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Put the hammer down

Savor the sweet simplicity of dulcimers with Willson & McKee

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There’s something about the sound of a hammered dulcimer that plays me like a one-stringed banjo. Maybe it’s my inner Rumanian. I went with some friends to a screening of Nosferatu in Seattle a few years ago and the group performing the score, the Ensemble Sub Masa, had a guy on the instrument who was amazing. His name was Constantin Parvulescu, a name that lolls around in your mouth like the first bite of an ice cream bar. A name you can trust in Transylvanian music! And for more than an hour, it was like Constantin Parvulescu was paving the Count’s every step with bony melodies coaxed out of this oversized cheese slicer with a pair of leather-capped mallets.

Closer to home, the Polson-based musical partnership of Ken Willson and Kim McKee has forged a haunting sound around the hammered dulcimer and its third cousin twice removed, the mountain dulcimer, a lap-held wooden hourglass that shares the same ringing tone but not the ancient bloodline. In fact, McKee says, no one really knows why the mountain dulcimer is called a dulcimer at all, apart from the word itself, which means “sweet sound.”

“Dulcimers are kind of an oddity out here,” she explains. “There’s a handful of us who play them, but not very many. Of course, by the time you get to Portland and Seattle there’s a million of them, but in these more rural states where we tour it’s a pretty unique thing. One of the things we like to do after a concert is make sure people come up and look at it and try to play it if they want.”

Before moving to Montana 11 years ago, McKee was a keen competitor in Colorado’s annual dulcimer festival, winning top honors three years in a row and once taking second in the Winfield, Kan. nationals.

“From the plains states eastward, there are just hundreds of dulcimer festivals,” McKee says. “Even though I went to a few of them in my early years of learning to play this instrument, I never lived where there were other players, so I have a totally different way of playing it than most dulcimer players.

“If you go to a dulcimer festival, they’re all playing this old-timey style, or what I call ‘bazooka playing’—as loud and hard and fast as they can possibly play. I don’t know if I want to call mine a simplified style, but I try to do more unique things with it. But most hammered dulcimer players are absolutely hated in circles of musicians because they do play just obnoxiously. And it doesn’t go away! That sound is just out there, you know?”

If the duo’s fourth and most recent CD, Passed By Here, draws on a more nuanced palette of dulcimer sounds, it’s partly because McKee has embraced an innovation that some of the more traditional players regard as heresy. Dampers on a dulcimer, she explains, are the opposite of the damper pedal on a piano, which actually holds the damper off the strings and lets them ring where the sound would otherwise go away immediately.

“The damper is really something that’s only really been happening for the past 10 or 15 years,” McKee says. “In fact, if you asked ten dulcimer players about dampers, half of them wouldn’t even know what they were and four of the other five would say, ‘Yeah, but they’re not traditional, so don’t use them.’”

“My argument is: OK, it’s a mutation, but guess what? I get a whole bunch more voicings out of my very boring, one-sound-having instrument. The damper actually pulls down onto the strings so I get more of a muted, marimba sound when I want it. I still get the tone of the note, but the damper keeps it from ringing.”

“I also do a lot of singing when I play,” adds McKee, who before the advent of dampers used a strip of duct tape barely touching the strings on either side of the bridge to get the same effect. “And with dampers I can pull back some of the ring. “One of the notorious things about hammered dulcimers is that your last three thousand notes are still in the air,” she laughs. “So if I’m singing along, I can use the damper to periodically clear some of them out.” .

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