Helicon Founder, Kolodner Maintains Hopkins Connection Mike Giuliano ----------------------------- Special to The Gazette If the conventional wisdom has it that graduate school is no time to be fiddling around, don't tell that to Ken Kolodner. Playing the fiddle helped Kolodner relax while studying for the doctoral degree in public health he received from Hopkins in 1985. Having taught himself to play the fiddle, he went on to teach himself the hammer dulcimer. And somewhere along the way, a career in public service made way for a career in public performance when he became a founding member of the Baltimore-based--but widely touring--folk music trio Helicon. But even as his professional music career took off during the past decade, Kolodner never severed his Hopkins ties. "I'm a permanent hired gun who helps out with data analysis and the writing of articles," he says of his consulting work. There was little in Kolodner's background to predict things would turn out this way. He showed no particular aptitude for music. In fact, the formal piano lessons he took at 9 years old didn't stick. Outdoor games were more enjoyable. "I didn't know anything about the fiddle other than that I liked listening to the music," he says. "I pulled one out of a closet and started scratching away. I was in graduate school, and I began playing with other folks at school during happy hour. The music was really just a side thing I did." He was just as casual about his introduction to the hammer dulcimer in 1981. "I just thought playing it looked like a lot of fun. I thought 'I could do that.' It looked like a relaxing thing to do, just banging away and so I started out just bashing away," the 41-year-old Kolodner says. Playing for his own pleasure led to casual gigs and then to the realization that public health and public performances could co-exist. "The two together seemed reasonable to me. I liked the analytical side of research and the creative side of music, operating in two different worlds. At Hopkins, there are so many good musicians lurking in the woodwork," he notes. His music career expanded in 1983 when he teamed up with the flute player Chris Norman, who received a classical music education at the Peabody Conservatory and Indiana University. Then the duo became a trio with the 1986 addition of Robin Bullock, who plays the guitar, cittern, fiddle and piano. And the threesome gave itself the name Helicon in honor of the mountain where the nine muses reside in Greek mythology. They quickly made a name for themselves locally, including many Hopkins-affiliated performances, and started to tour nationally. By now, Helicon has performed everywhere from the Great Black Swamp Dulcimer Festival in Lima, Ohio, to the International Hammer Dulcimer Festival in Munich, Germany. They've been heard on media outlets including National Public Radio and the Voice of America. And they can always be heard on seven recordings. Local audiences sometimes only get a chance to hear them at their annual winter solstice concert. Traditionally held at Goucher College, the event became so popular that in recent years Helicon has had to add a second show. Last year's shows drew a total of 1,700 folk music fans. That popularity prompted the shift in venue, with their 10th annual winter solstice concert slated for a single performance at the Meyerhoff Symphony Hall. Always known for its eclectic taste, these instrumentalists love nothing more than to discover the folk music of countries around the globe. You're likely to hear everything from a Polish polka to a Haitian Christmas carol as the group ventures, as Kolodner puts it, "ever and ever further out." Because many people automatically associate traditional folk music with Ireland, Helicon, in its early days, sometimes avoided it entirely in order to introduce listeners to the wider world of folk music. The group now includes Irish tunes with the mix of selections from many countries. But it does not take a purist approach to the playing of this music. "If we're doing a South American piece, we don't try to sound like a South American band. We play it in our own style," Kolodner says. "South Americans can tell it's South American music, but they also can tell we've Americanized it. We're three white guys from Baltimore playing their music. We're sort of bold and just go ahead and do it." Although he discusses his musical and public health careers as separate entities, and doesn't force comparisons between them, it does seem as if the creative curiosity expressed through his musical explorations somehow complements the intellectual curiosity satisfied by his Hopkins-related work. And it also seems as if the happy music he plays is guaranteed to lift the spirit after a day spent analyzing such unhappy public health issues as domestic violence, adolescent health, smoking in pregnancy, asthma and occupational health. A project on sudden infant death syndrome and autopsy rates in America, to which he contributed, was published in USA Today in 1993 and won a Pulitzer Prize for national reporting. In any event, Kolodner says, "it's hard to pursue two careers at the same time. Touring and trying to get work done is tough. I've taken the laptop (computer) with me and punched in numbers and written papers in hotel rooms. And with two careers side by side, the thing I regret is that I wish I'd had more time to practice and to learn more new music." So Kolodner is now giving himself that kind of time. Within the past year, Helicon has been on the road less and in Baltimore more. The group performed 100 concerts in 1993, but has deliberately whittled its 1995 total down to around 40 concerts. All three members wanted to spend more time with family, teaching and solo music projects. "I'm staying home much more, and the group is not touring as much as we had. I wanted to be home more with my family," Kolodner says as his 5-year-old son, Bradley, and 3-year-old daughter, Hillary, climb on top of him. At such a moment, it is impossible to either play the hammer dulcimer or punch data into a computer.
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