For Jennifer Cutting, a Sea Change

By Richard Harrington
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, February 10, 2006

About halfway through last year's Washington Area Music Awards, composer/conductor/keyboardist/accordionist Jennifer Cutting was admittedly disappointed, even after a rare and rousing performance by her Ocean Orchestra of material from "Ocean: Songs for the Night Sea Journey."

Released the previous year, that album was a decade-in-the-making, transatlantic project melding Anglo and Celtic folk with prog-rock and classical sounds, electric and acoustic instruments, and sea-inspired songs exploring themes of transition, transformation and transcendence. Ambitious didn't begin to describe it.

"When Ocean Orchestra didn't get best traditional folk duo/group, I started to pack up, thought that was it for the evening, that it was the only one we would have got," Cutting recalls. "And though it was great getting the opportunity to perform, it was time to go."

Good thing Cutting stuck around: She ended up sweeping the major Wammie awards, five in all: musician and songwriter of the year and best new artist, as well as album of the year and best contemporary folk recording for "Ocean."

"When they started rolling in, I was like a deer in the headlights," Cutting says. "I was stunned because these awards don't normally go to studio moles. Yes, I lead the group, but I'm very shy, don't like to do the talking. I'm loath to be the front person. Big awards going to an invisible, behind-the-scenes producer/arranger/researcher/detail worker type? I couldn't process it at all, to think that awards would go to my species!"

Cutting will lead the Ocean Orchestra in a performance Thursday at the BlackRock Center for the Arts in Germantown, and various Orchestra members are up for Wammies at the 20th annual Wammie Awards on Feb. 20 at the State Theatre in Falls Church. Maybe this year the Ocean Orchestra will win for contemporary folk duo/group. Cutting is up for contemporary folk instrumentalist, Lisa Moscatiello for contemporary folk vocalist, Grace Griffith and Chris Noyes for traditional folk vocalist, and guitarist/bouzouki player Zan McLeod for traditional folk instrumentalist; all also perform solo and with other groups. (For a complete list of Wammie nominees and performers, visit and click on Wammies.)

In truth, Cutting isn't a total stranger to awards. Until 1996, she was director, composer, arranger and performer with Washington's the New St. George, one of the most significant British folk-rock ensembles on this side of the Atlantic and winner of 15 Wammies. But when that band broke up over musical differences, it ended a decade-long association with its lead singer, Moscatiello, and began a troubled time for Cutting.

"I lost my best friend, and my voice, because I'm not a singer," Cutting says. "I fell off the high wire, lost my nerve. I couldn't show my face or get on a stage. I just crumbled and couldn't come back."

Cutting, who had a degree in orchestral and choral conducting and a master's in ethnomusicology, continued to work as a folk music specialist in the Library of Congress's Archive of Folk Culture ("I'm surrounded by great source material, which finds its way onto my records and the stages I play on") but seemed to disappear from the local music scene.

In fact, Cutting was quietly putting together her album, using eight studios in three countries and working with a stellar mix of British musicians (Maddy Prior of Steeleye Span, Dave Mattacks of Fairport Convention) and local ones, among them Griffith, John Jennings, Blake Althen, and Moscatiello -- she and Cutting reconciled after an impromptu reunion at the Takoma Park Folk Festival.

"Between the plane trips, paying the session musicians over in the U.K., renting studios, I was only able to afford maybe one cut per year," Cutting explains. "It took me 10 years to do the darn thing. It's nuts to do the kind of recording expeditions I do -- they're expensive, they're time-consuming. But I have to do it. When I was a kid I was accused of making mountains out of molehills, and musically, professionally, that's what I do, make mountains out of molehills!"

Adds Cutting: "I have this profound thoroughness that allows me to see long, complex projects through sustained diligence and patience. It's a weird Virgo thing."

And possibly a hereditary one as well. One of Cutting's two grandfathers was Irish, the other, English; the latter was a conductor for the NBC Symphony in the 1930s. Cutting was raised in Florida by British-Indian guardians who wanted her to go to graduate school in England "because they were educated there," she says. After getting her bachelor's degree at Jacksonville University, a small, private conservatory in Florida, Cutting attended the University of London, where she studied with A.L. Lloyd, a major figure in the post-World War II English folk revival as both scholar and singer. "He gave me that feeling for the symbiosis that can exist between performance and scholarship," Cutting says.

In London, she adds, "I got spoiled hearing all this great electric folk, and I was always going out to hear Home Service, Pyewackett, the Albion Band, Fairport Convention and Steeleye Span," bands that gracefully mixed tradition and modernity. When Cutting came home and decided to settle in Washington, "I wanted to make English folk-rock, but there was no place for it, it wasn't happening. And nobody was electrifying it."

Enter the New St. George.

Which explains why it took Cutting a long time to get over its breakup. Fortunately, that process began soon after, with a song titled, aptly, "Forgiveness." A rough demo sent in by a friend earned Cutting an invitation to perform it in the prestigious song contest at North Carolina's Merlefest in 1996 -- and despite a shaky performance, she won first prize. A few years later, Steeleye Span vocalist Prior and Fairport Convention drummer Mattacks recorded the stately anthem in England, with Jennings co-producing. A demo ended up in the hands of then-Billboard editor Tim White when Cutting was invited to a music industry event on Capitol Hill, and White promptly ordered a feature in the magazine, which helped Cutting recruit others for the Ocean project.

Three years ago, Grace Griffith recorded another song originally meant for the New St. George, "The Sands of Time," (on "Ocean," it's sung by Moscatiello). When Griffith asked Cutting to play keyboards on a West Coast tour, "that was the beginning of collaboration for 'Ocean' and the first time I got back on stage. I even enjoyed it," she says.

Still, Cutting was three or four songs in before realizing that her album's central theme would be what the 16th-century Spanish monk St. John of the Cross dubbed "The Dark Night of the Soul" and psychologist Carl Jung renamed "The Night Sea Journey," a concept adopted by mythologist Joseph Campbell as part of his Hero's Journey model, specifically the "belly of the whale" (or near-death experience).

"I was reading [Campbell's] 'Hero With a Thousand Faces,' his cross-cultural analysis of the commonality of the world's myths, and read about the Hero's Journey," Cutting explains. "The Hero gets separated from the world he or she knows, is ejected into some strange, new world alone and has to make his or her way through many trials and difficulties. Someone in the form of an ally comes to their aid, gives them some sort of amulet or charm or tool to help them through the rest of their trials. And then, using all their wits, courage and everything they can summon, they finally make it back home. And when they finally get home, they're much wiser for the experience of all they've been through, and they bring that wisdom to their community.

"When I got to the chapter where Campbell was addressing a specific part, 'The Night Sea Journey,' it was 'Bing!' That's it. This is what I'm going through, and I'm going to build the rest of the album around that concept."

According to Cutting, the whole process was "as much a spiritual, psychological and emotional exercise as it was a musical assignment. Each one of those songs represented an actual stage that I went through on my way to getting back up and out there again. The songs are like a ship's log, a chronicle of the emergence."

A few years ago, Cutting was invited to give a full-scale concert at the Shepherdstown, W.Va., folk series, which she accepted "with great trepidation. I then had to figure out how to transcribe into musical notation all the layered soundscapes I'd been doing in the studio and find people to perform all this stuff I hadn't even recorded live."

And so the Ocean Orchestra was born, featuring Griffith and Moscatiello, McLeod, fiddler Dave Abe, bassist Rico Petruccelli (also ex-New St. George), drummer Chris Stewart and Highland piper Bob Mitchell. All but Griffith will be aboard at BlackRock in a program mixing "Ocean" with New St. George songs and new pan-Celtic material.

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