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Artist of the Month - August 2004

The art of traditional music lives on
in MMF’s Artist in Residence

by Carrie Switzer

I’m listening to a mesmerizing piece of traditional music, Irish music played by a young American from Indiana. The title cut is “Return of the Rivers” featuring an instrument I believe I’ve heard before, but never identified as the “Uilleann” (pronounced “Illian”) pipes Christopher Layer has mastered and performed around the world.

The day I met Christopher he was preparing for “tryouts” of sorts, hoping local musicians would come out of the woodwork to help him put together the Moab Community Dance Band. This is Christopher’s first project as the Moab Music Festival’s new Artist in Residence. Christopher is replacing outgoing Resident Artist Eric Thomas, who conducted classes and workshops in the Moab area for the last three years. The Moab Community Dance Band will rehearse twice a week, perform two social dances in August and offer monthly Contra Dances, a social event locals gave a vote of popularity for by sheer attendance figures last year.

While Christopher makes his debut in Moab this year as the Festival’s Artist in Residence, it is his fourth year performing in Moab with the Moab Music Festival. A now happily transplanted New Yorker, Christopher said he has known since he was very young he would play music in New York. He was cautious not to barge in on any music scene, pointing out that he waited for an invitation, be it a direct invitation or simply a set of circumstances favorable to such a move.

“New York is a city that possesses tremendous creative energy,” Christopher said. “And I know that every act of creation is balanced by an equal and opposite act of destruction. You just ride that kind of energy; I don’t know if you could harness it.

“As a professional musician in my 20s, I knew I wouldn’t go to New York without an invitation.”
Christopher grew up with music, live and alive in his living room. His father is a fiddler and his mother a singer, and every Tuesday night the family hosted a meal followed by lots of traditional music.

His first instrument was a fife, a six-hole flute Christopher began to play when he was 11 years old. Shortly after he began playing he saw a very young Chicago fiddle player, Liz Carroll, perform.

“I fell in love with Irish music,” he said. Christopher now performs with Liz once or twice a year.
Christopher studied classical music at the Hargreaves School of Music at Ball State University in Indiana, and the Indiana School of Music in Bloomington. He played bassoon and bass fiddle. Right out of college he was recruited by Pete Sutherland to play bass and flute for the Clayfoot Strutters, a dance band in Vermont.

“The cue for me to go to New York came when I was 29 years old. I had a friend in New York who was looking for a roommate, and a couple of days later I got a call from Paul Woodiel, who gave me my start.
“Those two things happened independently in a matter of a day or two of each other,” Christopher said. “When I talked to Paul, we were talking about traveling to do some music and he asked, ‘what are you doing in Vermont?’ Move to New York and I’ll help you find work.’”

Christopher Layer and Paul Woodiel

A few months later, the day he moved, Christopher got his first parking ticket in Midtown Manhattan. Now he walks or bikes everywhere, knows his neighbors, the butcher and “the guy who owns the cheese shop.”

“It’s hard for people in a small town like Moab to comprehend that in the middle of the city I live a small-town lifestyle,” he said. “It doesn’t really cater to aggressive-type people who want a big house, a car and five kids,” he adds. “Space has to be efficient. In New York, you’re always in a make-do situation.”

New York is where Christopher met Moab Music Festival founders Leslie Tomkins and Michael Barrett. With numerous orchestral appearances behind and ahead of him, he was a shoe-in as one of the many pros recruited for the September Festival in Moab. In New York he is the principal pipe soloist and flautist for the Trinity Irish Dance Company and says there is no greater compliment than to make someone want to dance.
“The effect that New York has on my music is that it is meant to be accessible and recreational,” Christopher said. “My personal goal is to make people feel good. I play dance music. The music I play is traditional, very social and lacks pretense. It’s like New York – honestly straightforward and not pretentious.

“I still occasionally go down into the subway and play. The audience votes there with their feet, and often with more energy than an audience in the Metropolitan Museum of Art. There’s no difference for me between playing in front of the Pittsburgh Symphony or the A Street sub stop. The audience in each place is equally important to me.”

Christopher’s goal with the Moab Community Dance Band is “to share the excitement of music with other musicians,” he said. In addition to leading the workshops, rehearsals, socials and monthly Contra Dances, Christopher will perform “Greengrass to Bluegrass” with his musical partner, Paul Woodiel with a Cameo appearance expected by his father, who plans to travel to Moab with his fiddle in tow. On September 9 there will be a Contra Dance featuring the Armerding Trio, Paul and Chris. The Socials are scheduled for August 7 and 21 at the Moab Arts and Recreation Center.

For more information about how to get involved with the Moab Community Dance Band, or future Contra Dances, contact the Moab Music Festival at 259-7003.


Return of the Rivers - Christopher Layer


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