A little bit country, a little bit classical, a whole lot of Stuart Duncan, Yo-Yo Ma, Edgar Meyer, and Chris Thile
By Bob Doerschuk
“The most intriguing part of this project is that it’s not centered in one style or genre of music,” says fiddler Stuart Duncan, one-fourth of a new genre-jumping string quartet that has come together for a recording project dubbed The Goat Rodeo Sessions, that also features cellist Yo-Yo Ma, double bassist Edgar Meyer, and mandolin player and fiddler Chris Thile, each a virtuoso known for embracing the genre-hopping imperative that underlies many of the best recent acoustic string projects. “It flows all over the map, globally and musically speaking.
“My record collection was always all over the map, so this is one of the few times that I’ve been challenged with some of the music that I’d only listened to as a spectator and am now called upon to actually perform. I’m known as a bluegrass fiddler, but the stuff that’s more recognizable as coming from the fiddle world, if you will, is still interspersed with moments where it goes right back into the classical world, with odd time signatures and modulations that you’re not expecting, parts where two people drop out and all you hear is cello and mandolin or bass and fiddle. And then it goes back into what sounds like a fiddle tune shortly thereafter.
“It’s definitely varied.”
Different influences colliding and connecting, unexpected changes in direction— in other words, a goat rodeo. As defined by the Urban Dictionary, a goat rodeo “is about the most polite term used by aviation people (and others in high-risk situations) to describe a scenario that requires about 100 things to go right at once if you intend to walk away from it.”
As applied to this quartet, the term reflects an intention to focus not so much on creating a piece of music that might be easily categorized as on challenging each participant to try something different and use whatever results as a dynamic of composition and performance. For instance, as the members began to work on repertoire, Duncan presented a melodic fragment he had written several years ago on mandolin, but never developed into a fully composed piece.
“Edgar immediately took the last note of it, went out of 4/4 time and switched some things up, so it went immediately into a form I had never imagined,” he says. “Then we made a third part from there and figured out how to get back to the first part. That became ‘Where’s My Bow?’ a really fast twin-fiddle piece that Chris and I play together.”
For nine months, the group tossed ideas back and forth, letting them latch together as inspiration dictated. On impulse, one or another player might switch from his preferred instrument to another. At one point, Meyer put the bass down and played some piano. And Duncan, who admits to playing banjo more for fun than with any serious intention, strapped one on twice, playing plectrum and fretless models.
“For me to tackle playing the banjo on a project with this much visibility is a goat rodeo in itself,” he says. “On one song, Chris plays guitar while I’m playing mandolin, which is kind of humorous with Chris Thile in the band. And there’s one where Chris and I are both playing violin, sometimes in unison, sometimes in harmony, and sometimes trading. We made sure that it never got boring.”
Among the technical hurdles the players faced was the fact that three of the four instruments in the mix were usually bowed, with only the mandolin as a rhythm generator. Again, they looked outside the box for answers. “The first thing we did was to get Edgar to put down his bow for maybe more than half of the record. There’s way less bowing than he’s used to doing because we’ve already got a cello player—perhaps you’ve heard of him?” Duncan adds, slyly. “So Edgar plays more pizzicato than he normally would, but even more unexpected is my playing more pizzicato than I ordinarily would on the violin. I even do some percussion, tapping the fingerboard, and not even playing a note or brushing a chord.”
What transpired from The Goat Rodeo Sessions was unpredictable to all of its participants.
And for Duncan, it left a lingering mark.
“I’m already better able to think out of seven and five than I ever was before,” he says. “Usually, rather than count in the back of my mind, I would just learn the part and play from memory because it seemed like too much to play and count at the same time, so I would just hang on and pray I would make my way out of it. Now, I can actually hear both things going on.
He also takes a lesson home from The Goat Rodeo Sessions of a more philosophical nature. All of life can be seen as a goat rodeo, whether it involves pulling into freeway traffic and trusting all the other drivers to play their parts or playing a classical piece, staying on course as long as the conductor and ensemble do what they’re supposed to do. The consequences of not doing so might lead to situations that induce anxiety, ironic reflection, or both.
“That’s absolutely true,” Duncan says. “I couldn’t have said it better myself.”