Double bassist Edgar Meyer Lowdown sound has him soaring with eagles [classic article]

The low sound of the bass has produced a mighty high career for Edgar Meyer.

Classical bass soloist Edgar Meyer has spent his entire career opening new doors and opening minds to what he and his instrument can do. Meyer was just 5 years old when he started learning bass from his father. Meyer took lessons with Stuart Sankey and attended the School of Music at Indiana University. Meyer’s interests delved into progressive bluegrass when he was a member of the band Strength in Numbers, from 1986 to 1992.

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He has won many diverse prizes: several Grammy awards, the Avery Fisher Career Grant, the Avery Fisher Prize and a $500,000 MacArthur Foundation fellowship — popularly called a “genius grant” — in 2002. As a performer and composer, Meyer has collaborated with a wide range of artists, such as Yo Yo Ma, fellow Indiana University alum Joshua Bell, Garth Brooks, Mary Chapin Carpenter, Hank Williams Jr., Emmylou Harris, James Taylor, Mark O’Connor and the Chieftains. Meyer has appeared on “The Late Show with David Letterman,” and at the second Inaugural Gala for President Bill Clinton.

Meyer is a favorite at music fests and other places that promote his individuality. He has appeared at annual music festivals in Aspen, Colo., Tanglewood, Mass., Chamber Music Northwest in Portland, Ore., and Marlboro, Vt. In 1994, Meyer joined the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center in New York City. Currently, he serves as visiting professor of double bass at the Royal Academy of Music in England.

Bankrate: What are some of your latest projects?

Edgar Meyer: I have been recording with Bela Fleck, including a concerto with the National Symphony, but also a symphony with just bass and orchestra with Michael Stern and his Iris group in Memphis. I try to always have a certain number of projects going, concerts and duos. I’m starting a record where I play all the instruments. I’m also building a studio to do recording.

Bankrate: Did you have to study acoustic engineering to design it? I know that some concert halls even specify the type of paint to enhance the sound.

Edgar Meyer: I didn’t do the design. I’m not that serious about it; it’s going to be more reactive after the fact. I’ll try to make sure that there aren’t too many parallel surfaces for the sound and that it’s built on a slab, not a crawl space. This is not a concert hall, though, it’s my house. I’ll split the difference between the acoustic and inert sound. Also, since it’s for recording, there’s a lot more control you can do with recording than you can for a live concert. I can change things after recording.

Bankrate: You’ve created musical opportunities that didn’t used to exist. Where did you get your business acumen?

Edgar Meyer: I don’t think of it that way. It’s more a case of wanting to do music that people like. I wanted to upgrade the perception of bass, as a voice that’s attractive. I wanted to reach people.

Bankrate: What areas of music have you yet to explore?

Edgar Meyer: It’s a matter of degree. I want to do more in terms of what I’ve underdeveloped, which is improvisation. I always concentrated more on — supplanted the improvisation — by writing music. That’s the biggest change I’ve made in the past 15 years.

Bankrate: You started playing when you were 5, under your father’s direction. Was he a stage dad?

Edgar Meyer: No. I have seen it, though. He had some elements; Lord knows you’ve never seen anyone so proud. The core of our relationship was not tied to my success or lack of it. There was zero pressure. He was ridiculously proud of me, but I can’t drag it out, I don’t want to talk about it.

Bankrate: It seems that many parents used to discourage their kids from taking up bass, or even the cello, not wanting to lug it around. Do you find this to be true still?

Edgar Meyer: It’s an impractical instrument; I wouldn’t wish it on anyone. For me, it was never a choice; I took it up before I knew it’d be difficult. My favorite instrument is the violin. With the violin, you get more bang for the buck, physically.

Bankrate: Is there a lack of choice, qualitywise, in buying a bass compared to a violin?

Edgar Meyer: Absolutely. But, you’re getting 10 times the wood at like, one-tenth the price. Sure, you have some Florentine instruments, like a Gabrielli, but it’s not the same as the Strads and the Amatis. You have some basses with jeweled inlays, scroll work, but it’s not about that. It’s about the sound. The bass is an older instrument, derived from the Gamba.

Bankrate: Did you ever have any other jobs to support your art?

Edgar Meyer: I guess, technically. I was good at math. I worked at the Oak Ridge Lab, doing Fortran (programming language). I did one day of construction.

Bankrate: You are a product of a conservatory — sometimes, they seemed to understand you, sometimes not. What do you think the future of conservatories is?

Edgar Meyer: I don’t know. My point of view is that there are too many music conservatories. It’s a self-perpetuating situation and it’s very competitive. Real musical needs are being filled up by a small number of schools. I would prefer that someone, instead of getting a musical degree, learn music along with philosophy, say.

Bankrate: What special perks has your fame brought you?

Edgar Meyer: The downside is I’m not home enough. I had a nice piano put in. I take it for granted; it hasn’t been dull, though. Frankly, getting to know all the great musicians is the best part — getting to know President Clinton didn’t rank as high.

Bankrate: Do you manage your own money?

Edgar Meyer: Um, to a degree.

Bankrate: Do you have investments?

Edgar Meyer: Not substantial. I am not going to be a landlord, you won’t see me there. It wouldn’t be a good use of time.

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