Brooklyn-based violinist, pianist and composer Dana Lyn is a musician of diverse accomplishment – but her creativity is restless, questing. She has enjoyed a niche as a go-to instrumentalist for top artists in genres from traditional folk to indie-rock. This includes singer-songwriter Loudon Wainwright III hiring her to lace the old-time country of his Grammy Award-winning 2009 album High, Wide and Handsome: The Charlie Poole Project, as well as the Irish-American supergroup Cherish the Ladies having her play and provide arrangements for their PBS special and live CD/DVD An Irish Homecoming. Lyn has appeared on Saturday Night Live and the Conan O’Brien Show, while bands from the Walkmen to Florence & the Machine have tapped her for recordings and concerts. But Lyn has a constant drive to experiment, whether it’s with music in the theater and the concert hall or her own recording projects. She was a key contributor to Ethan Hawke’s off-Broadway production of Clive – see her accompanying Hawke singing in character for this New York Times video. The edgy classical quartet Brooklyn Rider commissioned Lyn to compose Maintenance Music, a work to be included on their forthcoming album A Brooklyn Almanac. She is collaborating with actor-writer Vincent D’Onofrio on a recording for 2014 in which she sets his spoken-word journal “oddities” to music. Then there’s her second solo album – Aqualude, an instrumental story of the sea that’s as playful as it is tuneful – which Ropeadope Records will release on Oct. 15, 2013.
Aqualude sees Lyn joined by several fellow Brooklyn musicians, including guitarist Jonathan Goldberger (of folk-jazz trio Surface to Air), multi-genre cellist Clara Kennedy and jazzers clarinetist Mike McGinnis and drummer Vinnie Sperrazza – a quintet that Lyn has led at such hip New York venues as Barbes and iBeam. The album echoes with strains of neo-folk, avant-rock and contemporary classical (listen here), but the music also works as a soundtrack to a folk-like narrative that Lyn has written, one that incorporates her extra-musical fascination with the marine world and its inhabitants.
“I have a few obsessions,” Lyn says. “There’s music, of course – classical, jazz, rock, folk – studying it, playing it. From Bach and Irish fiddle tunes to improvisation and my own composing, I’m always digging deeper. But I also have a fixation with swimming and the sea, as well as ecology and environmental issues. Aqualude was inspired by aquatic life, along with daydreams about what life underwater would be like. In the album’s narrative, a boy encounters various exotic sea creatures on an adventure in the ocean.” Along with violin (and viola) on Aqualude, Lyn plays one of the junkyard doors that were transformed into playable sound sculptures for the Ethan Hawke-directed play Clive. She explains: “They were put into frames and placed around the perimeter of the set, and my job was to score the play as it was happening, with the doors amplified and connected to delay pedals and loop stations. The door that I played on the record has part of a keyboard action and a harmonist pedal attached to it, plus a broken music box. Using tuning forks and an e-bow to play it, I could make sounds that evoke the sea and the story – fantastical and otherworldly.”
Aqualude follows the 2011 release of The Hare Said a Prayer to the Rainbow and Followed the Fox Down the Hole, an album of traditional and original music by Lyn’s ongoing duo project with guitarist Kyle Sanna (www.danalynkylesanna.com). Sanna has worked with artists from Yo-Yo Ma and Brooklyn Rider to Edgar Meyer and Chris Thile. This was another recording where the music – tuneful dances, airs and improvised intermezzi, alternately sophisticated and full of child-like wonder – evoked a folk-like narrative. None other than top Irish fiddler Kevin Burke called the album “a very innovative recording – mysterious, playful and charming… From the excellent musicianship and skillfully and fascinating arrangements to the relaxed whimsy of the CD package, the whole project is bursting with creativity, yet still manages to convey a love for simplicity – a remarkable achievement.”
In 2009, Lyn released In Double, a duo album as Bach Reformed with Rob Moose on guitar (www.bachreformed.com). Moose is a multi-instrumentalist who has worked with everyone from Antony & the Johnsons and My Brightest Diamond to the Orchestra of St. Luke’s. In Double showcases the duo’s beguiling, folk-tinged rearrangements of selections from the great unaccompanied works for solo cello and solo violin by J.S. Bach, whose music is a never-ending source of inspiration for Lyn. “I’ve loved Bach all my life – the music is so deep, emotionally and intellectually,” she says. “Whether it’s the harmonic richness or the timeless melodies or the contrapuntal aspect, Bach’s music is rich and fascinating and moving. There’s so much integrity in Bach that dealing with him on a daily level keeps you on the right path as a musician.” Lucid Culture described the album as “new interpretations of Bach that breathe fresh energy into the music while remaining impressively true to its original passion and intensity.” Lyn has also orchestrated Bach’s solo Violin Partita No. 3 for violin and string orchestra, with her arrangement premiered by violinist Christina Wheeler-Wensel and the National Army Strings in 2010 at the Savannah Music Festival.
Lyn, who was born in 1974 and raised in the San Fernando Valley, has been enamored of all manner of music since she was very young, from the classical works that led to her conservatory training to the rock and pop that she listened to on the radio at night despite parental protestations. After she graduated from Oberlin with a degree in violin performance, it was the informal, improvisatory feel of playing Irish folk music that diverted Lyn from a classical career toward the research and performance of traditional Irish fiddle tunes from East Clare and Galway; she made more than 20 trips to Ireland over a decade to learn at the elbow of sage players from the older generation. These experiences led to star-making encounters as a fiddler and arranger of choice in the folk arena. Lyn has performed and recorded with Grammy Award-winning vocalist Susan McKeown, fiddlers Kevin Burke and Martin Hayes, banjoist/folklorist Mick Maloney, flutist-singer Nuala Kennedy, the late Scots folk musician Johnny Cunningham, guitarist Junji Shirota, the Green Fields of America and many others. Collaborating with artists such as these, she added dozens of albums to her discography, along with performing with headlining groups at NPR’s Mountain Stage, the National Folk-life Festival, Milwaukee Irish Music Festival, Sebastopol Festival, Celtic Connections, Lotus World Music Festival, Ellnora Guitar Festival and beyond.
Lyn was featured as a fiddler in two documentaries on traditional Irish music, The Raw Bar and Geanntrai, which aired on national television in Ireland. In 2004, Lyn made her studio solo debut with Looking for the Early Opener, an album of Irish fiddle tunes. Along with the traditional jigs, reels and airs (and even a collaboration with a beat-boxer), the album featured a handful of original tunes by Lyn. The reception was warm, with The Irish Edition saying: “Beautiful… Lyn makes you feel as if you were sitting there in the room as she plays, the music flowing freely and effortlessly from one tune to the next.”
As a budding composer, Lyn was commissioned by the acclaimed cross-genre string quartet Brooklyn Rider to write the seven-minute work Maintenance Music to be a part of their project A Brooklyn Almanac. Melding drones and melody, the piece was inspired by Mierle Ukeles, self-appointed Artist-in-Residence at the NYC Department of Sanitation. “I was deeply moved when I learned about Ukeles and the socio-politically conscious nature of her work – her Maintenance Manifesto and its theme of the underestimated importance of maintenance in our ecosystems, our cities and our personal lives.” Brooklyn Rider premiered Lyn’s composition at the Stillwater Music Festival in Minnesota; the group has since performed it in Chicago, Rochester, NY, Andover, MD, and Washington, D.C., as well as at the Bridgehampton Chamber Music Festival. Critic Rachael Sanguinetti said about the Rochester concert: “The best performance of the night was Maintenance Music… The harmonies and suspensions worked together to create a storyline that the audience enthusiastically embraced.” Brooklyn Rider also commissioned Lyn to make arrangements for the quartet to play with renowned Irish fiddler Martin Hayes – which they did live on WNYC’s New Sounds program (distributed by National Public Radio). She has also received commissions from the National Army Strings and OSSO String Quartet, among others.
Lyn has performed with musicians across a host of genres – from veteran soul hit-maker Bill Withers to avant-Americana singer-songwriter Will Oldham, from hit Broadway composer and singer-songwriter Duncan Sheik to vintage-style jazz band Vince Giordano & the Nighthawks, among many others. And in addition to her collaboration with Ethan Hawke in playing violin, piano and “musical doors” for Clive, Lyn has worked in the theater at the highest levels. She was cast as an onstage musician in the Public Theater’s 2008 Shakespeare in the Park production of Hamlet, working with Tony Award-winning composer Mark Bennett. She also appeared as an onstage musician for productions of The Cherry Orchard and The Winter’s Tale at the Brooklyn Academy of Music as part of The Bridge Project directed by Academy Award-winner Sam Mendes, touring to Singapore, New Zealand, Spain and Germany in 2009.
Also active as a music educator, Lyn has served as an instructor of traditional fiddle playing at the Augusta Heritage Center of Davis & Elkins College in West Virginia, along with teaching at the Catskills Irish Arts Week. She has given workshops at the Apple Hill Chamber Music Center in New Hampshire and at Community Music Works in Rhode Island. Lyn has also taught at PS 18 and PS 399 in Brooklyn, along with maintaining a private studio of fiddle students.
Along with the new Aqualude and her work-in-progress on the spoken-word-with-music collaboration with Vincent D’Onofrio, Lyn’s current projects include playing in and arranging for Dionne Werewolf – a 12-piece band dedicated to the music of Burt Bacharach. She is also composing music that will be presented along with a children’s book by Ellen Potter, titled Yeti Camp. In early 2014, Lyn will be featured in the Irish Arts Center “Masters in Collaboration” series with Irish poet Louis de Paor.
Looking ahead, Lyn says: “I want to compose more music that allows multiple musical genres to breathe within in it – in an effort to create something that is both rooted in tradition and completely fresh, with melody at the heart of it. Beyond that, I want to explore all kinds of music, all kinds of collaborations. I want to be challenged beyond my comfort zone and always be learning and sharing music with people.”