Mark Orton, the writer, developed a simple melody, focusing on a few simple timbre additions as the only real change. The theme, which is repeated once, builds and ends in less than 30 seconds. Our melodies in the West are brief like this, though we string 2 or 3 together to form a piece. Perhaps melody entwined in harmony is secretly dense, like bar codes that pass into us and split apart into meaning for an ancient, emotional brain. Time may take on a different meaning, like it does within a photon, when it’s used as a canvas to frame a family of notes, to record the puddle jumps that form a path between tones. What’s unusual about this piece is the slight, unrepeated harmonic complexity, and the way this modest melody is left to fend for itself within it. A rhythmic alteration that occurs just before the end of the second and last time through the melody lends the piece a closing finality. Yet the muted ending also offers a kind of opposite to closure- a feeling of continuity and sameness. An assurance that East Poultney will continue as is after the lingering notes fail. There’s a resignation at the close, a slight sigh of boredom and, in the final seconds, a touch of foreboding.
As I recall, what pushed my conscious mind this morning to action was the desire to hear the steady, driving plunk-plunk of Mark’s banjo. I’ve been pushed toward putting this song on repeat in other ways. Sometimes it’s the mournful, wistful feel of the overall song, or the hammer dulcimer-like timbre on the little buildup to the end; and sometimes it’s the simple, stunning counterpoint (harmony), a signature of much of Orton’s work. There’s a few others reasons that engender me listening less commonly: a few seconds of hush as the theme dissolves the first time through; a scraping of the violin strings that creates random tonalities, lending the piece its first hints of foreboding; the way the piece can encapsulate a bit of life in a town within a minute and 16 seconds, if you try to see that; or that gentle buildup that goes almost nowhere, yet just far enough, as I prepare my breakfast, or lumber through a run.
But most days, it’s Mark’s banjo playing that consciously attracts me. Orton seems to favor the dobro, with turns at the guitar and banjo as suits him. It’s an odd choice for a post-modern group of jazzy classicists like Tin Hat, but an apt one because he’s the main writer, because the whole business is slung around the slinking or plinking so naturally that one simply can’t notice the oddity in the instruments. The distinctly American slides and plucks belong in East Poultney as well as they ever belonged anywhere in Tin Hat’s work. In this song, the banjo drives forward and through, with a consistent, traditional ¾ (three beat) rhythm. It’s a slower piece. The banjo strikes a couple of notes almost simultaneously every beat, from beginning to end, a little gap wedged between every little duo of notes. The style lends the piece a feeling of consistency that befits depiction of a simple town. The build on top of this rhythmic base is modest because small town doings are robust and deep, but only in a very particular way. Key parts of a broader life are missing in East Poultney; the locals have forgotten to look for them, and the children who couldn’t do without them have moved away. Lower your eyes to just over the horizon, squinch the view at the sides, and one has all the depth and breadth that melody, harmony, and rhythm can provide of a life there- the gift and dearth of small town life, arrayed elegantly. A kind of Quaker modesty, the colors hidden from view.