(from the website nathanbontrager.wordpress.com )
Geographic preamble: I live in Cologne, Germany and play wherever.
Like anyone, I am the product of various interests, desires, and experiences. But in this slice of digital real estate I’m concerned with bringing attention to myself as a musician. If you’re here, you likely want to know a bit more about me and the kind of things I play. That can be arranged. If you’re looking for where I went to school, famous people I studied and played with, and other such platitudes, sorry, you won’t find them here. I’m tired of that game and am aiming for something more realistic here.
When I went to graduate school I started introducing myself as Nathan instead of Nate. A pretty arbitrary and laughable attempt to signal some kind of passage to adulthood or whatever. But, it stuck, and something did change at that time regarding my seriousness about music. So, in that same sense, now I answer the question of “what do you do?” by saying I’m a musician, not a cellist.
Here is a list of instruments I have played in some kind of professional capacity. I’m not trying to look impressive here, but the point is that I like playing a bunch of things and hope to continue to do so. I’ve ranked them from what I play best to worst (rest assured, things become rapidly funnier and more embarrassing as you travel down the list):
Cello, viola da gamba, voice, guitar, fiddle, bass, piano, organ, percussion.
What I do as a musician can be fitted, broadly, into three genres: Early music, experimental/improvised music (or “free music” as the most excellent Joe Morris has dubbed it), and traditional music.
Within early music I am mostly a continuo player, by design. Since I relocated to Germany, I’m looking to start or join an active gamba consort because, in my opinion, it is the greatest contribution given to the musical canon from the 16th-18th centuries. As I become more active and knowledgeable about historical performance practice I am constantly drawn to music from the truly “early” end of the early music spectrum.
The bulk of my playing falls into the experimental/improvised context. Obviously, it’s a broad net. I play in groups that write their own music. I compose for various instruments and, at present, am focusing on songs for cello and voice. Free improvisation (and a healthy dose of new music, whatever that means) informs most of what happens here and is a pretty emblematic and influential force in my life overall. For me, free improvisation was the first time I ever performed without fear and with a feeling of nearly unfettered control of expression with an instrument. Sort of a disembodied, abstract spiritual guru for my life as a musician.
I make a real point here of saying traditional music as opposed to folk music. I’m interested in minimally commercialized music with a close connection to the oral tradition. I think the term “folk” used to refer to the same thing, but not so much anymore. But I’m not a dogmatist about how it’s played. I find this music to be malleable; however, one has to be careful with interpreting it. Each stripe of traditional music possesses key ingredients that give it unique vitality. Lose these and you’re left with a flaccid lump of sonic garbage useful only for the end credits of a corporate documentary on workplace diversity. That’s why I play old-time fiddle, bought a kemence, etc.
I really enjoy teaching people about and how to play music. I used to work at a church. Working with the choir was fantastic, but the most compelling moments involved getting a mass of people who firmly believed they couldn’t participate in music to open their mouths and sing together, a cappella. That’s perhaps the best summation of the whole thing; music makes things happen in the doing, listening, and creating that has powerful and necessary social implications for our larger lives.
Navel-gazing over. If you read this (really?) and have a strong impulse to cough into your hand while saying ‘bullshit’, then I think I’ve done my job. You’ll hopefully like the me that uses sounds and tones, not words, much better.