At the far northwestern edge of France, as far as one can go and still technically be in continental Europe, there lies a stretch of land so removed both physically and culturally from its parent country that even its name, Brittany, evokes a land that is not quite French.
Yet it is not quite British either.
What it is, however, is the source of traditional French Canadian music which we hear on this side of the Atlantic today — albeit with some variations that only time and distance will provide.
Keith Murphy and Becky Tracy gravitate toward the sounds of Quebec in their playing. He is a guitarist, piano player and singer from Newfoundland and she is a fiddle player from Vermont. Mr. Murphy and Ms. Tracy are a musical duo as well as husband and wife, and this Saturday, they will bring their unique music to Sylvester Manor for a living room concert.
When asked in a recent phone interview to explain how the French-inspired music of Quebec differs from the that of the British isles which has informed the traditional music of his native Newfoundland, Mr. Murphy said, “On the one hand all these traditions have overlapped and have influenced each other. Scottish tunes have found their way to Irish players’ repertoire.
“French Canadian music is strongly influenced by Scottish and Irish music on the one side, yet there’s something incredibly distinctive about French Canadian music as well,” he said. “It has a rhythmic quality to it. One of the interesting things you hear is foot percussion, a basic heart beat pulse that underlines French Canadian fiddle tunes and songs, which gives it a very different feel.”
Mr. Murphy, who sings in both English and French, incorporates that foot percussion into the tunes that he and Ms. Tracy play.
Because the pair play as a duo, rather than a full size band, the music they make often has a different focus than a larger group would.
“Becky and I have played together longer than we’ve played with anyone else. It’s a unique duo situation and a very special thing because we play together so much, we’ve refined how we play together,” Mr. Murphy explained. “We mix instrumental pieces and songs — in both cases, playing as a duo intensifies the focus
“With the songs, it helps preserve what’s happening in them. Even though we shape the music around the songs,” he said. “In a band a lot more music can shift attention away from the song. We’ve worked hard to be creative but deliberate at the same time. With the songs we keep the focus on the stories. With the instrumental playing, it’s sort of the same thing. When Becky’s playing an old fiddle tune I’m creating interesting and exciting texture.”
A native of Vermont, Ms. Tracy grew up in the New England making music alongside her parents and grandparents as part of the contra dance scene.
“That was an important formative experience for her, but it’s derived from French Canadian and Irish playing, as Becky got more involved in the music she studied those other styles that fed into it,” he explained. “She tracked down masters in the genre and studied with great Irish American players and also with one of the most influential teachers of French Canadian music.”
The two don’t only perform old songs handed down by tradition — they have also written a lot of original music which is a reflection of the genres and styles they’ve spent years studying and playing together.
Several pieces of their music were chosen for use in Ken Burn’s documentary “The Roosevelts” which aired on PBS. Mr. Murphy noted that most of their music came in the last episode when a lot of dramatic things were happening, including his composition “Finistère.”
“‘Finistère’ is an expansive, reflective tune, and it gets used a little after F.D.R.’s death when Eleanor is trying to figure out where her life is going in the aftermath of the presidency,” he said. “I thought it was a good use of the tune. It contains a certain amount of angst and searching.”
“Ken Burns and his team really treat the music very seriously, its an important part of the process for them,” he said.
As it turns out, Finistère is the name of the land mass that lies at the farthest western reaches of Brittany. In Roman times, it was believed to be the end of the known world and even today, its isolation makes it the part of Brittany where the Breton language, culture and traditions are best preserved.
Mr. Murphy and Ms. Tracy once took a trip to that part of Brittany where they had an opportunity to encounter those traditions first hand.
“I have a very dramatic memory of a huge Fest Noz, which is type of musical gathering and also a form of dancing in Brittany,” Mr. Murphy said. “Everyone is holding hands and the person at the front of the line is weaving and snaking around.
“I remember being outside very late at night listening to the music,” he said. “On one level, to my ear its different than French Canadian music, it has a very hypotonic quality to it and is not as wild and driving as French Canadian music.
“The bigger part of the scene was of everyone outside eating and drinking and dancing,” he said. “That does feel familiar having been to Quebec and experiencing the festive spirit surrounding it.”
Becky Tracy and Keith Murphy will perform at 6 p.m. in the Sylvester Manor Living Room on Saturday, May 13. Admission is $25 and seating is limited. For tickets visit sylvestermanor.org or call (631) 749-0626.