October 15, 2012

Man of Many Genres

by Jim Newsom

When Edgar Meyer first appeared on recordings in the mid-1980s, he was one of a group of young, bluegrass-inflected musicians who were pushing the boundaries of instrumental music beyond the parameters of then-defined genres. There was no name for what they were doing, though labels such as “newgrass” and “new acoustic” were applied, and they were also lumped in with the “new age” movement exemplified by Windham Hill. I had no idea what to call their music, but I liked it a lot.

“We gravitated toward each other,” Meyer explained to me in a recent call from his home in Nashville. “There was a really nice talent pool in the instrumental side of bluegrass at that time. I had become aware of Sam Bush and Jerry Douglas and Bela Fleck and Mark O’Connor. It was very stimulating. Each person came from a different place. Sam had been around for maybe fifteen years before that and he had already changed things; nobody had ever played like Sam. It was a combination of a bluegrass and a rock esthetic, a different kind of energy level. And most importantly, there was a precision and depth to the rhythmic side of his playing that had never happened before and really hasn’t happened since. It just changes the way that people play together. You play better than you’ve ever played.

“Each of the other people was unique so we learned a lot from each other.”

Meyer, who comes to Hampton Roads for a three-concert weekend with the Virginia Symphony, October 26-28, would go on to expand and redefine the role of the acoustic bass in bluegrass, country and classical music, and continue to bust through boundaries with his performances and compositions. He has been playing the instrument since he was five, learning from his dad.

“My father was a jazz player first,” he said. “But he had some challenges in his twenties learning to read and to use a bow. It kind of embarrassed him that he’d be in an orchestra and wouldn’t be sure when to come in. So he prioritized that I learn to read and to use a bow right when I started. He would play duets with me every day so I would be an independent reader.

“I didn’t play much on the bass that wasn’t classical until we got a piano in the house, and then I played a lot of jazz on the piano while my father played bass. My interest in bluegrass and old-time traditional came along when I was fourteen, fifteen, sixteen. It was three things: I heard the music and I loved it. I also perceived that for my instrument, the bass, there was a chance for a more natural dialogue than I could have in jazz acoustically because the drums and horns and piano drown the bass out so effectively, whereas if I play with mandolin, guitar, banjo, violin, we can all play soft or loud and the blends are more natural. The third reason was that I was attracted to that talent pool and wanted to be around it.”

He spent time in Nashville studios recording with Lyle Lovett, Travis Tritt, Mary Chapin Carpenter, Roseanne Cash, James Taylor and Faith Hill. But it’s been a while:

“I was never that personally connected to country music. It was good for me to be involved in some sessions when I was younger. I learned something from them and it was fun. But my main interest is instrumental music, leaning towards complex instrumental music. My stronger attachment is to the bluegrass community, which is really a subset of country music. I actually don’t know what they do in country music now.”

These days, he says, “I wouldn’t know where to put myself. I am probably a little more of an expert in classical music than anything else. But my real interest is music, and it’s not confined to one particular aspect or style.”

The concert with the Virginia Symphony is being billed as “Edgar Meyer Plays Meyer,” and the feature is his Bass Concerto No. 3.

“For the piece I’m playing in Virginia” he said, “I made a decision that I would base it on a short melody which used each of the twelve notes once. So technically, kind of a twelve-tone piece, but it’s very tonal and not at all like what you’d usually associate with that. Eighty percent of the harmony is generated through twelve-tone means. It was something that I’d been edging toward but I’d never committed to, so it was a learning process. Lots of pieces I’ve written have had some element that I’ve wanted to learn about, and the best way to learn about something is just to do it.

“One thing that people are going to notice—a fun fact—is that it’s an expanded woodwind section. There are thirteen woodwinds where I would normally use eight. I’ve got four different sizes of clarinets: E-flat, the high one; B-flat, the normal; and a bass clarinet and a contrabass clarinet, which is an octave below bass clarinet. That opens up a lot of possibility when the orchestra’s playing. And I’ve also got four flutes: piccolo, regular concert flute, alto and bass flutes. The alto and the bass are fun in the way they interact with my instrument because they are soft and dark, and they’re the only instruments that can get under me. And also contrabassoon, so it’s a woodwind party!

“The violins kind of have the day off—they’re not real busy. I didn’t even realize it until I’d finished the piece. I think what I was trying to do was to find things that would complement and contrast my instrument, and other bowed things didn’t do that as much. The violins play a little here and there, but not a lot. So that defines the sound.”

Edgar Meyer with the Virginia Symphony
Oct. 26 – Ferguson Center, 8:00 pm
Oct. 27 – Chrysler Hall, 8:00 pm
Oct. 28 – Sandler Center, 2:30 pm

copyright © 2012 Jim Newsom. All Rights Reserved.