It’s a well-known fact of music history that the greatest composers are musical sponges, capable of absorbing multiple influences and refreshing them through ingenuity and imagination. Johann Sebastian Bach, for example, transcribed the concertos of his near-contemporary Antonio Vivaldi into pieces for the organ, thus opening the door to the composition of his exuberant Toccatas and Fugues for that instrument.
With the quartet that’s coming to UCSB’s Campbell Hall on Saturday, October 19, Béla Fleck and Edgar Meyer are doing for the banjo and bass what Bach did for the organ — translating the rhythmically driving, highly evolved music of another culture, in this instance India, into a new and startlingly brilliant idiom. Like the organ music of Bach, the sound they achieve with partners Zakir Hussain and Rakesh Chaurasia is unforgettable. In a recent email exchange with the Independent, Fleck gave the following insights into the group and its music.
It’s been a decade since The Melody of Rhythm album with Leonard Slatkin and the Detroit Symphony. Since then, you have composed several works for performance with symphony orchestras. What has changed for you personally in that time? And for the group? On the orchestra side, I would say that Edgar has led me into the classical world, and I have learned a lot from the expansion. I have now written three concertos for banjo and orchestra and several pieces for banjo and string quartet. These may not be the biggest sellers, but they are some of my favorite endeavors. They also fit into my “mission” of attempting to gain respect for the often-maligned five-string banjo.
On the group side, we have become a band over the years, now longtime collaborators and friends. We are so different from each other, and the diverse elements allow us the potential for a deep and wide-ranging musical offering. The addition of Rakesh Chaurasia’s incredible wood-flute artistry completes the picture in an elegant yet earthy way
What’s new about the repertoire on this tour? And what is timeless? We have essentially a brand-new repertoire! Last year before touring, we rehearsed a set of new music and toured it. This time, we will start out by recording that material and then going on tour. We’re excited to have all this new material and quite into what we’ve come up with.
America has been experiencing a difficult moment. Can banjo power save the country? It may be the only thing that can. Tabla, bass, and flute power don’t have a prayer. But seriously, live music can have a healing property to it, and this particular music has a curious combination of fire and calm. When one hears the flute and the bowed bass, they immediately relax. Zakir plays with a clam strength that is uplifting. And there are those powerful virtuosic explosions from each player.
What should people coming to the show know in advance about what they will hear? We will not be singing! We will not wear you out with shredding, but we will play the best we possibly can. You will hear a combination of western and Indian musical concepts that is fairly unusual but sounds very natural. And speaking about my three collaborators — it doesn’t get better than this.
4•1•1 | UCSB’s Arts & Lectures presents Béla Fleck, Zakir Hussain, and Edgar Meyer with Rakesh Chaurasia in concert Saturday, October 19, 8 p.m., at UCSB’s Campbell Hall. Call 893-3535 or see artsandlectures.ucsb.edu.