Oppenlander, Mark

By Dominick A. Miserandino,
Mark Oppenlander of the classical, new age group One Alternative talks about his unique music with guitar and oboe, music theory and how the internet has affected his career.

MO) The first song I wrote is called "Greenlawn." It was originally just a chord progression that I was happy with. I remember playing it for a friend in college, and she said that she missed a melody. I had never written a melody before that I liked, so I let it go for a while. The year after I got out of school, I began to play with an oboist named Jill Haley. I decided to try to write that elusive melody. I knew it had to be out there in the music universe, and so I worked at it--and it slowly came to me. When Jill played it for the first time against the chords, I knew that something special had happened. "Greenlawn" became the title cut of our first recording as One Alternative.

DM) What was it about the melody that made it so hard to write?

MO) The piece is in 3/4 (6/8) time with chords changing every measure (Em- A- G- D- Bm - C- D and back). I knew what notes could be good used to link the chords; but there are so many roads a melody can take, and the trick is to find one that goes somewhere interesting. When I first started, I found this to be a big challenge and it still is.

DM) You don't believe in the usual I- IV- V progression?

MO) Actually, I love those chords in that sequence, but a listener can get tired of that. To make it interesting, I'd either drop in a substitute chord or change the meter around. That way it still has the familiar flavor but with a twist.

DM) Where did the name of the band come from?

MO) The name One Alternative came from co-founding member Frank McDermott. Basically, it comes down to the thought that our sound is one alternative to whatever different sounds one would want to listen to. We founded the group in 1983, before the alternative music scene took hold. For a time in the late '80's and early '90's, I had to be careful to explain that our music was not "alternative." That would be interesting to hear coming from an oboe and two acoustic guitars.

DM) What first inspired you to start in music?

MO) My initial inspiration was when I was growing up with Beatles' music. I was three years old when the Beatles became popular in the United States. My parents loved the Beatles, so I was exposed to them regularly and was immediately transfixed by their music and personalities. It looked like I was going to be a drummer. I knew every nuance of Ringo Starr's drumming; but when I turned seven, I saw my father playing the guitar and decided I'd like a go at it. I took lessons, and it was only Beatles music I would want to learn. That was how it started, and I still find myself enamored by their work.

DM) What do you think made the Beatles music so influential in the world?

MO) The Beatles had a very special chemistry. Each member contributed so much creativity in different ways. They were able to blend these different ideas from different directions better than anyone in pop music. They would always search for something new, something fresh that kept their creative juices flowing. I would say that their charisma as human beings also helped spread the word about their music. They crossed over so many boundaries, musically and socially; they were much more than a pop music group. The greatest thing is that they were just themselves; they were the real thing and that transcended it all.

DM) Speaking of charisma, do you think it comes across that you and Jill have a "special bond" and that it affects the way the music comes across to your audience?

MO) The trio as a whole is a special bond. Len Doyle joined Jill and me six years ago this month, and when he joined, we realized that that was the missing link that sealed the package. When the group is playing and the sound is right, plus when the elements seem to be in place, I know it comes across to the audience that something special is happening. If I could freeze those periods of time, when it feels just perfect to be playing the music, I'd be content permanently.

DM) Have you ever been criticized for the setup of the group?

MO) Most of the time I am asked why we don't have vocals. I happen to gravitate more towards instrumental music. I would feel self-conscious writing lyrics, and also it's a great challenge to write an interesting piece of purely instrumental music. Some have asked why we don't use flute. Well, Jill happens to play oboe and English horn, which is more unusual, plus she writes wonderful music, too. She and I have a special bond that has withstood the test of time. The second guitar is important in that it plays polyphonically and can be percussive like a drum set, and this helps give the punch that some of our pieces have. It's a very versatile instrument. We have added percussion and bass on occasion, but it's a lot of work to get the music tight--and the gigs aren't plentiful enough for us to make the effort to have a five-piece,continually.

DM) What are you doing to increase gigs?

MO) The Internet is a big help. There is a lot of information to sort through, but it's great, especially with e-mail. People who have computers on during the day tend to like e-mailing more than using the phone. I even landed a gig, opening for the Steve Morse Band in Philadelphia earlier this year, just by e-mailing his management. That was a real coup! Next to the Beatles, Steve's band, the Dixie Dregs, is a major influence and inspiration to me.


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