Edgar Meyer has become the preeminent master of his instrument — the double bass — earning Grammys and other awards for his diverse work, which delves into such genres as classical, bluegrass and jazz. As a young man, Meyer enrolled at Georgia Tech to study math — “something I find to be beautiful and I hope informs all that I do” — but transferred to Indiana University to study bass with Stuart Sankey. Soon Meyer was in demand as a collaborator with artists including
Béla Fleck, Jerry Douglas, Joshua Bell, Yo-Yo Ma, David Grisman and Chris Thile, the mandolinist from Nickel Creek and the Punch Brothers with whom he has won two Grammys.
Meyer, 54, is the only bassist to have been named a MacArthur Fellow (2002), which he says allowed him time to compose but “certainly did not help me lose weight or play in tune.” Meyer, who last played the Kennedy Center in 2007 with pianist Emanuel Ax, returns this week to play solo on Bach’s Cello Suite No. 1 and a new work. We talked with him via e-mail.
What can you tell us about the new work you are performing at the Kennedy Center?
I have some history of composing longer and more involved pieces for collaborative projects, but when writing for bass alone I have tended to writer shorter, lighter pieces. This piece is trying to balance that some. It is around 20 minutes long and is more ambitious in some ways than other solo music I have written. Also, it is actually several years old. It was commissioned exactly as I will perform it, but I am currently writing more solo music to go with it on a recording.
How does it relate to the other choice for the concert, Bach?
Bach is my favorite musician and the single largest influence on anything that I write. Whatever values that I aspire to are constantly present in all of his music. I find it difficult to summarize, but I admire the thoroughness of his exploration and his ability to simultaneously follow a thread of a thought wherever it might want to go in a seemingly uninhibited flow. My piece is strongly influenced by Bach’s music, not unlike tens of thousands of others.
What are the pros and cons of playing solo?
There are multiple difficulties. The music is no longer interactive, which is one of the primary ways to reach people. A single double bass has a limited amount of tonal variety. And the whole evening lives and dies on how I am doing, without anybody to share the load. Oddly, these things all work in reverse. . . . all of these challenges relate a natural tension that can enliven the room. And the degree of intimacy, and of vulnerability, cannot be matched.
What have you gotten out of your collaborations in so many fields? Are there more coming?
It’s all music. I understand that there is a long way between bluegrass and opera, but it all exists in a 3-D spectrum. The people I have made music with over the years mean the world to me. Most of my ideas come from them. I have a number of ongoing collaborations that have future plans for more. That in itself would keep me excited and fulfilled for as long as I can imagine. In addition, I will start spending some time with my friend Christian McBride, a man who shows me so many new possibilities for our instrument.
Do fans of your bluegrass work attend your classical concerts or vice versa?
Not sure. I should be more of a student of who is interested and who isn’t. My guess is that the overlap is partial, although I certainly hope that the musical overlap helps people broaden their own horizons.
Not a lot of musicians play as broad a variety of music as you do. Why do you think that is?
That is changing rapidly. The earth is shifting beneath our feet, although it is nothing new. The institutions inadvertently prolong impractical niche definitions for musicians, primarily because the old folks are running the show. And that is not all bad. There are certainly beautiful things worth preserving. But the nature of musical evolution is blending. Ain’t a gonna change now.
Catlin is a freelance writer.
Edgar Meyer Wednesday at 7:30 p.m. at the Kennedy Center, 2700 F St. NW. Tickets: $49. 202-467-4600. www.kennedy-center.org.