Edgar Meyer performs at the 2008 RockyGrass festival in Lyons, Colorado. Photo credit: Flickr/rosepetal236

Q&A: Double bass virtuoso Edgar Meyer

Double bassist Edgar Meyer has been a lifelong musician, bending and blurring lines among bluegrass, classical and a whole other host of musical styles. Tonight, he gives a rare solo performance at Reynolds Industries Theater at Duke University. He recently took the time to talk to assistant Diversions editor Allison Hussey about his recent projects and inspirations.

Diversions: I wanted to start with talking about the Goat Rodeo Sessions. I talked to Chris Thile in November, and he called it a “doctoral thesis” on kind of how musicians who play different styles really aren’t all that different. How did you see the project?

Edgar Meyer: A chance to spend some time with Stuart (Duncan, fiddle), Chris (Thile, mandolin) and Yo-Yo (Ma, cello). They’re all musicians that I love, and it was just a chance to get to play a little bit.

Dive: What did you really enjoy most about that project?

EM: I wouldn’t say there was any one thing I enjoyed most about it, and if I did, I would have to say — because I really just, I enjoy the process. I enjoy writing music and playing music, and especially with that set of people. There’s no one thing that I would pull out. I really honestly enjoyed all the time that was spent. That’s not much of an answer, and I apologize, but it is the truth.

Dive: Do you have any other recording projects in the works right now?

EM: Right now, my big emphasis is I’ve got to write a double concerto for Joshua Bell and myself that will premiere on the opening weekend of Tanglewood, so that’s where all of my energy is until I can get it done.

Dive: Kind of going on that, you’re a composer, a touring performer, in addition to being a teacher. How do you strike a balance among them? Any one of them seems enough to be full time.

EM: Well, I’m a very part-time teacher. I teach seven days a year at Curtis, and then see any of the students who want to come out to Aspen, I’ll see them for eight weeks. So that helps the balance immediately, because I partner with Hal Robinson, who is the principal bass in the Philadelphia Orchestra. He takes a bigger share of the responsibility than I do. So that solves the teaching part, and the writing and playing — it’s always a little out of balance. It’s never going perfectly, but it’s never going badly. I think it’s the kind of thing where I would actually turn the question on its head and ask, how could anybody not be in music and not write and play? The two feed each other and they they inform each other. I feel like without both that a person is missing a large part of what music is.

Dive: There are a lot of pop musicians now where none of them really write their own songs. Do you think they’re missing out?

EM: It’s a complex question. The answer, fundamentally, is yes. I don’t think that everybody needs to necessarily be playing their own music, but there’s a big difference between never writing a song — a person could write music and then decide that they prefer to put certain songs in front of the public that they think either shows what they want to say or, let’s say, just think is a better effort than their own. That’s a pretty strong point of view. And also, a lot of people, they do other people’s music, but can still be very involved in the creation of their version of it. I think maybe even more central is that I think all people ought to be interested in — all musicians ought to be interested in and, to some degree, involved, in the creating of music in one way or another. I want to say the situation is probably more stark or more clear in classical music, where the division of labor between writer and player is overly well-defined.

Dive: What have you enjoyed most about making music?

EM: Maybe a couple of things that I would put forth. Two things I would put forth are that it’s a genuine and long-term way to connect with other people, and then the other thing I would put out is that it — and once again, it’s key to be involved in the creation of music to be able to say this — but it gives a chance for redefinition or continuing education. I feel like I can always explore more topics or get deeper into music in a way that continued growth is an option.

Dive: What is something you hope people get out of your music?

EM: I would wish both that they get some pleasure out of it and also I would hope to maybe be able to show them maybe something that they haven’t thought of before.

Dive: What kind of things have you found tend to inspire or influence you?

EM: Musically, natural beauty probably ranks pretty high. Other music that I’ve found beautiful over the years has a lot of impact. I might be able to leave it at that, that could get it going.

Dive: Where do you like to find natural beauty?

EM: You can find it pretty much wherever you are, but we do spend the summer in Aspen, and that certainly is kind of loaded in that regard. But you can find it in your back yard, too. You could turn on the television and see a little bit if you want. No one particular place, I think it’s kind of always around.

Dive: Who are some of your favorite more contemporary artists?

EM: The difficulty with that question is that my favorite ones are dead. Bach is my favorite, and I don’t really mean to make much of a point, but I do realize that for a lot of people, they don’t think of him as an artist, they think of him as a composer. I guess, to me, he falls pretty clean in the — he’s a musician. Bach and Beethoven and Mozart are still my favorite three, and I feel okay about hedging the question in that they really do influence me more than anyone who is living.

Dive: What are some of your favorite pieces by them?

EM: They each wrote so many that are almost incomparably great that it’s not that easy to pull off. Even with guys like that, some pieces are better than others, but each of them has a top drawer that has dozens of pieces. I’d say with Bach, I have been maybe especially moved recently by the unaccompanied violin music. The imagination contained within that music is something I’m not sure I’ve ever seen anywhere else, within my realm of understanding, of course. There’s the understanding that I have a fairly limited scope. But it includes a lot of music, though. Mozart also, I want to emphasize that by picking out one or two or three pieces, I’m leaving out dozens that I could probably be just as fond of. But Mozart, I’ve always had a thing for the Jupiter Symphony and a number of the piano concertos, and the C Minor opera is a special favorite. Once again, there’s so many. And with Beethoven, let me think. Ever since I was a kid, the seventh symphony, I always thought it was a perfect piece of music. Anyway, those are examples.

Dive: I have a younger brother who plays the upright bass as well and really wants to make a life in music. What kind of advice would you give to someone like him or other young musicians who are looking to do that?

EM: It’s a fairly personal thing, and ultimately my advice is geared more towards understanding someone’s individual situation. And then once you understand it well, then you realize they don’t want advice anyway. But I would say a few things that I would advise would be to make a lot of friends with interesting and able musicians, people that you can learn from. And I would tend to keep the point of view fairly broad, not limit either one’s musical education or overall education. Obviously, you have to focus and narrow the field to some degree to be able to become kind of an expert at something, but I’m not a fan of doing too much of that too early. I think trying to learn a lot about a lot of things is a fairly good thing.

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