New Classical Tracks - In the Moment with a Musical Rodeo

by Julie Amacher
November 23, 2011

Listen New Classical Tracks: In the Moment with a Musical Rodeo
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Goat Rodeo Sessions - Yo-Yo Ma/ Stuart Duncan/Edgar Meyer/Chris Thile (Sony Classical 841182). (Courtesy of Sony Masterworks)

More than a decade ago, mandolinist and guitarist Chris Thile teamed up with double bassist Edgar Meyer. In 2008, when Yo-Yo Ma was making his holiday album, "Joy and Peace," Meyer suggested including Thile. Later, fiddler Stuart Duncan was brought on board, and from that combination of players with diverse musical backgrounds, this new disc was born: "The Goat Rodeo Sessions"

So what exactly is a "goat rodeo?" Chris Thile explains: "It's a term used by people in the aviation industry for something where there's so many things going on and they're all so potentially disastrous that every little thing has to go just right or you end up in utter chaos." This term not only describes the crazy busy lives of these four musicians, it might also suggest the way that this music transcends specific categories such as "folk" or "classical" or "bluegrass."

"The Goat Rodeo Sessions" came together last summer in the Berkshires at the home of singer/songwriter James Taylor, who invited the artists to record in a fabulous barn he turned into a recording studio. He even loaned Thile one of his guitars for the sessions. Yo-Yo Ma recalls Taylor and his wife Kim were fabulous hosts. "We were there for two sessions, one in June and one in August, He was in a way part of our recording sessions. He would show up once in a while and we would hang out. In a way it just spurred a lot of the goodwill that was inherent in the group." That goodwill is heard on every piece on this new recording which begins with a song of encouragement titled "Attaboy." Chris Thile opens this piece with a quiet rhythmic line on the mandolin. Yo-Yo Ma's cello slides in with a catchy melody and the musical dialogue is underway. In fact rhythm and dialogue reign throughout this recording.

Improvisation is another key element of "The Goat Rodeo Sessions." While you might expect musicians to improvise in bluegrass and folk music, Edgar Meyer, who has worked regularly with pianist Emanuel Ax and Yo-Yo Ma, says classical music can be surprising, too. "The majority of what happens in classical music," Edgar explains, "is not notated, and in that sense, all those decisions can change every time you play it. Even if the notes don't change, it's still totally in the moment." "One of the things that impressed itself upon me," adds Chris Thile, "particularly playing with Yo-Yo, is to be reminded that you can play a written part so differently. Now I approach written music with more glee!" Being completely present in the moment is the key to this spontaneous, fresh music-making. On "Quarter Chicken dark," fiddler Stuart Duncan puts the groove in the mood following a funky percussive introduction featuring bass, cello and mandolin.

"Where's My Bow" is a tour de force for two fiddles, cello and bass that displays the virtuosic talent of each of these players. It's a piece that Stuart Duncan started composing for mandolin. "Years ago I was messing around with narrow spacing on a set of mandolin strings to see, if I drew the strings together more like a violin, if I could do some triads and chords faster. I ended up not liking it, but I got this small fragment of music together. When I got to Edgar's house, he said,. Whaddya got? I said, Well, I've got this fragment--we can start with that. And I played it on the fiddle and Edgar twisted it around on itself and wrote another part. And Chris came and wrote another part. And we thought would this sound good on two fiddles? It turned into something without a mandolin at all-- we got four bows going at once. So that's the reason for the title, 'Where's My Bow.'"

Yo-Yo Ma is a virtuoso cellist, but he says he's most amazed at the versatility of his three colleagues. "Just notice how many instruments all of my colleagues play," he says in amazement. "There's so much raw talent!" Each instrument in each piece is chosen to create different voices, and to add texture. Edgar Meyer puts down the bass and takes a seat at the piano for the contemplative piece "Franz and the Eagle."

Friendship and shared values brought these four musicians together. They're all interested in the world around them, and in all different kinds of music. As you listen to "The Goat Rodeo Sessions," what you'll hear will be hard to describe. Just when you think you can put your finger on a folk, jazz or bluegrass sound, you hear what may be a classical string quartet. What you may want to do is precisely what these musicians did during these sessions, completely internalize the music and be in the moment.