There’s something new happening in the world of acoustic music. Last weekend I went to see Noam Pikelny and Stuart Duncan—a duo of banjo and fiddle. When I first heard about the concert, I wondered how those two instruments could possibly make for an interesting evening of music. But recently I’ve been listening to a lot of music on YouTube with Chris Thile, Michael Daves, Brian Sutton, Noam Pikelny, and others, and these musicians are playing together in all sorts of combinations.
Chris Thile has been pushing the boundaries of musical categories for some years now, ever since he left Nickel Creek. You never know where he’ll turn up and what kind of music he’ll be playing; right now he’s touring with Edgar Meyer—that’s a duo of mandolin and acoustic bass. Their song, “Big Top” doesn’t fit any music genre I know—jazz bluegrass would be about the closest you could come to a category. He’s also playing Bach sonatas on his mandolin. Maybe we’re almost to the point where we can throw the concept of genre out the window: it doesn’t matter any more what instrument you play, you can create music in any style you like or create a new one of your own. It feels so free and fresh.
In the concert I heard, Mr. Pikelny and Mr. Duncan played bluegrass, but they also played a Scottish reel, Django Reinhardt-style swing, and some haunting waltzes of Mr. Pikelny's composition. The instrumentation was sensational; they are both masters on their instruments (Mr. Pikelny just won banjo player of the year from the International Bluegrass Music Association). Sometimes I shook my head in wonder at the amazing runs Mr. Pikelny did on his banjo. And there was something wonderful in just having the two instruments; instead of a band passing the solo lead from instrument to instrument while everyone else plays rhythm, there were a lot of times when both men were playing lead at the same time and it was marvelous.
Do yourself a favor and click on some of these links and start exploring this new world of music!
Update: Thanks to my friend Arthur for reminding me to say that both these men are also in bands: Mr. Pikelny is in the Punch Brothers and Mr. Duncan is in the Nashville Bluegrass Band.
Also, I did not watch the tour video I linked to above until after I wrote this post. When I did watch it (linked again here), it was interesting that the men brought up two points I’d mentioned.
- could these two instruments fill an evening?
- with only two instruments there’s “no place to hide.” No playing background rhythm.
Another feature of this music is that the musicians often share a single microphone, creating an acoustic, “living room” feel. Instead of having separate microphones and listening to a tailored mix through earbuds (each person has a mix with their instrument/voice a little higher), these musicians are listening to each other acoustically. This creates a realness that is lost in all the electronics. Mr. Pikelny and Duncan had individual mics, but there were no floor monitors or earpieces.
Another group that plays this way sometimes is the Milkcarton Kids. When I saw them earlier this year they used only one microphone, and faced each other. It was as if we in the audience were sharing an intimate musical experience that the two men were creating together. Exquisite.