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The raving thoughts of a misanthropic academic

October 1, 2008

Song of the Week: Ashokan Farewell

With the throes of 2L well upon me, I have scarce had time to listen to my iPod at all, let alone branch out to pass along new music recommendations. But this Pax Plena Song of the Week falls under the increasingly rare category of new music discoveries made by yours truly.

Composed by American folks musician Jay Ungar, and performed by Scottish Violinist Aly Bain, Ashokan Farewell made its debut on to the American music scene during the early 1990s in a PBS Mini-series called The Civil War. The song is written in the style of a Scottish air so it boasts a breezy, wistful melody that make it both enchanting and soaring at the same time. Listening to the piece, it is not difficult to imagine an evening stroll along the banks of the Ashokan Reservoir in upstate NY (the song's namesake), or a foggy overlook from the Scottish Highlands.

The story of the song is also intriguing. In a lengthy back and forth on his personal website, composer Jay Ungar describes the emotion he felt upon the song's completion:
I composed Ashokan Farewell in 1982 shortly after our Fiddle & Dance Camps had come to an end for the season. I was feeling a great sense of loss and longing for the music, the dancing and the community of people that had developed at Ashokan that summer. The transition from living at a secluded woodland camp with a small group of people who needed little excuse to celebrate the joy of living, back to life as usual, with traffic, newscasts, telephones and impersonal relationships, had been difficult. By the time the tune took form, I was in tears. I kept it to myself for months, unable to fully understand the emotions that welled up whenever I played it. I had no idea that this simple tune could effect others in the same way.

[Link]
It is exactly this sense of melancholy that makes the song so powerful. Ungar describes his loss of community at the summer's conclusion, but it is easy to substitute this with a personal sense of plaintiveness. Even while Jay mourns the passing of summer, one could readily long for a lost love, a missed opportunity, or a change of pace all the same. Simply put, the emotions conjured by the music may be person specific, but the nature of the music itself is universal.  Given the change invariably brought about through the on set of fall (See my thoughts on fall and change here, here, here, and here), I felt it was a timely selection. 


In all, it is an absolutely stunning piece, and well-deserving of the title Pax Plena Song of the Week. A video of Ungar and Bain performing the song appears below as filmed in the Transatlantic Sessions by the BBC. Enjoy!

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