Bela Fleck has been supporting his debut album with singer, banjoist (and his wife) Abigail Washburn with a tour. He admits that there’s an adjustment necessary to this duo approach but clearly the acclaimed banjoist loves a challenge.
It’s why he decided to compose and perform an original composition that features his world-renowned abilities on the banjo with an 80-piece symphony. It followed two classical pieces written with bassist Edgar Meyer and another with Meyer and Zakir Hussain (tabla). Commissioned by the Nashville Symphony to make that idea a reality, Fleck debuted, “The Imposter,” to an enthusiastic response on Sept. 22, 2011.
He chronicled its yearlong transformation from writing sessions, interviewing principal members of the symphony and his musical peers Meyer, Chris Thile and Noam Pikelny to rehearsing and playing it during a triumphant performance in the engrossing documentary he co-directed, Bela Fleck: How to Write a Banjo Concerto.
Originally, the film was going to be a collaboration with his half-brother/filmmaker Sascha Paladino but Fleck edited ended up deeply involved – budget, filming, directing and editing.
Because of that as well as ongoing performances of “The Imposter” he’s enthused to discuss the project despite its release last year. It’s screened at 2015 festivals including Bonnaroo and Sewanee.
“Truthfully, it’s been tough to get much attention for it and this is a great moment for that and I appreciate a lot,” he said early in our conversation that dealt with the concerto, writing process and the film.
JPG: You’ve been promoting the film for quite some but, also, the whole project for multiple years.
BF: Oh yeah. It’s been a big one, long term.
JPG: Overall, how long have you been involved with it? Can you even consider doing a second concerto?
BF: I’m working on one. I’m having trouble getting much work done on it because life is so busy but, yes, it’s premiering in March. Time is marching on towards March. That’ll be the number two. There’s opportunities to do more. So, I have to see when I do number two, after that whole experience and after recovering from it, whether just relax into it and enjoy it without being so stressed out…which really doesn’t help anything anyway.
JPG: I understand that all too well.
BF: Yeah, you know it, but you still do it.
JPG: Yes. More and more I hear my wife’s voice in my ear, “Be in the present, John. Be in the moment. Breathe.”
BF: You probably recognized yourself in the film.
JPG: Oh, yeah. I didn’t know if there were uglier portions of the creative process that you were able to talk Sasha into not putting in…
BF: (laughs) Well, there were boring parts of the creative process that we didn’t put in, that’s for sure. For instance, I ended up doing the editing with an editor myself because Sascha [Paladino] got caught up in his own television show that he got the opportunity to do with Disney; a children’s show that is out now called Miles from Tomorrowland. So, he was super super busy and had to be super hands off during the whole edit process because he was moving back from Ireland with his twin kids and his wife.
I definitely chose what I thought was the most interesting…but sometimes, you’re actually looking for tension and stress. It makes a better film to include that stuff. I don’t know if there was anything that ugly that I hid. I just tried to keep it moving and try to have a flow to the story. This is definitely an artist-generated project, a narcissist’s dream; all the controls you could possibly want of an out of control situation.
We were going to collaborate on it, hoping that he would take the reins but he couldn’t so I ended up stuck with it. It was like, “Now, we’re this deep in, what do we do?” I kept on getting people to come film and afterwards, I managed to get an editor in New York and go on up and work with him. Pulling and tugging and pushing and eventually it all came together.
JPG: It’s one thing to be a musician and listen to yourself play and have an opinion, “That’s a good take,” but to watch yourself…
BF: I went through that on the Throw Down Your Heart tour film. For one thing people seem to accept me as an on screen presence, so I try not to worry about that. Things in that film where I thought that maybe I didn’t do well or didn’t look good, people seemed to like that better than when I thought I was perfect.
When you’re in the studio, and you’re trying so hard to do the best that you can musically, a lot of times you’ll have a quest for perfection that’ll even kill the music but with film it was a little bit impossible because we didn’t have that kind of coverage. We had what we had. You had to let things go and go with it. Accept that you didn’t look good in this scene or that you wished you’d said it differently. Do all you can to try and tell the story.
I do feel confident that in the process of making the film, I was able to show what it felt like to me what was going on with the whole process.
JPG: You used a lot of different styles and techniques that, as you said, moved the story along and gave some insight to the creative process as well.
BF: The whole movie, I don’t know what the hell I’m doing and, really, it’s the same way I approach everything. It’s the way I approach composition. It’s the way I approach making music or writing music, just try stuff until you find things you like and build on them, and not from the point of view of knowing but waiting for things to resonate. And when they do, you go with that and you continue to work with things that seem to do that. Eventually, if you keep at it, something will happen. You get something together.
I produce. I don’t quite engineer. In other words, I don’t plug in the mikes. Aside from that, I’m very hands on the whole recording process, so a lot of those skills of editing, mixing, comping, performing, they all come into play when you’re doing a film. A lot of those skills traveled from field to field.
JPG: You like to tackle new horizons that are daunting. Here’s a quote of yours, “The trick for me is to stay engaged and always have something off in the distance to be excited about. If I am always doing something special, and thinking about something special for the future, it is an awesome life.” So, is the thrill the challenge? Have you met those challenges or have there been times that you haven’t and you may go back to them?
BF: Well, I think that there’s a point in this film when I’m talking to Edgar Meyer after the performance or I’m talking to Abby and I said, “Well, I got some of it right.” And the fact that you can come offstage with an audience going absolutely berserk for it, everybody thinking it was just great, yet you know you got some of it and you didn’t get some other of it.
That’s just the reality of being a musician. Being on the creative edge is that you’re not even sure yourself if you got it right afterwards. It takes some hindsight to decide what you think about that. You might feel differently about it the day of the show. You might feel differently a month from the show. Five years later you might look back and go, “Wow, that was the greatest moment of my life.” But you can’t always tell when you’re in the middle of it and know what’s going on. Your worst work and you might think it’s amazing and you might be doing your best work and think it sucks.
JPG: That reminds me of Jerry Garcia, he got so mad at some shows that they played and then later when he listened to it he was like, “Oh, that wasn’t as bad as I thought.” When I acted in plays, I used to call it Yearbook Syndrome because your friends and family would come backstage and tell you how great it was but in my head I felt I was awful.
BF: Right. A lot of that is because you’re so self-conscious that you’re seeing everything through a microscope or lens and everything seems so huge, every move of your lip, every breath you took, the way you said, “Thee” just drives you fuckin’ crazy but the truth is nobody else is hearing it at that level. They’re just getting an overflow of it and, besides, it’s not as important to anybody as it is to you. So, they can just enjoy it. They can even enjoy you fucking up and love you during the process.
JPG: True. Now, on to the banjo concerto itself, which is called “The Imposter.” Since it was first performed in Nashville, have you tweaked it a bit or changed the cadenza section when you’ve performed it with other symphonies?
BF: The cadenza is pretty much set now, although, occasionally, I leave a few sections in it where I can improvise. I usually don’t improvise for more than a few bars or something like that. I like to leave a little bit in there, just almost like a test.
In terms of the piece changing, nothing has changed structurally. I’m constantly looking for ways to make rehearsal go smoother and simplify the way it’s written. Occasionally, someone will say if you write this blah, blah, blah, we could sight read it because if it’s written like this, it takes five minutes to practice it. And so we’ll change that. I tweak the charts, and I’ve even changed who plays certain notes in a couple of spots but I haven’t changed any of the notes.