Meeting Malcolm Dalglish

Malcolm Dalglish is one of the pioneers of modern hammered dulcimer. He’s the player who most makes me sit up and say “wow” — listening to Thunderhead, one of his early albums with Grey Larsen, there’s a lot of things I am amazed by, and I can’t figure out exactly how he’s doing them. More recently he’s been doing lots of work composing and arranging for choir and dulcimer. His Hymnody of Earth has been particularly popular. Check out his website at

Cliff Cole, another dulcimer player and teacher that I met at the Cranberry Dulcimer Gathering last summer, sent me an email a few weeks ago announcing a concert with the Bel Canto Children’s Chorus, world percussionist Glen Velez, and Malcolm Dalglish — performing Hymnody of Earth among other things. So yesterday one of my students and I drove three and a half hours to Quakertown PA and took our seats in the auditorium of the new middle school, staring expectantly at the dulcimer and percussion instruments gently lit on center stage.

Soon enough Malcolm and Glen appeared — Malcolm wearing a close-fitting round hat that reminded me of Phil Keaggy — and started playing. The first set was a bunch of dulcimer and percussion duets and solos. Malcolm did one of my favorites from Thunderhead, “Springwater at Jerry’s Run.” And it was fascinating to see and hear all the cool things Glen could do with a bodhran and an Old World tambourine. Next were three songs with the choir, including a new setting of Wendell Berry’s poem “Woods.” Wow.

After the intermission, the Hymnody itself. What an amazing piece of music… lots of variety in tempos and meters and structures, and sometimes there would be dulcimer, and sometimes percussion, and sometimes the whole choir, and sometimes Malcolm’s voice, and sometimes a smaller section of the choir. It reminded me of the kinds of things I most loved singing when I was in choirs. Close harmonies, even dissonance, melodies and structures that musically illustrated the meaning of the words. I only wish they’d had a shell behind the choir — they had beautiful, sweet, and even powerful voices, but the sound got a little lost on the huge stage. (Cliff’s daughter Emily, 16, had an exquisite but so short solo in one piece… Cliff tells me that they’ve been working on an album together. Mmmm.)

The choreography was minimal, purposeful movement that contributed to the flow of the music. For example, in the beginning of the piece Malcolm and Glen were on stage playing dulcimer and percussion, and then the choir started to sing as they processed through the aisles onto the stage. At other times, as one song was finishing, a portion of the choir would float through the ranks onto another set of risers in front of the stage, so that they were ready to sing when the next piece began. During a fugue-like part, each voice part would repeat a gesture as they took up the melody, so that you could see as well as hear the fugue. And for a piece in 15/8, the choir stepped stage left for three counts, right for two; a wonderful way to help the singers feel the rhythm, and a great way to help the audience catch it too.

Okay, so all of this — and that he autographed my copy of Thunderhead — has made the long drive well worth it. But guess what happens next? Cliff invites Eric and I to join his wife, him, the director of the chorus, another woman, and — Malcolm — for dinner. Oh my! I’m giggling like a smitten adolescent. Guess what? I sat next to him, too. We got to hear more about how he got started with dulcimer (the first one he built had five strings per course — a tuning nightmare), his background in theater at Oberlin (one of the schools I thought about going to), and more. And I got to shake his hand. Big, long-fingered hands, a little surprising for an otherwise slightly-built guy. How cool would it be to be close enough to watch how he plays; maybe that would throw some light on those techniques I can’t figure out just from listening.