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U.Va. Grad Student Mixes Media and Traditions with ‘Strange Tales’

Joe Adkins is a man of many influences and talents. A University of Virginia doctoral candidate in the McIntire Department of Music’s Composition and Computing Technologies program, his latest multimedia work is a juxtaposition of literary and nonliterary, classical music and rural musical tradition.

Adkins recently launched a crowd-sourced funding campaign through Kickstarter to produce a soundtrack recording for “Pammanottus,” the first in his series, “Strange Tales from Appalachia,” which will feature narrator and chamber ensemble. The campaign runs through Saturday.

“Strange Tales from Appalachia” is an amalgam of Appalachian and classical music, imaginative animation and cross-cultural storytelling traditions. For this ambitious project, which is part of Adkins’ dissertation research, he skillfully reconstructed three stories he was told as a child.

Adkins grew up in Kanawha County, W.Va., a place he characterizes as having “a certain beautiful desolation.” On the surface, such a place might not appear to encourage creativity. But in fact, storytelling and music making were pervasive throughout Adkins’ upbringing.

“We were not exactly known for being avid readers,” Adkins said. “But I think we have a rich oral tradition, crazy capacity for memorization, and a unique sense of comedy.”

Adkins has taken Appalachian stories he’s been told and reworked them, keeping the traditional roots but reconstructing them to reflect a more global influence. The title, for instance, pays homage to 17th century Chinese author Pu Songling, who wrote “Strange Tales from a Chinese Studio.” And James the Were-Fox, one of the characters in Adkins’ story “Pammanottus,” is inspired by the tanuki, an animal often featured as a trickster in Japanese folklore.

The musical score Adkins wrote for each of the stories is influenced by both the Appalachian music he grew up playing and the contemporary classical music he’s been trained to compose. He playfully describes the music as “George Crumb meets George Jones.”

“Often people from the Appalachian musical tradition look down on ‘paper-trained musicians.’ I have a foot in both worlds,” Adkins said.

Until now, Adkins has shied away from combining the two genres. “The sound of Appalachian music immediately suggests a certain class, a particular educational level,” he said. “Strange Tales” offers Adkins a unique format to combine the two musical genres as well as his fanciful illustrations and mischievous sense of humor.

All of these elements coalesce to create a whimsical, surprising and compelling experience that appeals to a broad audience. This is quite deliberate; one of Adkins’ primary goals with the project is to make contemporary classical music accessible, particularly to children.

In addition to a film version of the piece, his plans include a live version for narrator and small ensemble; he hopes eventually to see the works performed as a ballet with a full chamber orchestra.

– by Melissa Maki

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