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Previewing Dixon’s Violin at Dafmark Dance Theater

Photo by Aaron Lingenfelter

Dixon Hammond is a seeker. The violinist will appear in concert at Dafmark Dance Theater on October 1 as Dixon’s Violin. Hammond, 51, plays what he calls “visionary violin,” but though Dixon’s Violin is just Hammond and his five-string electric violin, the music is multilayered and textural thanks to an array of pedals, electronic looping effects and music software that he wrote for his own use. It’s also completely live and in the moment; Hammond doesn’t use pre-recorded backing tracks or samples. He is fond of introducing musical numbers by telling audiences that they are about to hear “something that has not been created yet.”

While the music for Dixon’s Violin is improvised, it’s not exactly jazz, and while Hammond’s technique was honed through years of classical violin lessons and polished as a section player in symphony orchestras, this doesn’t sound like European concert music. Meditative and easy on the ear, the music of Dixon’s Violin exists in a place where New Age ethereality, trancelike jams and hazy spirituality meet.

That place sounds a lot like the outdoor music festivals with names such as Electric Forest, Luminaria, Bliss Fest, and Tribal Connection, where Hammond is a regular performer. For ten consecutive years, he was a mainstay at Nevada’s legendary Burning Man festival, the place where his current musical career was born in 2005.

Photo by Dan Land

“It was my first crack-open experience that changed my life,” Hammond told me by phone from one of his tour stops last month. “I was for the first time looking around at people that were actually living deeply and people that were expressing and emoting and feeling in a way that I realized that I wasn’t, and it just blew my mind to witness. I started to shift my priorities and part of that was musically. I started to do something that terrified me at the time, which was improvising.”

A violin student since age 10, Hammond played in school orchestras and in Michigan’s Midland Symphony, a professional orchestra. Though he wasn’t a full-time musician, Hammond’s successful career writing code for technology firms allowed him to pursue music at a high level. But over time, his rigid classical training and reliance on written music became what he called “a safety net, this crutch that I had, and yet I kind of faced my fears and just started experimenting, musically. At first that was just scratching away at the violin in weird ways, and soon I  started sitting in with anybody that would have me: rock bands and jazz bands, klezmer, DJs, playing electronic music, gypsy jazz. Oftentimes, they couldn’t even read music, and yet they were brilliant, brilliant musicians, and just could get into a flow. And so I started to flow.”

The flow led Hammond to his current setup of an electric violin (“to be heard over drums”) and various pedals and effects that enable the billowing textures and clouds of harmony that are his musical signatures. It was a sound that was well received on the festival circuit, which was where he met Jennifer Dennehy.

Photo by Matt Mead

“The first time I encountered Dixon Hammond’s music was seeing him perform live at a flow arts festival called Return to Roots Gathering in eastern Pennsylvania in 2013,” Dennehy said by phone from Erie, Pennsylvania where she is a performer with Dafmark Dance Theater and the company’s general manager. In 2014, at the Spin Summit in Colorado, another flow arts retreat, Dennehy said, “I was able to have conversations with Dixon, who was very accessible . . . and it prompted me to want to create movement to [his music].” Dennehy incorporates hoops into some of her performances and choreographed pieces that used Hammond’s music with the composer’s permission. Last year she was able to use grant funding to license a composition of Hammond’s for a piece that she and Dafna Rathouse Baier choreographed using a Cyr Wheel, a large metal hoop, which creates looping and spinning movements.

“In letting [Hammond]  know that I was going to be sending him some funds for using his music, he reached out asking if there was anywhere in Erie, that would be a good venue for him [to perform],” Dennehy said. “My first thought besides outdoor places was Dafmark because it seated exactly the number of people in the space that he was looking for.”

Hammond might have played more gigs during last year’s lockdown–he estimates the number at 130–than any working musician. His Erie appearance is part of a long summer tour of the East and Midwest. “It’s like a van tour, but I do it out of my Prius, so I guess it’s a Prius tour,” he said. “One minute, I’ll be playing in a warehouse, and the next minute, I’m playing in a yoga studio, and the next minute and playing in a park. The next minute, I’m playing in some massive concert hall or in somebody’s backyard, and then I’ll be playing at a festival in front of thousands of people with lasers. I love my life. The variety is beautiful,” he said. “My life’s mission is to inspire people. That’s why I’m doing this. It’s not to be a musician. I’m not doing this to make money. Oh my gosh, I’d go back to tech if I really wanted to do that.”

Dixon’s Violin will appear in concert October 1, 8 p.m. at Dafmark Dance Theater, 1033 State St., Erie, Pennsylvania. Doors open at 7 p.m. Advance tickets $20, $25 at the door are available here. Children 12 and under are free.