Edgar Meyer: Genre Bending Genius

January 22, 2015

With a new duo album and double concerto, Edgar Meyer advances his virtuosity in classical and bluegrass by exploring rhythm and melody in composition.

To begin to understand the brilliant mind of Edgar Meyer, cue up “Why Only One,” the first track on his latest duo album with mandolin maestro Chris Thile. After Thile opens the song with plaintive plucking, Meyer makes his entrance with a deeply droning, bowed ostinato, transitioning to a pizzicato, folk-meets-jazz walk before quickly returning to the bow for a fleet-fingered solo, each stroke meticulous, commanding his 1769 Italian upright like a violin. The range on display in this one song is emblematic of a man who—no surprise—has been deemed a genius by the MacArthur Foundation.

The rest of Bass & Mandolin is just as exciting, showcasing one jaw-dropping, superbly tasteful Meyer performance after another. His upright extension allows him to hit extremely low notes, his rhythmic lines dancing alongside Thile’s upper-register mandolin melodies. On songs such as “Look What I Found” and “Friday,” the two gurus create beautiful soundscapes with melancholy overtones, taking their collaborations to darker and heavier places than ever before. Meyer’s remarkable ability to bow clean lines at extreme tempos is evident on the track “Tarnation.” Although his speed and dexterity might seem astounding to listeners, they’re just two components of a multifaceted playing style he’s honed since he was a boy.

Meyer, 53, has worked with some of the most brilliant musical minds of the past century. His collaborations and arrangements with Yo-Yo Ma, Béla Fleck, Stuart Duncan, Zakir Hussain, Sam Bush, Allison Krauss, James Taylor, Wynton Marsalis, and Joshua Bell honor the music of the past while fearlessly charting the next innovative chapter of composition. To a perfectionist like Meyer, no nuance is too small to overlook and no motif too big to take on; his work ethic fuels endeavors such as the recent double concerto he composed with Bell, as well as the latest batch of solo pieces that have occupied his time between touring.

At the moment, though, Meyer is at his home in Nashville, deep in rehearsals with an ensemble consisting of his favorite collaborators: his wife Connie Heard, a professor of violin and the chair of the Strings Department at the Blair School of Music, and his son George, an accomplished violinist studying English at Harvard. The family trio is preparing to play J.S. Bach’s “Sonata No. 2 for Violin and Keyboard” at Turner Hall for the school’s 50th anniversary. Meyer is arranging the left-hand keyboard parts for the upright, while George prepares the right-hand parts for violin, which undoubtedly triggers warm nostalgia in Edgar, who—like his son—played alongside his father as a boy.

Meyer himself was only five years old when his dad, a bassist, gave him a ½-size upright so they could play duets together. Even at that age, Meyer’s young hands and ambitious mind kept up with his father, the director of the local school district’s string orchestra. Raised on the playing of Ray Brown while idolizing the brilliant works of Bach, Beethoven, and Mozart, Meyer began developing a style that merged his classical, bluegrass, jazz, and folk influences, taking the road rarely traveled by bassists steeped strictly in Western classical music.

That road has led him to writing eight acclaimed solo albums and a slew of collaborations; he has become a teacher of double bass at the prestigious Curtis Institute, and he’s won numerous awards, including five Grammys. If Meyer is happiest with a full plate, he has plenty to be excited about, right now and deep into the future.

How did you and Chris develop the songs for Bass & Mandolin?

We spent 20 days together working on it. It was very important to both of us that we each had a lot of impact on each song. In most cases, we didn’t come in with much of anything, and we would try to write things together. Chris wrote the opening for the first song, “Why Only One,” before we came together. I liked it and immediately added a lot of parts.

What kind of changes would you make?

Expanding something the other one had started was a common way to work. Occasionally we would write a few notes down, but mainly, we kept everything in our heads. Sometimes we would put parts on a sequencer so that we could talk about it without having to play the part on our instruments, but primarily we used the Memo recording function on our phones. I would come up with ideas for songs and send them to Chris; he would either give the thumbs up or tell me to try again.

How is Bass & Mandolin different from your first, self-titled album with Chris?

This time, we threw out more than we used. We didn’t criticize each other’s writing on the last one because we were trying to nurture our relationship, but now we’ve been friends long enough to be tough on each other. We didn’t take anything lightly.

Did you approach your bass tone differently on this album?

The sound is much deeper and darker. That was a result of the recording space and of me using a slightly different bow than the one I was using before. My childhood bow is screwed up and I can’t use it, but it is a bit clearer and brighter than this bow, which is a hair deeper.

You get a huge, low tone that drops down to low C’s and D’s.

I keep my instrument in the same tuning—my bottom string is an E—but I have an extension that goes down to a C. Then the next three strings are tuned up a whole-step, so my tuning is EBEA. The extension was open to C and D at different points, but I didn’t use the C# or Eb stops.

How much of the music was improvised?

There is more emphasis on the compositions and less on improvising. On tour, we shifted that balance a little more toward improvising, playing songs like “Double Rainbow Breath”—which is primarily improvised—every night, even though we didn’t include it on the album. We probably improvise about 30 percent of the music each night. We’re not living and dying on improvising, but when we can, we’re taking advantage of each of our strengths. There are parts I would have difficulty improvising on where Chris does not, and if that’s the case, I’ll lock my part in more.

What do you enjoy about working with Chris?

There are so many things that he does so well. At a young age, he learned how to make other people sound good. I don’t know anybody who does that better than him. And he can feel when you need to let loose. He’s a great singer, so he’s a pitch expert; you can lean on him for pitch and time like nobody else. You know that if he’s putting it there, that’s where it is, and there isn’t any question about it. Most of all, I value his intensity. He has a fairly maniacal devotion to music, and we share that. We’re both just interested in all aspects of it.

What appeals to you about the bass-and-mandolin sound?

I love playing with mandolin. I first started playing with mandolins when I was working with Sam Bush, and I enjoy the contrast between the bow and the plucking and between the low register of the bass and the mandolin’s highs. Mandolin produces such a high frequency that it leaves a lot of room for the bass to be a big part of the dialogue. As groups get bigger, bass players have to play simpler and do a little less, but in a duo, we’re able to keep it a dialogue, and the music is freer.

Do you prefer working in the duo format?

I like the responsibility of being part of a duo because you really have to show up. Even in trios, there can be spots where it’s a little easier to rest, but not in duos. It feels like you’re just as exposed as playing solo, and you have to take care of every note in that way. But then you also have the bonus of a complete dialogue with another human. It just leaves a lot of room and allows you to do things that wouldn’t work with four or five people. And you have to try to be as imaginative as possible, because you’re filling a space where people are used to hearing more instruments. That’s not to say you should overplay, but because one of the main difficulties is to keep a duo from being boring, creativity is at such a premium.

Your bowed solo on “El Cinco Real” sounds difficult.

For that take, I used a combination of improvisation and preplanned licks to get me through the tricky measures. On the tour I dispensed with the plans, since I knew the song better by then, and I also had Chris give me a slow seven instead of a fast seven, which made it friendlier for bass. I remember trying to add variety to the song while keeping it in the pocket and playing in different registers. It was a little too rhythmically tricky and quick for me to go any higher for that. I learned the hard way that the faster and more complex a part is, the more I should stay out of the high register.

Many of your compositions use odd time signatures. What attracts you to exploring different meters?

A lot of it comes from looking for natural beat structures; 4/4 always comes up, but so do a lot of other things. Since I was a kid, I have been convinced that there is a lot of juice outside of 4/4. It’s interesting to work with someone like Zakir Hussain, who plays in so many contexts in so many different meters, and how unbelievably natural he makes them sound. When people think about 4/4, they think about playing by feel and making music that people can move to and that’s natural, but he does exactly that through a lot of different meters. I don’t understand why everybody plays so much 4/4. It’s like English—everyone can speak it, but there might be things that you can better express in other languages.

Some of your lines have a subtle R&B pocket. Have you been influenced by electric bassists?

I’ve learned a lot from electric bass players. When I was in college, electric bass was really starting to happen, and electric bass players were doing wonderful things that upright bass players weren’t at that point. Nowadays, electric bass players influence most acoustic bass players, but it wasn’t that way 30 years ago. I think I was on the front end of that, and I knew right away that I had to have my ear out, because I could learn a lot from them.

Why do you prefer to play with a French bow?

That’s what I started with and that’s all I really know. We didn’t have any German bows in the house growing up, so I still don’t know how to use one. Even when I grab one, I just pick it up and play it like a French bow, and it doesn’t work so well for that. The good players are fairly split between both. I’ve even had a couple of students who play with both. But German bows definitely do certain things better than a French bow, and vice versa.

Do you hear tonal differences between the two?

Every bow sounds different and possesses unique characteristics. My childhood bow, which I used starting at age ten, looks to be a German bow with a French frog. I’m currently using a copy that has a similar French tip, which is smaller because I don’t like a big tip on my bow. The German bow has an easier time producing a big sound on the top string, especially at the tip of the bow, which is where a French bow can be weak. But a French bow player can learn to compensate for that early in their training. You have to make extra efforts at the things that your bow doesn’t do well. I had to work very hard from the beginning, for example, to know that I can play very strong at the tip and get a lot of leverage.

What advice would you give to someone regarding upright bowing technique?

I always say this about playing with the bow, though it applies to pizzicato, too: The right hand must guide the action. The right hand does the driving, and the left hand has to fit to the right. That’s one thing I learned late, but it has helped my approach a lot.

How much do you focus on your pizzicato technique?

I’m actually very aware of it because it’s not my primary thing. But for every five hours of playing with a bow, I’ll spend an hour playing with my fingers. I use a combination of hand positions, with my hand turned sideways at some points and downward at others. It depends on the situation. If I use a hard snap on the backbeat, it’s great for a duo but terrible for a band. What I’ve become aware of in recent years is just to be conscious of the results and not the technique itself.

What is your ideal tone?

That’s not an easy thing to summarize. Instead of going for the ideal tone in the abstract, you have to find the ideal tone for the music that you are playing. When [Austrian violinist and composer] Fritz Kriesler was asked what makes the best tone on the violin, he said it was being in tune. Bass may not be completely different.

Also, you want to make the box move. You don’t want to just hear the strings; you want to hear the box moving. That is the thing that makes acoustic bass different from electric bass. Cleanliness is important—you have to eliminate any buzzes or additional noises from your bass. Every bass sounds different, so you should find out how bright your box can get—how dark, how loud, how soft—and then work on that stuff to bring the best out of it.

You’ve been teaching at the Curtis Institute.

In 2007 I decided that it was time for me to start teaching, so I called up Juilliard and Curtis and spoke with Hal Robinson, Principal Bassist of the Philadelphia Orchestra. Our rapport was immediate. Hal and I have completely different styles of teaching, but we look at that as a benefit, because the students get two points of view. I enjoy it, and it’s very meaningful to me. It makes me feel more connected to the younger side of the music world. I tend to think about the music community in a family sense, and teaching makes me feel like I’m putting in the time to raise the kids. I’m very proud of it.

Tell me about the double concerto you recently composed.

Josh Bell and I put together a double concerto, premiered it with the Boston Symphony at Tanglewood, and played it with different symphonies in six cities. It was a significant effort. I have been learning different ways of handling intervals that come from 20th century classical music, and I was using techniques in this piece where a lot of intervals repeat in a fairly short time span, but not in quite the same order, although they are clearly related. When Josh and I play together, sometimes it sounds like a dialogue and sometimes it sounds like I’m just backing him up. That was the context for this piece.

Do you compose straight to paper, or do you find parts on your bass?

A lot is in my head, and sitting down with a piece of paper is my go-to method. If I write something down, I generally know what it is going to sound like and how it will feel on bass. Some things will be on the edge, where I’ll have to practice them for a while to see if I can play them. A high percentage of my writing is off-instrument, but I try to keep it varied. I used to write on my bass a lot when I was younger, and that’s something I want to start doing again.

What are you currently working on in your own practice?

I make up different exercises to work on each year. This summer, I was having fun starting a drone on my computer and setting it on a different note each day so that it cycled every 12 days. Then I would set up a slow beat, usually around 15 beats per minute, and I’d add ten percent each day until I got up to 60 bpm. Then I’d go back down to 15. I would use that click and drone to work on playing in time and in tune. It was an opportunity to work on all the subdivisions, so I would cycle playing through 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 12, 14, 15, and 16. I did some 27’s, too, because it’s fun to have no 2’s in there. It can be pretty tough—even playing in 4/4—to hit that beat with the click at 15 bpm, and if I’m not centered, that can get pretty hard. It felt like I was really getting something from it.

What do you love about your 1769 Gabrielli bass?

It has a very balanced quality. I notice that on a lot of other instruments, the frequencies will kind of clump up a little and you have to dial them out. This bass is balanced in its basic frequency response. It’s also super loaded on the frequencies that I love, which is something around 1.8kHz. So as much as it’s balanced, it’s kind of hot right where I want it to be. I just like the voice of the instrument, and there’s a quickness to its response that is very unusual. The clarity down on the 3rd and 4th strings enables me to do things I can’t do on a lot of basses. I am excited about every register on this instrument.

How does it feel to be heralded as one of the greats of upright bass?

It is nice to think that maybe someone is listening, but at the end of the day I’m probably just oriented toward working on whatever is right in front of me. I feel a little silly saying this, but really I just have a desire to make something beautiful.

INFO

LISTEN

Edgar Meyer & Chris Thile, Bass & Mandolin [2014, Nonesuch]

EQUIP

Bass 1769 Gabrielli double bass
Bow Boyd Paulsen custom French bow
Strings Pirastro Permanent G and D strings, Pirasto Aricore A and E

DIFFERENT STROKES

Whether bowing or plucking, Edgar Meyer excels at knowing when to scale back his playing with restraint and when to showcase his ability to pack melody and harmony into complex phrasings and solos. For these examples, we’ve decided to adapt Meyer’s transcriptions to bass guitar. It should also be noted that while Meyer plays in the alternate EBEA tuning, we have adjusted these to standard (EADG) tuning. To check out the original, alternate-tuned transcriptions Meyer did for us, complete with fingerings and bow and string markings, visit bassplayer.com.

Example 1 shows the first bowed section of “Tarnation” (at 0:12). The repeat section is played an octave up, so you will either need a two-octave neck or a C string to play it up that high. This excerpt is entirely bowed, so for playing it on bass guitar, keep a legato feel while plucking along. Meyer explains, “This was the first section we wrote for the piece, which was the result of us looking for something friendly to play that would sound natural and good on our instruments.” Example 2 contains the bowed solo section of “El Cinco Real” (at 2:05), where Meyer uses a combination of improvisation and pre-written parts over an odd meter. Utilizing a simple I–IV–V chord pattern in G, Meyer adds color tones to create a beautifully melodic solo. “This is a reel in seven, dedicated to Dave Sinko, an audio engineer Chris and I have been working with most of our lives.” Finally, Ex. 3 has the pizzicato passage of “It’s Dark in Here” (at 1:13), with Meyer using his fingers to cover a lot of ground during this busy, rolling section. Replicate Edgar’s feel on upright and approximate his sound by keeping your notes short. For this fast-paced part, the duo homed in on a bit of classic rock for inspiration. “We envisioned this figure as an almost Zeppelin-esque motor for the piece,” Meyer says. 

To check out videos and new compositions by Meyer visit edgarmeyer.com
 
As a bonus we've included the original transcriptions that Edgar wrote out for us. He had this to say about these notated pieces:
 
"These transcriptions are presented before the bowings and fingerings have been added. They are notated so that if another bass player picked up my bass (with EBEA tuning) and read normally from this part, the right notes would come out. However, if I am writing a part for myself, I actually always use sounding pitch, which is a minor seventh lower than this." 
 
 
 
 
 
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