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Rounder Songs

A song cycle for voice, old-time banjo and NOW Ensemble

The Latest Update

Rounder Songs is born!

Posted on November 29, 2017 by Emily Pinkerton

It’s true!  After years of planning, writing, recording and fundraising, Rounder Songs is ready for release on New Amsterdam Records.

I am thankful to so many organizations and individuals, and NewMusicUSA is at the top of the list.  Thank you for believing in our vision for a banjo-based Appalachian Song Cycle for NOW Ensemble!

Thank you to co-composer Patrick Burke, NOW Ensemble, engineer Jesse Lewis at Immersive Music Project, The Heinz Endowments, The Pittsburgh Foundation, our many individual donors, and the musicians of West Virginia (The Hammons family in particular) and Kentucky whose field recordings inspired this work.


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Finishing the last movement:”Three Forks of Hell”

Posted on July 23, 2015 by Emily Pinkerton

Hello New Music USA neighbors!

I’m so grateful and excited that Rounder Songs has been supported in this round of grants!

We’re nearing the end of the multi-movement composition with Patrick Burke’s last arrangement of “Pretty Polly” and with my contribution, “Three Forks of Hell” based on a banjo tune by Arthur D. Johnson of Randoph County, WV. His tunes are part of a beautiful collection of field recordings by Gerry Milnes.

I love this banjo tune. When you sit down to play, it’s hard to stop. It’s just crooked enough to make a cheerful melody something eerily hypnotic, and I’ve been enjoying the challenge of arranging it for NOW Ensemble. As a songwriter, working in an entirely instrumental framework is new! No voice, no words, no story like I’m used to. I’m trying to “draw” the river with the banjo, bass, clarinet, flute, electric guitar and piano. I’m trying to keep a foot in both traditional and classical worlds as I write: to bring out the beauty of the melody without tearing it apart. Letting it become expansive, lush and different, but still be the same tune at heart.

Look for a preview of the piece in the next update! In the meantime, here’s the version I played in the West Virginia State Folk Festival banjo competition.


Rounder Songs was born after traveling with composer Patrick Burke to my favorite old-time music festivals in West Virginia. The exposure to Appalachian traditional music sparked conversations about how minimalist structures in classical music resonate with old-time performance (repeated melodic phrases where cumulative melodic and rhythmic variations are central). We started to imagine how these sound worlds could be fused in a compelling way, one that would contrast past approaches to using folk sounds in classical compositions (such as the populist styles of Aaron Copland or the insertion of traditional instruments within classical forms with virtuosic expectations). Our vision first took musical shape in collaborative, cross-genre pieces, Red Rocking Chair, Darling Corey and Marcum and the Yankee, for voice, banjo and NOW Ensemble in 2013.

The purpose of the current project is to complete a new “compositional arrangement” that will allow these songs to be performed and recorded as a longer, multi-movement cycle. Rounder Songs includes traditional melodies and folk legends from Kentucky and West Virginia that tell the stories of several “rounders”: rural drifters including a gambler, a murderer, and a mill laborer who strikes a deal with the devil. I will compose the final piece independently, drawing on a banjo tune from West Virginia, Three Forks of Hell.

Rounder Songs is a synthesis of stylistic and cultural worlds that move me deeply. I draw on my training as a classical singer, songwriter, old-time musician and ethnomusicologist. I place classical and old-time traditions on a level playing field, rather that subsuming one within the other. My collaboration with Patrick Burke and NOW Ensemble has generated energetic dialogue about “faithfulness” to the performance expectations of each genre. I have worked to create pieces that honor both traditions: using a written score while conserving the emergent quality of oral tradition; showcasing the unique language of the clawhammer banjo while also stretching its harmonic boundaries; and grounding myself in the sonic detail of field recordings of musicians such as Sherman Hammons, Maggie Hammons, Roscoe Holcomb, Addie Graham and Arthur D. Johnson.

In the final phase of Rounder Songs, I will write a six minute instrumental piece for voice, banjo and NOW Ensemble which will be recorded and debuted during NOW Ensemble’s  2016-2017 season. My goal is to bring together the sounds of 21st century post-minimalist classical music and North American old-time, contributing to new stylistic territory within indie-classical music.

Project Media

Red Rocking Chair
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Red Rocking Chair (2013) for voice, banjo and NOW Ensemble (flute, clarinet, electric guitar, piano and bass) (5:00)
Compositional arrangement by Emily Pinkerton and Patrick Burke (equal partnership in the creation of the piece). Based on field recordings of the Hammons Family of Pocahontas County, West Virginia.
Performed by Emily Pinkerton and NOW Ensemble at the Andy Warhol Music as part of the Music on the Edge Series (University of Pittsburgh).

Darling Corey
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Darling Corey (2013) for voice, banjo and NOW Ensemble (2:30)
Compositional arrangement by Emily Pinkerton. Based on field recordings of Addie Graham and Roscoe Holcomb of eastern Kentucky.
Performed by Emily Pinkerton and NOW Ensemble at the Andy Warhol Music as part of the Music on the Edge Series (University of Pittsburgh).

Cinco Veces, “Five Times”
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Features: Emily Pinkerton

Cinco Veces (2012) for voice, guitars, fiddle and banjo (4:30)
Original composition in the style of a Chilean tonada and American old-time reel, performed and arranged by Emily Pinkerton.

Start and End Dates



Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania

2 updates
Last update on November 29, 2017

Associated Event

November 30, 2017 | Brooklyn, NY
Archived Events

Project Created By

Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania
My driving force as a composer, songwriter and ethnomusicologist is to build bridges across cultural divides through music. The study of history and language is enmeshed with my creative impulse, and my work of the past ten years has been in dialogue with folk music communities in North and South America. Whether in subtle or…

In Collaboration With

New York, New York
Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania


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