Sometimes I get obsessed about something and can only manage the obsession by writing about it. So, from nine years ago:
I’m not sure exactly what to call this kind of music, but in my mind I think of it as NCM (New Chamber Music). A small group of musicians play pieces that are technically demanding in the way that classical music often is, but they’re playing often with non-classical instruments and often in non-classical styles and with non-classical techniques. Chris Thile seems to me the prime instigator and exemplar of this movement.
What’s exceptional about the Goat Rodeo Sessions, within this larger world of NCM, is that these sessions are conducted by musicians who have a serious claim to being the very best at what they do. Chris Thile, Edgar Meyer, and Yo-Yo Ma are commonly thought of as the epitomes of excellence on their instruments, and while probably no one would say that Stuart Duncan is the best violinist in the world, more than a few people would say he’s the best fiddler around. In any case he more than holds his own with these three titans.
This song opens in the key of A, as fiddle tunes often do. It begins with a rhythmically intricate introduction by Chris Thile, the sort of thing that he often plays, and it’s not necessarily a sign of pleasure to come. One of the problems with Thile’s work is that he really is, as T-Bone Burnett has said, a once-in-a-century musician, and the things that are fun and interesting for him to play are not necessarily the things that are the most fun and interesting for ordinary listeners to hear. There is a cerebral quality to much of his music that I happen to enjoy but that many people don’t, because it’s too distant from what they think of as … enjoyable music. This song may start in that complex mode, but very soon you get, first the violin of Duncan playing a drone, and then the lovely primary melody played by Yo-Yo Ma on his cello.
You should notice even at this early point the essential role played by Edgar Meyer’s double bass. Throughout the song he moves with perfect fluidity between bowing and plucking, always in a way designed to accentuate the beauty of his colleagues’ playing and the rhythmic integrity of the performance. He is the most musical of bassists — nothing is mechanical with him, everything he plays is melodically and rhythmically delightful. If you can listen to this on speakers that offer a reasonable degree and quality of bass response, please do.
So after the mandolin introduction, the violin drone, and the melody played by Yo-Yo Ma, we get the elaboration of that melody on Duncan’s fiddle. Duncan has a magnificently velvety tone – there’s an interview with the four musicians in which Ma comments on the beauty of it – and he adds both urgency and plangency to the melody that Ma has initiated. Their lines intertwine and rise together, and take us into a delightful dance above which the violin soars.
Now things get a little quieter. The bowed instruments recede into the background, and we get an intricate interlude from Thile’s mandolin. This is followed by a witty contrapuntal passage (a few moments of Celtic Baroque, maybe) and the return of the dance. Then the four musicians walk the theme down to a stop….
But we’re not done. Duncan, solo at first, leaps into a reel in G. (When the other instruments come in, take a listen to the rumble of that bass!) The pace accelerates, and now we’re headed for a breakdown — not in the psychological sense but in the bluegrass sense. Everyone is now playing at breakneck speed, and make a special note of how the fingers of Ma’s left hand move as quickly as a fiddler’s, but over a much longer neck.
And then as the breakdown achieves maximum velocity, we ascend back to the first theme, once more in A. The full articulation of the theme is followed by another slowdown, but this time instead of the mandolin we get the violin and cello meditating together, weaving their lines quietly in and out.
Then the music rises, and we get a return to the dance, now at its most joyful. Even the relatively stoic Meyer is caught up in the delight of it. And then another walk down, this time to the finish.
I love this performance more than I can say. It has given me such comfort and consolation in these past few days. I hope it will do something similar for you.
And soon the Goat Rodeo Boys will be back!