Bela Fleck Strums New Tunes for the Banjo in ‘Impostor’ On his new album, musician places the banjo in unfamiliar territory

08.13.13
Béla Fleck
The Wall Street Journal

By Corinne Ramey

On his new album, Bela Fleck places the banjo in unfamiliar territory: first in front of an orchestra, then with a string quartet. He too is out of his comfort zone, making his first solo foray into classical composing.
 
For most of his professional life, the banjoist Béla Fleck has felt like an outsider.
 
This is not for lack of musical chops—Mr. Fleck has won 15 Grammy Awards and is widely considered the world’s pre-eminent banjoist—but because he frequently places himself and his instrument beyond its traditional habitat.
 
“I’m usually the weird duck,” he said in a phone interview from Oregon, where he and his wife (also a banjoist) and 2-month-old son (not yet a banjoist) were visiting family.
 
On his new album, “The Impostor,” which Deutsche Grammophon releases on Tuesday, Mr. Fleck places the stringed instrument inunfamiliar territory: first in front of an orchestra, then with a string quartet. He too is out of his comfort zone, making his first solo foray into classical composing with the two pieces.
 
The first, also called “The Impostor,” is a concerto for banjo performed with the Nashville Symphony and conducted by Giancarlo Guerrero. The second, “Night Flight Over Water,” combines banjo with the New York string quartet Brooklyn Rider. Mr. Fleck has been performing the concerto with orchestras around the U.S. since its premiere in 2011 and will next play it with the Philadelphia Orchestra on Aug. 21 in Saratoga, N.Y.
 
Mr. Fleck, 55 years old, described his ability to readtraditional music notation as “rather primitive.” He has never had any formal composition training, though has co-written two concertos with bassist Edgar Meyer. (Mr. Fleck said Mr. Meyer did the heavy lifting.)
 
“The Impostor” concerto, while wordless, has a sketch of a story behind it.
 
“I have this idea of the impostor, of someone sneaking into a masquerade with a mask on,” Mr. Fleck said of the first movement, “Infiltration.” “Maybe he’s underclass, or he’s a scruffy guy from the Lower East Side like my grandfather. Nobody knows he’s not supposed to be there, and he makes believe.”
 
Its second movement, “Integration,” is slower and more melodic, a moment, he said, when “everyone gets comfortable with each other.” By the third movement, “Truth Revealed,” bluegrass—or what Mr. Fleck calls the banjo’s stereotypical image—emerges, and the impostor has been unmasked.
 
“Everybody is going to figure out by the end that I’m not a classical musician and I don’t belong there,” he said.
 
The Nashville Symphony commissioned the piece and to its conductor, Mr. Guerrero, Mr. Fleck’s nonclassical roots are an asset. “It’s a great way to get different audiences in the hall,” said Mr. Guerrero.
 
Mr. Fleck got around his lack of notational fluency bywriting orchestral parts in tablature, the system used to show fingerings for stringed instruments like the banjo, and then transcribing the parts into conventional music notation. He also used a software program called Sibelius (“Computers are a marvel,” he said) to create the score.
 
“His compositional process isn’t the same thing as what we hear with a composer like Mozart,” said Nicholas Cords, Brooklyn Rider’s violist. “Béla’s process is more trial and error and doing it until he gets it right.”
 
The quartet read his preliminary sketches at one member’s Fort Greene apartment and then worked closely with the banjoist through thecomposing process. Mr. Fleck was meticulous, Mr. Cords added, sensitive to phrasing even for instruments that weren’t his own. “His compositional voice shows that understanding and empathy of what we’re doing on our instruments,” he said.
 
Brooklyn Rider, whose members are nearly 20 years younger than Mr. Fleck, has cultivated its own outsider status. The quartet, which frequently finds its name behind words like “adventurous” and “genre-defying” in print, performs not just a diet of Beethoven and other standards, but works outside the classical tradition.
 
“We’ve learned a lot from him, not just musically, but about how to operate in the world,” said Mr. Cords. “He’s an amazing model to look to in terms of career-building, and how to build things in a way that no one else has done.”