“At its heart, our music is an intimate conversation between two instruments,” describes Alisa Rose, a GRAMMY-nominated violinist. Her conversational partner is Tristan Scroggins, an acclaimed mandolinist and second generation bluegrass virtuoso. Inspired by folk traditions and classical precision, Scroggins & Rose ‘speak’ a fresh stringed dialect on their latest album, Curios (released June 26), crafting a musical soundscape that is both familiar and startlingly complex. Lyrical phrases arch between the soaring sounds of classical violin and the spirited bowing of American fiddle. Rhythms bounce between the chopping drive of bluegrass chords and the muted space of a fingerpicked mandolin.
“I wanted to write music that made other people feel the way that music has inspired me to feel,” Scroggins explains. Rose agrees, saying, “We weren’t trying to combine the two genres. That’s just our voice. That’s just us speaking from the vast influences in our heads. When you let go of the box you think you must fit in, you are free to explore all these different edges of color, textures, and sounds.” Curios’ original compositions capture that exploration, driven by the duos’ technical expertise and disciplined dedication to traditional music.
The compositions reflect a unique creative process shaped by circumstance: the duo is based two-thousand miles apart. Nashville-based Scroggins traveled to the Bay area every couple of months for a “Scroggins & Rose bootcamp,” as he laughingly refers to it. For one week, the two instrumentalists would lock themselves away for hours a day – practicing for performances, improvising tunes, and exploring unexpected composition prompts like “Top 40 pop songs.”
At night, Scroggins & Rose would perform their “boot camp” creations at dozens of house concerts, asking audience members to complete surveys about what songs they liked, what the songs made them feel, and even what songs should go on the album. The result is an album whose emotive arcs are approachable, and yet surprising. The upbeat, playful track “Bubblicious” was written in response to an Ariana Grande song. “French Cowboy” is inspired by the colorful sonics of French Impressionism and the duo’s experience with traditional Western American music.
Commissioned by Larry Stromberg, “I Know I Can Fix It” responds to documentary interviews with women at St. Stephen’s Food Pantry in Wilmington, Delaware. The contrasting violin and mandolin represent determined resistance and hope in the face of seemingly insurmountable life challenges: while the mandolin pushes on determinedly, the violin interjects mournful, bowed utterances. Scroggins & Rose’s interactive approach and sensitive arrangements present strong emotions, using rich, affecting acoustic sounds to tell meaningful stories.
Curios showcases world-class performances with a conversational approach, revealing both dynamic emotional range and stunning virtuosity. “Being a duo, there’s only so much that you can do. We’ve had to push the boundaries of what would be normal for our instruments to get that rich, fuller sound,” Tristan explains. “Our producer Wes Corbett challenged us to go out of our comfort zones with different rhythms and textures. I knew I had time to discover and master new techniques, so I wasn’t afraid to push the difficulty, get right to the edge in order to get the right color.”
Curios’ compositional focus transforms the album’s sensitive arrangements into meaningful stories. “French Cowboy” creates an ethereal world where Claude Debussy dreams of becoming a cowboy. The haunting “Stellar Sea” track combines the technical challenge of counterpoint composition with two powerful melodies inspired by the emotional conflict and uncertainty of a cancer diagnosis; listeners follow along as the competing melodic realities eventually weave into one resolved voice in the face of adversity.
Curios represents Scroggins & Rose’s evolution from playful improvisation to carefully crafted storytelling. As Rose describes, “The goal of our music is to make people really feel a part of it. We’ve loved having them come with us on our creative process, to comment and influence the music as we crafted it. It helped to give a feeling to our music, one that we hope is approachable, yet closely personable.” Curios is an intimate conversation between two musicians and listeners are invited to join; it’s a type of hopeful connection that couldn’t come at a better time.
The digital release of Curios will include “Living Room Edition” bonus tracks. During the era of COVID-19, in which the communal experience of live music is at odds with social distancing measures, Scroggins & Rose want to recreate the cozy intimacy of a house concert. This bonus material features commentary on the stories behind the tunes, which Scroggins & Rose enjoy discussing with their live audiences. While the venues are closed, Scroggins & Rose hope listeners will enjoy the conversation from the comfort of their own homes.