Béla Fleck has been nominated in more different Grammy® categories than anyone in the awards’ history—country, pop, jazz, bluegrass, classical, folk, spoken word, composition, and arranging. See Béla Fleck live at Purdue University on November 14 with Brooklyn Rider.
Q: You’ve mentioned that Night Flight Over Water is an outsider piece—the banjo player who doesn’t belong at the masquerade being unmasked and fleeing into the night. Do you often compose with a narrative or vision in your head?
Béla Fleck: I’ve really only done that a few times. More typically, I’ve let my unconscious run free and then tried to figure out where a piece came from after the fact. The Impostor [Fleck’s Concerto for Banjo and Symphony Orchestra] and Night Flight seemed very clear to me after I wrote them. I had to get the nerve to speak up and say what I thought they were about.
Q: For those more familiar with the banjo in a bluegrass or folk setting, what are some of the different techniques you use when playing classical music?
BF: There are different harmonies, different tempos, and so on. But the truly unique thing to classical music is that there is no improvising, and every single note has to be written. This requires a commitment that is very different from improvised music, where the notes are different every night, and if you don’t love what you did last night, you try something else tonight.
Q: What is the experience of playing with a string quartet like Brooklyn Rider? Is it closer to playing with a symphony, more like sitting with a bluegrass band, or some new hybrid style?
BF: It’s somewhere in between, actually. A string quartet has the flexibility of a small jazz group, or even the Flecktones (his namesake band), but their technical abilities are very highly evolved—and they are specialists at making the written page come alive.
Q: The only banjo you play onstage is your 1937 Gibson Mastertone. What makes that instrument so special for you?
BF: That banjo is still my true love, for a banjo any way! It has an expressiveness, a power in the high range, a depth of tone—and it’s very in tune. It’s hard to beat, with all the banjos I have.
Q: You’ve collaborated so voraciously and successful- ly in different genres and with a wide variety of musi- cians. Is there still a musical holy grail out there—a collaboration you’d like to do, or a style of music that you haven’t played but would love to?
BF: There are certainly specific musicians I’d love to get to work with: Yo-Yo Ma, Radiohead, U2, Pat Metheny, and others. But I’m very happy with the level of my musical partners. My life seems like a dream, honestly. I am amazed at some of the people I’ve been able to connect with.
Interview by Stacey Mickelbart