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Edgar Meyer Explores His Own Large World Of Music

Bassist will be on winter tour with Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center.

Contributing Editor RW Deutsch reports:

[ Wed., November 8, 2000 8:38 AM EST ]

For 39-year old bass virtuoso Edgar Meyer, recording Bach's cello suites on the double bass has been a long time coming. He first transcribed them when he was 12 years old.

"I've probably spent more time and effort working on these pieces than anything else," Meyer said. "The Bach [suites] were always central to what I've been working on in my ongoing quest - there's no other place I would turn to as often for simply [their] variety and examples."

Born in Tulsa, Oalkahoma and raised in Oakridge, Tennessee, Meyer was influenced by his father who was a bass player and music teacher. Early on, Bach became another reference point, which has evolved the years into the musical equivalent of comfort food that serves as a connection to Meyer's past.

"I heard a lot [of Bach] on the turntable from the time I was born," Meyer recalled. "I was familiar with it even before the bass. But then after that, these pieces represented kind of the edge of ambition on the instrument - maybe not the best word - but a chance to take the instrument to a different place than what I was familiar with and I designed the pieces to my way of playing on the bass."

Meyer has grown with the pieces, three of which are on the new album: No. 1 in G Major, No. 2 in D Minor and No. 5 in C Minor. He said he has gone through different stages of awareness over 39 years of listening and playing them.

"To some degree - through my father's own promotion of it - it was presented as an article of faith," Meyer said. "As I grew older I discovered all the reasons why it is so spectacular, but as a child it just really draws you in."

But it wasn't classical music alone that so enthralled Meyer as a youngster. There were also influences of jazz, pop, Indian and especially country music.

Although perhaps best known to classical and popular audiences for his work with cellist Yo-Yo Ma and violinist Mark O'Connor on their Appalachia Waltz and Appalachian Journey recordings, Meyer is also familiar to bluegrass for his playing with the band Strength in Numbers (which features Bela Fleck, Sam Bush and O'Connor). Country fans have heard him on albums by Garth Brooks, Mary Chapin Carpenter, Lyle Lovett and others.

How does he manage to interact and float between these disparate styles?

"I don't think of it as moving easy between styles," Meyer said. "My gut reaction is that there's probably a bigger difference between the individual person rather than a blanket rule for styles. I work with very strong individuals - and you're reacting to that person and the style of music is all part of that. It's all part of the equation."

As for his own style of music, Meyer offered his first Bass Concerto in 1993. In 1995, he premiered his Quintet for Bass and String Quartet (in collaboration with the Emerson String Quartet) and a Double Concerto for Bass and Cello (with cellist Carter Brey and the San Luis Obispo Mozart Festival Orchestra). Violinist Hilary Hahn features a new Meyer violin concerto on her latest release. He's also recently recorded an experimental mix of improvisational jazz, bluegrass and classical music on the album Uncommon Ritual with Fleck and mandolin player Mike Marshall.

"I'm interested in a lot of music but I wouldn't stand up and say I'm a jazz player," Meyer said. "I maybe have the confidence to say I'm a classical player. Then there's my own music, which draws on things that aren't classical. I try to make genuine and hybrid music."

Among his many upcoming projects, Meyer will be touring with the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Centerthis winter. On the tour, he'll be performing his new work for clarinet, cello and double bass with CMS artistic director and clarinetist David Shifrin and cellist Gary Hoffman. The tour includes stops in Aspen, Los Angeles, San Francisco and western Canada.

Shifrin recently told New Yorker magazine that "Edgar isn't blending two or more worlds - he's living in a single very large world."

And living in such a "very large world" begs the question of where he'll be visiting next on his journey.

"The Bach was a favorite thing but I'm not going to do more of that [for now]," Meyer said. "I'm going to fulfill my curiosity and pragmatic balance between personal questions and commercial elements.... I've got a lot of growth in writing music and may shift slightly into doing less writing and hitting playing a little harder."

He is also looking forward to working on his bluegrass playing -- possibly with Fleck and/or Marshall -- and putting the finishing touches on a new recording of four concertos with Hugh Wolf and St. Paul Chamber Orchestra with Joshua Bell and Yo-Yo Ma.

But in the end, it's the simple enjoyment of playing music -- all music -- that Meyer loves.

"If I don't enjoy it," Meyer said, "you won't see me doing it."