pre-orders of the book. But the interest went beyond her expectations.
With the money left over, she entered the studio with musicians Darren Browne and Josh Ward, as well as producer Robert Kelly.
It’s a rare time that Browne is found without a piece of wood with strings on it in his hand, whether it’s a guitar, bouzouki, bass, mandolin or, more recently, a tenor banjo.
So, when he says he finds it hard to keep up with Cherwick, whether it’s out of humility or not, it speaks volumes to her ability as a player.
“Playing with her is amazing,” Browne said. “We picked these numbers that are probably kind of hard for both of us, but we’ll work at it. And then she’ll weave around it these harmonies that, I don’t know, I guess she just knows how to do that automatically. It’s amazing.”
Working together in several bands, they play Cherwick’s original songs, Ukrainian and Greek folk music, as well as bluegrass and the music of the Appalachians.
He says playing with Cherwick is incredibly fun and scary at times. But trying not to fall off the rails is all part of the excitement.
“Home From Away,” was officially launched at Bannerman Brewing Co. on Sunday evening. A virtual launch hosted by the Newfoundland and Labrador Folk Arts Society will happen on tonight at 8 p.m. It can be viewed from the hosts Facebook page or YouTube channel and is free of charge.
The book will be available for purchase through O’Brien’s Music on Water Street in St. John’s.
Andrew Waterman reports on East Coast culture.