New Film Gets to the Heart of Childsplay

By Sean Smith
Special to the BIR
What can you say about a film in which Liz Carroll -- one of the most influential Irish fiddlers of our time -- appears as an interviewer, rather than a performer?
That’s one of the many charms of “Fiddles, Fiddlers and a Fiddlemaker: Childsplay,” a new documentary about the fiddle ensemble Childsplay and its artistic director and guiding spirit, Cambridge violin-maker Bob Childs.

The film, which has been released on DVD, combines footage of the group’s 2009 performance at Somerville Theater and Carroll’s interviews with several members, who offer their insights on Childsplay’s inner workings and share tidbits about its repertoire and arrangements of tunes and songs from Irish, Scottish, American, and other traditions, as well as contemporary works.
Childsplay has ample ties to the Greater Boston area, not least which is Childs himself, whose creations have become the gold standard for many violinists. For 25 years, satisfied customers of Childs have gathered every year to stage concerts in Greater Boston and elsewhere in New England; the confluence of so many fiddles with an identical point of origin, say Childs and Childsplay members, makes these concerts almost more of a family reunion than a musical event.
The roster of Childsplay – which includes other instrumentalists as well as fiddlers – is never exactly the same from year to year but draws heavily from Boston and New England, as is the case for this film: Along with Childs, those with local or regional connections include Hanneke Cassel, Sheila Falls, Amanda Cavanaugh, Katie McNally, Bonnie Bewick, Lissa Schneckenburger, vocalist Aoife O’Donovan, flutist Shannon Heaton, harpist Kathleen Guilday, guitarist/pianist Keith Murphy and cellist Ariel Friedman. (Carroll, a Chicago native, also has performed with Childsplay.)
Interviewed recently, Childs said the idea of a Childsplay concert film seemed both straightforward and appealing. “We wanted to capture the Childsplay experience, so we brought in five cameras to film the show at Somerville Theater. But we realized how much better it would be to tell the larger story of the group, to give a sense of how we come together and make this happen each year.”
Although she’s not a journalist, Carroll proved to be the perfect choice to conduct the interviews, says Childs (“She wants to be ready for when Oprah Winfrey retires,” he quips).
“Liz had never done this sort of thing before, but she is so knowledgeable about music and what it means to develop your sound,” he explained. “She just has a very down-to-earth manner, and knows what questions to ask and how to ask them, and that’s crucial to drawing people out.”
An engaging presence, Carroll helps make the interviews entertaining and enlightening, whether about the group in general -- Childs says its strength derives in part from the musicians’ willingness “to be a little out of their comfort zone” and learn from one another -- or focusing on specific tunes or songs it performs. For example, Carroll gets Falls to dissect the first three notes of Falls’ air “Queen Maeve’s Slumber” in a way that doesn’t scare off the musically illiterate. Similarly, Murphy explains his composition “Sam Sam Amidon” as having been inspired by the “angular” playing style of his long-time bandmate Amidon, who also was in the 2009 Childsplay line-up. Bewick, a classical violinist, talks about her solo on John Corigliano’s “Theme for Anna” and the challenge its distinctively non-traditional structure poses: “It sits on a note that’s uncomfortable; if you try to feel it, it wouldn’t feel good.”
Ultimately, of course, it’s the music itself which makes the film worth viewing. The ensemble’s command of the range of material, including traditional (such as O’Donovan’s masterful rendition of “I’m a Youth That’s Inclined to Ramble”) as well as original and contemporary pieces – even “Love Me Tender” – is impressive (the group also does a medley of three Carroll compositions). The sound is high quality, and the concert footage affirms the rapport between the group’s members -- communicated through subtle nods and knowing smiles -- as well as their individual virtuosity.
Even Childs himself experienced a revelation or two from watching the finished product. “I feel I have an even deeper appreciation of the creative personalities in the group. Obviously, I’m involved with this every year, shaping the ideas collectively and then performing them. But to hear Keith, Sheila, Hanneke and others talk about what happens, and then to see what fun everyone is having – it’s exciting to see that all captured.”
A special premiere of “Fiddles, Fiddlers and a Fiddlemaker” will take place March 13 at Brattle Theater in Harvard Square at 3 p.m., followed by a wine and cheese reception at which some of the band members will be present. Tickets are $31, with proceeds benefiting Childsplay. See for information