Edgar Meyer: Beyond the Bass-ics
Historically, repertoire for the double bass has been extremely limited. The acclaimed performer, collaborator, and composer Edgar Meyer is out to change that.
Edgar Meyer is an admired bassist and composer. He is the winner of numerous awards, including a MacArthur Fellowship, an Avery Fisher Prize, and five Grammy Awards.
Meyer is known for his diverse musical styles; he is a virtuoso performer of classical, bluegrass, and jazz. He grew up in Oak Ridge, TN, and learned to play the double bass with his father, a keen music fan. Meyer began releasing albums in the late 1980s, and received his first of seven Grammy nominations in 1999 for Short Trip Home, an album of original music blending classical and bluegrass. He won Grammys for collaborations with Yo-Yo Ma, Béla Fleck, and Chris Thile.
Unusually, Meyer is equally well regarded as a player and composer. He has recorded with such diverse artists as Joshua Bell, V. M. Bhatt, and James Taylor, and composed for the Boston Symphony Orchestra, the Emerson String Quartet, and the Nashville Symphony, among others.
He teaches at the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia.
The bassist Edgar Meyer is a unique figure in music. He has won the prestigious Avery Fisher Prize for an outstanding classical instrumentalist, a so-called Genius Award from the MacArthur Foundation, and five Grammys. Celebrated equally as a performer and a composer, Meyer is as at home playing jazz and bluegrass as he is with standard classical repertoire, yet he sees himself as a master of none.
Edgar Meyer: I can be myself in a lot of situations. It doesn’t make me an expert at any particular thing. And I do feel like I am an expert at a few things. But I’m interested in music. If I can find a way to participate in the conversation, I do.
Meyer’s cultivation of creative opportunities has meant never shying away from the kind of genre-jumping that might make lesser musicians dizzy. His virtuosity has made him a go-to partner for some of the world’s greats, from Yo-Yo Ma to James Taylor.
(James Taylor singing from “Hard Times Come Again No More”)
Oh, hard times come again no more
He’s also composed for other well-known classical stars, such as Joshua Bell, Hilary Hahn, and Emanuel Ax, but his most important musical partnership was forged much earlier in his life.
Meyer: My father played jazz and he played classical, he played the bass and that was what he loved. And so that was my music world at least until I was 10.
AJC: How much of him is still within you, do you think? How present is he in your—
Meyer: You know, it’s not a conscious thought, but he is the biggest influence on my life. His love of music was immense and he passed it straight down. Obviously, the kind of immersion that I went through with him was very defining. And so just my general feeling for music is his.
Today, Meyer is continuing to pass the torch as a teacher at the world-renowned Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia. He’s also laying the groundwork for future soloists. Repertoire for the bass being notoriously scarce caused him to start composing about 25 years earlier than he had expected.
Meyer: I figured I would write music more when I was about this age. And thought I would just try out playing in a lot of different situations and see how it felt, and I guess what I didn’t understand until I was close to 30 was that writing is really where all the juice is. And the other stuff, I may be a better performer than writer but writing’s the most interesting part. And if you combine that with the instrument’s fundamental lack of repertoire, then you see that I had to kinda make a change in that plan. And just got more involved in writing sooner. And you know, continued to perform, but really wanted a life that was much more a fusion. A lot of creative opportunities.
Meyer’s unorthodox early life has undoubtedly contributed to his unconventional path. He grew up in Oak Ridge, Tennessee in the 1960s, and though the country and gospel supergroup, the Oak Ridge Boys, also come from there, the town was in no way a hotbed of traditional Southern culture. Oak Ridge was a society unto itself, attracting scientists from around the world to work on the US government research and development of nuclear weapons.
(Excerpt from Newsreel of the Week: Atomic Bomb – The Big Test 1945)
Oak Ridge, Tennessee. Site of one of the huge secret factories producing atomic bombs. On a 59,000-acre military reservation lived 78,000 men, women and children. A hidden community sealed off from the outside world. The secret city had everything on tap. Schools, shops, newspapers, picture houses, and Pathe News.
Meyer: You couldn’t have a more wonderful way to grow up. My best friend’s mother was Japanese and his father was from India, and I heard a lot of music over at his house. So, I wasn’t hearing banjos.
AJC: Interesting. And how much do you think that the fact that you grew up in this very cosmopolitan town impacted your musical growth?
Meyer: It really was the aesthetics of the scientists themselves who just loved the arts and they love education. My father loved teaching there, he taught elementary through high school strings, because it was the best school system in the state. And so, for him, growing up in Chattanooga, this was an arrival. And it was the best, along with a couple private schools in Nashville, for decades it’s been the best performing school. And so, it’s just a very ideal environment for a person to grow up in. And interesting also in that there were no rich people and no poor people. Just because of the nature of the construct.
AJC: Tell me about living in a place like that. That’s fascinating.
Meyer: Well, it’s very disappointing to find out what the world’s like after that. It is quite a shock and really is not quite as nice.
AJC: Seriously though, because you did, you grew up in a place, an egalitarian place.
Meyer: Essentially it was all one class. Of course, there were a few poor people and a few rich people. It was still closer than other places. It was not the extremes. I just had no idea.
AJC: And when you get to Georgia Tech and there’s then, clearly there’s gonna be a delineation between—
Meyer: I didn’t figure it out until I left college. I mean, I was slow. When I started doing things professionally and started seeing the hierarchy of things, I just was… It took a while, I grew up very insulated.
AJC: How much of that is still with you?
Meyer: I believe it’s to be aspired to. I mean, it’s certainly what I would wish for. I’m positive that it’s preferable.
Because of his somewhat utopian upbringing, Meyer has never been interested in the hierarchies in art. For him, classical music is not about class. It’s a means for anyone to connect directly with the greatest musical minds of all time. Mozart, Beethoven, Bach.
Meyer: Their music just speaks to me in a very human way. And one that I would think could reach any person who has a breath. I don’t see it as elitist, I don’t. I just see it as extremely beautiful and why wouldn’t anybody like this?
AJC: You do write beautiful melodies.
Meyer: I write a lot of ’em and you see which ones stick on the wall.
AJC: Is stickiness the greatest virtue of melody?
Meyer: No. I don’t think it’s very easily definable.
AJC: What are you looking for? Beauty?
Meyer: Beauty, yeah. And it’s obviously a hedge because that can mean what I want it to. But it is what I’m looking for.