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Montana Violinist Duets With The Prairie, Retired Air Force Structures In New Solo Album

Megan Karls sits with her violin against a concrete wall covered in spray painted graffiti.
Megan Karls
Megan Karls was awarded CARES funding from Montana Arts Council for her solo violin album “Decommissioned.”

As a member of the Cascade Quartet of the Great Falls Symphony, Megan Karls is used to playing her violin with other people, for other people. But when the coronavirus pandemic closed concert halls last year, she embarked on a solo project.

“I've never had to live life without playing my violin for people, and I needed to keep doing that somehow,” Karls said.

Karls started searching out new places to perform in some unexpected venues — like decommissioned Air Force buildings. She was drawn to the acoustics in a now retired defense structure.

“It's in the middle of this wheat field, 30 minutes outside of Conrad, just on a road that almost nobody goes to,” Karls explained.

She first explored the site’s empty concrete rooms a few weeks before her performance routine was upended. It was here, with a friend, when she first thought about the venue’s potential.

“He also happened to be a musician and we were in there and we noticed that the acoustics were pretty amazing, but joked about, ‘Oh, we should have a concert here, but who's going to drive all the way out here?’”

Turns out Karls herself would return later that summer to do a solo recording of Bach’s "Allemande."

“I thought this was a unique opportunity to actually have time to dig into a solo project,” Karls said. “I chose a solo repertoire I've always loved and then collaborated with composers that I admire.

For her album titled “Decommissioned,” she chose four locations along Montana’s Hi-Line to record 8 tracks. It features works by three, living composers, two of whom are Montana-based, along with a selection of pieces by Bach.

“So the last movement of the Bach 'D Minor Partita' is incredibly famous as this masterwork in the violin literature,” Karls said as she described the "Chaconne."

Karls says the "Chaconne" was the most challenging piece to pull off. She recorded it in an old chapel that was once part of the Glasgow Air Force Base.

Megan Karls stands, playing violin, against a wall of semi-opaque windows. Rows of pews stretch before her in the foreground.
Megan Karls performed the Chaconne in the sanctuary of a nondenominational chapel that was formerly part of the Glasgow Air Force Base.

“It’s actually 15 minutes long. And it's just held up in our violin culture as one of the biggest pieces that we have,” Karls said.

She did the "Chaconne" in one take — an incredible feat in and of itself. The sanctuary where she recorded was “magically pristine” Karls explained, even though a tree had fallen on the chapel’s roof. This added to the recording experience.

“You know, I think that folks who are in the field will notice that it's very different from your typically engineered recording, and I have to be okay with that, because I don't think that is even the point,” Karls said.

The point was to challenge herself and continue growing as a violinist. Her next location was a radar station on the outskirts of Cut Bank, Montana, 30 miles south of the Canadian border.

“There were a lot of birds and then because the prairie grass had gotten so long, you could hear that,” Karls said.

It was a windy day and the vast, green prairie was the backdrop at this location. She decided to incorporate the landscape and perform Bach’s Sarabande outside.

“Well what was so awesome about Sarabande is that the piece starts like fairly calmly. A Sarabande is a stately dance,” Karls explained. “And then it all builds to a particular climax with this really piquant chord, that more dissonant chord happened to be exactly when the wind picked up.”

She pressed her bow against the strings and leaned into the wind, which gave her an appreciation for the prairie’s voice.

“I know that this isn't what happened, but it almost felt like the prairie was listening and they wanted to sing along, the grasses and the wind. I think the prairie doesn't get enough credit for how incredibly beautiful and incredibly powerful it is,” Karls said.

Olivia Weitz covers Bozeman and surrounding communities in Southwest Montana for Yellowstone Public Radio. She has reported for Northwest News Network and Boise State Public Radio and previously worked at a daily print newspaper. She is a graduate of the University of Puget Sound and the Transom Story Workshop.