A performance like the concert given by trans-genre double bass luminary Edgar Meyer and mandolinist Chris Thile, a 25-year-old erstwhile child prodigy, is the musical equivalent of concocting a chemistry experiment in a pitch-dark laboratory: It’s unclear precisely what’s been haphazardly poured into that beaker.
In the case of the pair’s concert at Duke University’s Page Auditorium, the result was a dizzyingly complex performance that bulldozed genre boundaries and showcased both artists’ experimental virtuosity. Thile took advantage of the opportunity to prove himself more artistically daring than those who know him only through the pop-bluegrass ensemble Nickel Creek. Meyer stunned the audience with the dexterity and grace of his lyrical playing, the seamless ease with which he could incorporate multiple styles into one cohesive musical line, and the intensity of character he was able to rake, wrench, and tenderly coax from his instrument.
The evening’s program, based loosely around both artists’ mixed oeuvre, centered ostensibly on the nature of distance relating to contrast and motion in music. The pieces were ordered to emphasize deep contrasts in tempo, style, and mood as much as possible (intuitive programming can indeed enhance a performance), and many selections progressed through up to four clearly defined sections, each movement varying wildly from the others. This sense of contrast can be attributed to a combination of bluegrass' soloist/accompaniment turn taking and sonata form, the structural template whose most basic motion is created via comparative commentary. The characteristics of the first movement take on a different meaning as the second movement unfurls, and the third is an expansion on the first two. Signing their greater message with these broad strokes, the artists had plenty of room to expand on the relationships between opposites — fast and slow, bass and treble, tension and resolution, action and reaction — on a smaller, more intricate scale.
Sugar Hill Records founder and Duke University alum Barry Poss, who signed a prepubescent Thile to his roots-focused label more than a decade ago, appeared onstage to introduce the pair with fond anecdotes and lavish praise. Over two 50-minute sets, Meyer and Thile rambled across genres, exploring not only bluegrass’ harmonies and emphasis on the soloist, but also modern jazz’s melodic freedom, the lush, raw emotionalism of mainstream folk, and the unwavering focus of 20th-century art-music virtuosity.
A simple chord progression with Thile’s arpeggiated accompaniment beneath Meyer’s rustic blue notes began the performance; then, the tempo slowed to a gentle adagio as Meyer bowed hummingbird-like whispers on his top strings. In the next section, Thile took the lead with a series of licks all over the mandolin’s range, gyrating and twisting his hips, knees, and shoulders as he relaxed the athletically executed melody to a slow jam — so Meyer could burst forth to chainsaw the piece up to a climax. The duo continued with a tune in 12/8 time which allowed Thile to machine-gun even more notes into a single beat over a loping, slightly demented folk-styled tune called “The Farmer and the Duck.” A trio of brief movements from Bach keyboard suites followed, as did seething, weeping Dust Bowl-style blues, blatantly atonal moments recalling free jazz, and tender yet reserved explorations of lyricism.
One of Meyer’s pieces, a viciously roaring bass solo with piano accompaniment aptly titled “Please Don’t Feed the Bear,” was one of the most riveting of the evening. Thile’s adaptation to mandolin of the sparse, atonal accompaniment danced cautiously beneath the bass’ rabid vociferations. There were moments during some of the slower pieces in which — between the dolorous timbre of Meyer’s bowed low range and Thile’s shimmering, harp-style tones — a continuous afterglow of resonance sounded above the active notes; the palpable amazement of the audience shows how this kind of artistry has the power to eclipse whatever top-string shrieks or presto-picked licks came before.
But these two performers both stick out like sore thumbs in their fields, and not only because of their prodigious talents. Meyer is a sought-after solo artist (extremely difficult to pull off in classical music) who also feasts on jazz, blues, bluegrass, avant-garde — and composes and arranges his own material. Thile’s talent and dedication have brought him outside the exclusivity of his bluegrass-bred youth to foray into popular music (with poppy trio Nickel Creek) and into the virtuosity of so-called art music. The synthesis of their unique experiences became this series of performances, but the two clearly share a bond that’s not unrelated to the intensity and originality of the music they’ve made together. Thile, whose inability to keep still extends to times when he’s not playing, led most of the stage banter (although there were more than a few intentionally false endings of multipart pieces that both performers clearly enjoyed). By the second half, the duo’s repartee between pieces had evolved into a charming, natural give-and-take fit for vaudeville: during a break between pieces, straight-man Meyer, forty-ish and slightly Kramden-esque, offered the impish Thile his rosin; Thile gingerly touched his pick to the block; the audience erupted into laughter.
Thile’s wunderkind sheen may be just a little smudged for audiences who hear him perform with a powerhouse like Meyer, but that seems to be a good thing: Now that he’s outgrown his onetime status as a prodigy, Thile has been able to make more daring decisions about his music and about the direction of his career. One senses that Thile could develop into the kind of ultra-versatile musical iconoclast that Meyer is, although one would be hard pressed to predict where he’ll make his mark next. If Meyer and Thile put out an album of their collaborative efforts (keep your fingers crossed), it seems likely that audiences from bluegrass purists to teens to classical lovers will be inspired to buy and listen for their own reasons. They’ll come away with a new appreciation for artists who can create a cohesive and inspiring sonic statement by emphasizing — and then demolishing — their musical differences.