Violinist-composer creates songs and fiddle tunes to accompany historic film of Piedmont life in the mid-20th century

Duke Performances hosted a six-day residency with acclaimed composer, singer, and violinist Jenny Scheinman during the spring of 2015. It culminated with the sold-out world premiere of Kannapolis: A Moving Portrait, a piece commissioned by Duke Performances. For the work, Scheinman composed new folk songs and fiddle music to accompany H. Lee Waters' films of life in the Piedmont in the early 1940s. Joined by multi-instrumentalists Robbie Fulks and Robbie Gjersoe, Scheinman performed her suite of music in Reynolds Theater as the film was screened.

Waters was an itinerant and enterprising photographer and filmmaker based in North Carolina. To make his Movies of Local People he would visit a town and shoot candid footage of the residents. After he assembled a movie he would return to the town, where, for the price of a ticket, townspeople could see themselves on the screen, usually for the very first time. A large collection of his films is housed in Duke’s David M. Rubenstein Rare Book & Manuscript Library and also available online. For Kannapolis, clips drawn from the archive were stitched together by film director Finn Taylor.

While in residence, Scheinman and her collaborators participated in a variety of engagements with the Duke and Durham communities, including: a visit to Margaret Sartor’s “Photography in Context” class, in which Scheinman discussed her experience creating a new work incorporating archival materials; a brown-bag lunch at the Center for Documentary Studies, in which she described her process in creating the new project; a visit to Robert Zimmerman’s “Songwriter’s Vocabulary” class, in which she discussed her work as a composer and songwriter and offered feedback to students who shared their own songs; and a public conversation moderated by Tom Rankin, in which Scheinman and Finn Taylor discussed the experience of working with Waters’ films and with each other.

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Jenny Scheinman gesturing to student with a guitar
Robert Zimmerman

Scheinman coaching a student in the Songwriter's Vocabulary class.

Kannapolis is the second installment in Duke Performances’ From the Archives initiative, in which performing artists create works engaging archival materials from the Rubenstein Library (the first project, Corduroy Roads, by guitarist William Tyler, drew on photographs from the Civil War). The collaborations raise public awareness of the library's rich, multifaceted collections while providing artists with compelling material for new works. The Waters archive is an incredible window into North Carolina history. With its contemporary evocation of the traditional sounds of the region, Scheinman's music brings this parade of humanity from the past into conversation with the present.