Béla Fleck visits Denver to talk about his new documentary, How to Write a Banjo Concerto
When world-renowned banjo player Béla Fleck was commissioned to write his first banjo concerto, he knew it would be a long, deep and challenging experience. The master musician decided to film the yearlong journey, and the result is Béla Fleck: How to Write a Banjo Concerto, a very personal look at the artist and his process.
Courtesy of Argot Pictures.
He will be performing the finished piece, "The Impostor," at this year's Telluride Bluegrass Festival with the Colorado Symphony Orchestra. But Fleck will also be in Denver at the Sie FilmCenter tomorrow night, June 17, for a Q&A after a one-time screening of the film. In advance of his visit, Westword caught up with Fleck to learn more about how the documentary came to be.
Westword: How was writing this concerto different from other work you've done as a musician and composer?
Béla Fleck: When I compose, in most situations, I don't write the parts out for everybody because I'm playing with improvising musicians. I might write a chord chart and a melody and I might have a few sections where I've come up with some counterpoints or ideas. But writing a tune is different from writing a classical piece where every single note has to be written out for the musicians. With a bluegrass musician or a jazz musician, composing is a smaller job. (Laughs.)
I realized when I was writing this piece that I had never actually written a whole piece -- every note of a piece -- in my whole life, even though people consider me a composer or a writer who has written a lot of tunes. Not only that but the writing includes dynamics and all kinds of other techniques, too. You have to think of everything, basically.
You used a program to basically translate your notations to actual notes for the classical musicians to read. I'm a musician myself who doesn't read music, and to see that translation was incredible.
Those programs, for people like me, are a miracle. With my set of skills, I don't know how I could do it. I don't know how I could write a piece without that software because I have to hear it back. We talk about it in the film a little bit, but one of the ways that I write is that I take an idea and I hear it back and I keep changing it -- but I have to hear it. Especially when you get to working with a lot of instruments -- like in this case, there were ninety instruments -- I don't have the kind of brain that some of these classical composers had and have, where they can imagine all of these parts at once. I work at it from the sides -- I just keep building and adding and trying things.
I do have strong perspective about what I like and what I don't like, but I don't have the overview. I don't know what it is going to be until it's done.
Since you wrote for so many instruments, was there a particular instrument or section of instruments in the orchestra that you found difficult to write for?
Strangely enough, percussion was a little bit out of my bailiwick. How complicated should you write for percussion instruments? How simple? Should you use them to outline things? Should treat the percussion instruments in an orchestra like a big drum kit? Is that the best use of them? You have a big bass drum, a snare, different kinds of cymbals. Then there is tuned percussion like marimbas or xylophones or celestas -- there are so many options. It's like a whole other world.
I waited until the end to do that because when I co-wrote with Edgar Meyer, that's how we did it. We kind of wrote the piece and then came back and figured out what the percussion should be. So I took that approach to it. It was challenging and for a long time, I wasn't sure if I had the right parts.