Edith Gawler and Bennett Konesni strumming away at Sylvester Manor. Photo by Brian Halweil
Article Written By Annette Hinkle
Husband and wife Bennett Konesni and Edith Gawler are not only partners in life, they are also partners in music.
Gawler, a fiddle and banjo player, grew up in a musical family in Maine and is a member of the legendary Gawler Family Band. Konesni grew up in North Carolina and Maine, the son of an avid bluegrass aficionado.
“My dad was an insufferable fiddle fan, so all we did was listen to North Carolina fiddle music,” recalls Konesni. “If it wasn’t North Carolina fiddle music, it wasn’t music. He was a fiddle snob.”
Konesni is also co-founder of the 243-acre Sylvester Manor educational farm on Shelter Island, a property which has been in his family since 1652. Gawler is currently studying to becoming an architect — a skill which comes in handy on a 350-year-old plantation farm.
Together, they make quite a team and are living in harmony…literally.
Konesni and Gawler divide their time between Maine and Sylvester Manor where he oversees strategic planning and leads special projects while she manages the website and produces art and design materials for the organization. As musicians, they teach worksongs to the crew (a specialty of Konesni who has traveled the world studying and collecting indigenous music) and direct the manor’s annual fall “Plant & Sing” festival during which the community turns out to complete two week’s worth of garlic shucking and planting in a single morning (singing all the while, of course.)
On Friday, January 31, Edith & Bennett, as they call themselves on the performing circuit, kick off The Lounge, a new music series at the Parrish Art Museum in Water Mill — and for this show, no garlic planting is required.
Konesni and Gawler first met in 2007 (the year Konesni became involved in Sylvester Manor) at Maine Fiddle Camp which the Gawler family helped start. Konesni was there to teach the indigenous fiddling songs of Tanzanian farmers. Within a year, the pair realized they had a bond and a skill set which made them incredibly compatible not only in music, but in life’s challenges — including those required to create a vision for the next phase of Sylvester Manor.
“There was a ton of simpatico,” recalls Konesni. “Edith’s got this incredible aesthetic sense. It was very soon after we met that she helped me imagine what Sylvester Manor could look like and be like. She had a great desire to help flesh out this monstrous challenge, which is just what you want — someone with a fresh and different take.”
“People think that farms are backwards, and farmers are slow and stupid,” he adds. “But great farms like those in Maine and on the East End have a tremendous amount of design and beauty in the every day,” adds Konesni. “The buildings, the tools and the fields themselves — they’re designed landscapes. To have someone like Edith to partner with totally bumps up my game.”
When you come from a family as musical as the Gawlers you can imagine that bringing home a new beau can feel something like an audition. If that’s true, it’s one that Konesni easily passed when he met Gawler’s family.
“Musically, Bennett was astoundingly on the same page with our family,” says Gawler. “The folk music circle in Maine is pretty small and we all have a wonderfully good time, but with a new member it’s always interesting to see if they fit in the big picture in a small family.”
“I was amazed at Bennett’s skill, he added so much to our sound,” she says. “It’s like a hole we didn’t know was there and he was filling it in a magical way. I fell in love with him for that and many other reasons.”
One of those reasons just might be the music they now make together. While both Gawler and Konesni bring a bit of their family background and tradition to the mix, in the end, their music is a style that is all their own.
“You know how kids are like their parents, but also different? That’s how to describe our music,” says Konesni. “We do some traditional fiddle tunes and banjo numbers, but we also work up entirely different songs and tunes.”
Konesni, who plays guitar, banjo and fiddle, has Norwegian ancestry and is fascinated with Scandinavian music which he and Gawler include in their sets. They also do a rock cover by a band called Cake, as well as several worksongs that Konesni has picked up in his travels, which audiences at the Parrish show can expect to hear.
“Usually with American audiences, I do American worksongs — local indigenous worksongs from the Northeast and lumbering forestry songs, then a lot of southern songs from Georgia and Mississippi,” says Konesni. “I like to mix it up. Sometimes Edith will prod me and I’ll do one from Africa and central Asia.”
Ultimately for Konesni, the key to life (and music) is focusing on that which is close at hand.
“I’m into local things — local food, local cultural and having a sense of place in our lives and making that the foundation for a greater richness every day,” he says. “But it’s not about being close minded or narrow minded. That’s why I have some global and some local things.”
“The thing I love is cultural music and the way communities come together with it,” he adds. “I like happy music that you can teach someone or learn easily. I love the history of the tunes, the songs and the way they’re passed down.”
In that, Konesni sees echoes of Sylvester Manor — the idea of passing down that which is worth saving while leaving behind traditions that are best forgotten.
“Sylvester Manor has both and so does traditional music,” he says.
And along the way, Gawler and Konesni have discovered their own sound and Gawler explains that as a duo, she and her husband can pull of things musically that would not be possible with the six member family band.
“Two people on stage can really get into details and the complexities of the music or the harmony,” she explains. “We can play with tempo and all the elements of music much more nimbly than you can with a big group.”
“Often we’ll be aware where we’re headed,” she adds. “It’s this fun little game we play on stage — we’ll get quiet and change the whole mood of a song in an instant.”