Joy Adams and Andy Reiner of the duo Half Pelican have a knack for balance — in music, life and adventures. The couple often treks up fourteeners carrying a cello, violin or other stringed instruments. They perform Bach concertos from the mountaintops and play fiddle tunes while skiing down slopes.
It’s a fun and liberating experience, they say, and a humbling way to step out of the mindset of professional musicians and explore new creative modes.
“You stop thinking about yourself,” says Adams. “You’re just playing music again.”
Admittedly, the two are crazy about music. Since childhood, each has spent years studying and practicing an array of genres, especially folk and classical. And between them, they have wide-ranging credits, from Adams’s cello on the soundtrack of Netflix's The Queen’s Gambit and Godless to Reiner’s optimistic River of Suck podcast.
Their newest adventure is Live From the Swamp, an album that mixes metal and traditional tunes.
There's less oxygen at higher elevations, which forces a different approach to playing that isn’t at all about perfection, Reiner notes. And Half Pelican’s extreme performances seem to bring joy to everyone who sees and hears them.
Reiner first dabbled in ski-fiddling in 2013, after years of simultaneous ski trips and music tours around the West. He took a fiddle down the slopes that year because he’d gotten tired of concert-goers jokingly asking if he ever had. In the years since, Reiner has moved beyond proving his ability to ski and play; now he just does it for fun. He and Adams have performed while skiing multiple slopes, including those at Loveland, Silverton and Arapahoe Basin, treating visitors to traditional tunes, excerpts from the Game of Thrones soundtrack and improvised melodies, among other offerings.
It was Adams who dreamed up their summertime challenge of climbing fourteeners with instruments and playing all 36 movements of Bach’s cello suites. So far, they've completed six of them.
Adams says the suites are known as metaphorical mountains for many cello players. “They’re difficult, and there’s a long, deep tradition around playing them,” she explains. “Playing those mountain pieces on a mountain is oddly fulfilling — and completely insane.”
A key part of the mountain performance is the arsenal of stunt cellos, fiddles and banjos the musicians employ. They're hardier than the instruments used on pro gigs, and better lend themselves to the expression of the moment, allowing the couple the freedom to play without fear of damaging their more delicate counterparts as they wind their way up and down mountains.
Adams grew up in Spokane and started playing cello at fifteen, under the guidance of her classically trained mother. She graduated from the Eastman School of Music in Rochester, New York, and earned a doctorate of music at the University of Miami in Florida. During her last year at Eastman, she rediscovered a love of old-time and bluegrass traditions. She describes classical and traditional folk music as “two very different worlds — mostly because in the classical world, you learn from notes on a page. In the fiddle world, you learn aurally,” she says. “They both have their place, and having a hybrid is the best of all the worlds.”
Reiner reached a similar conclusion from the opposite direction. He began playing the fiddle at age five, joining his parents and brother in the Reiner Family Band in Massachusetts. He attended the Berklee School of Music in Boston, where he developed classical composition skills and delved further into fiddle traditions. He met Adams at a Berklee fiddle camp in 2012; they married in 2019.
“Every part of the world has its own fiddle music,” Reiner says. “It’s a big, overarching term.”
At fiddle camps around the country and the globe, he explains, musicians meet to learn and exchange tunes and techniques. Songs are played together and shared as a reflection of regions and communities. Fiddle subgenres range from southern Appalachian, Québécois, Western and New England styles to Cajun, Swedish and Celtic variations. Different styles often mirror regional accents, Adams adds.
Folk music has always been music of the people, she continues, “passed down from person to person, from generation to generation.” It’s a humbling legacy in itself to perform as a small part in that chain, but she and Reiner also strive to connect to music without involving egos.
In order to survive as a musician, Adams says, you need to believe in yourself, and there’s a certain confidence that’s needed — "but it’s really easy to get too far over that line.” Skiing while playing and performing at the top of fourteeners challenges that tendency.
And for the gigging couple, the extreme performances serve as one of many musical hats they wear to make a living (though they haven't made money on the slopes just yet). “It’s the party hat,” Adams says. “You can be as crazy as you want to, and you’re completely free to do so.”
Adams has worked on a number of other projects, including with baroque chamber groups and a polka band, as well as accompanying singer-songwriter Nathaniel Rateliff, vocalist Bonnie Paine and fiddler Darol Anger. Her music was featured in the Emmy-winning theme song and Emmy-nominated soundtrack from Godless and is part of the Queen’s Gambit soundtrack.
At this point in her career, she says, "I just want to call myself a musician and not attach myself to anything that would pigeonhole me.”
Reiner was the sound engineer for Adams's work on The Queen’s Gambit and added fiddle to a Godless episode. He's toured with Darol Anger and the Rockin’ Furies as well as dance-bluegrass band Whitewater Ramble. His compositions for string orchestras have been performed in various settings around the country. As host and producer of the River of Suck podcast, he explores emotions and personal journeys through scientific, musical and other perspectives. And with the Reiner Family Band, he helps put on Fiddle Hell, a small fiddle festival in Massachusetts.
The 2020 version of the festival, held online, inadvertently led to the creation of Half Pelican’s new album through Reiner's efforts to re-create the "whomp," a Fiddle Hell tradition during which people jam and sing at the top of their lungs in a dark room lit only by bits of light from a disco ball. Reiner initially assumed the whomp would be canceled, but his dad insisted they find a way to include it.
Reiner and Adams decided to put on an electric live performance in their studio, which they dubbed "The Swamp" in honor of its role as a haunted house last Halloween. They turned the lights down and wore blinking lights, then celebrated folk music with traditional tunes, but added a new element by playing it with a metal twist. Although Reiner had played metal with friends in high school, the style was new to Adams and to drummer Darren Garvey, a multi-instrumentalist, producer and former member of Elephant Revival who also performed on the album.
The event, says Reiner, turned out to be "an explosive amount of fun.” Luckily, they'd recorded the whole thing, and they describe the resulting album, Live From the Swamp, as "pre-historic Americana": cosmic grooves influenced by Appalachian, bluegrass, Celtic, Scandinavian and heavy-metal music. It was mixed and mastered by Bassil Silver, a Boston-area drummer and producer, and is available for streaming on Spotify and for purchase on Bandcamp.
The couple hopes this collaboration and style is the beginning of something new, because as Adams points out, “Artists don’t want to do the same thing over and over."
Half Pelican's next Fiddle Hell performance is set to take place online on April 16. In the meantime, if you're on the slopes and hear string music in the air, follow the sound. But watch yourself: Adams once tripped a skier after taking a tumble with her banjo.
For more about the band, go to the Half Pelican website.
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