The outliers in this summer’s group are the two songs. A month ago, I wrote a bluegrass song – my first – for two voices, mandolin, banjo and guitar. When I finished it, I had this nagging feeling that the lyrics could really benefit from a high, intertwining bassoon line, of all things, so I replaced the banjo with a bassoon (I sure hope, for the sanity of our civilization, that I’m the first person to say those words: “replaced the banjo with a bassoon”) and started over, adding an electric bass in the process and ending up with a completely different piece to the same text.
There’s an important lesson here. There are standard ensembles – for example, bluegrass band – that have cultural resonance, and we need to respect those traditions. At the same time, it’s important to respect the imagination, especially when it comes up with something that doesn’t fit a specific tradition. Finding the right balance between those two – tradition and imagination – is one of the tasks of art.
I'm not quite a genre purist. I mean, in a way I am a genre purist but in a way I'm not. I reject the NewMusicBox bromide popular with some of their contributors that genre doesn't exist and is just something corporations invented to market music. You can distinguish between Delta blues, Chicago blues and Texas blues if you've listened to enough blues in your life. You can also hear differences between ragtime and stride. But it's also the case, in my experience, that as real as the boundaries between genres are these boundaries are all in some sense permeable. I've been interested in composing music that explores the permeability of the boundaries in very direct ways. So if I were to write something for banjo I'd make a point of explicitly composing a sonata form. I might have a central slow movement that is a set of variations on a shape-note hymn and then round things off with a spritely rondo that recapitulates and invokes thematic materials from earlier movements--that's boilerplate Beethovenian macro-structural work there, but it works. And there's nothing wrong with exploring the ways in which high and low can interact. What I've loved about Haydn's work is how he mixed the high and low idioms of his time and place in ways that respected the "roots", if you will, of his respective idioms.
As to what such an imagined aforementioned sonata for banjo and guitar would actually sound like ... something like this. A similar experiment in writing a sonata for ukulele and guitar can be heard over here. We looked at an overview of the history of the banjo that was featured at another blog a couple of years ago. A more abstract question as to whether anyone had written in sonata form for the banjo was asked back here.