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Béla Fleck visits Denver to talk about his new documentary, How to Write a Banjo Concerto

Béla Fleck visits Denver to talk about his new documentary, How to Write a Banjo Concerto
Courtesy of Argot Pictures.

When world-renowned banjo player Béla Fleck was commissioned to write his first banjo concerto, he knew it would be a long, deep and challenging experience. The master musician decided to film the yearlong journey, and the result is Béla Fleck: How to Write a Banjo Concerto, a very personal look at the artist and his process.

He will be performing the finished piece, "The Impostor," at this year's Telluride Bluegrass Festival with the Colorado Symphony Orchestra. But Fleck will also be in Denver at the Sie FilmCenter tomorrow night, June 17, for a Q&A after a one-time screening of the film. In advance of his visit, Westword caught up with Fleck to learn more about how the documentary came to be.

See also: Telluride Bluegrass Festival's longtime MC reflects on Colorado's most storied music fest

Westword: How was writing this concerto different from other work you've done as a musician and composer?

Béla Fleck: When I compose, in most situations, I don't write the parts out for everybody because I'm playing with improvising musicians. I might write a chord chart and a melody and I might have a few sections where I've come up with some counterpoints or ideas. But writing a tune is different from writing a classical piece where every single note has to be written out for the musicians. With a bluegrass musician or a jazz musician, composing is a smaller job. (Laughs.)

I realized when I was writing this piece that I had never actually written a whole piece -- every note of a piece -- in my whole life, even though people consider me a composer or a writer who has written a lot of tunes. Not only that but the writing includes dynamics and all kinds of other techniques, too. You have to think of everything, basically.

You used a program to basically translate your notations to actual notes for the classical musicians to read. I'm a musician myself who doesn't read music, and to see that translation was incredible.

Those programs, for people like me, are a miracle. With my set of skills, I don't know how I could do it. I don't know how I could write a piece without that software because I have to hear it back. We talk about it in the film a little bit, but one of the ways that I write is that I take an idea and I hear it back and I keep changing it -- but I have to hear it. Especially when you get to working with a lot of instruments -- like in this case, there were ninety instruments -- I don't have the kind of brain that some of these classical composers had and have, where they can imagine all of these parts at once. I work at it from the sides -- I just keep building and adding and trying things.

I do have strong perspective about what I like and what I don't like, but I don't have the overview. I don't know what it is going to be until it's done.

Since you wrote for so many instruments, was there a particular instrument or section of instruments in the orchestra that you found difficult to write for?

Strangely enough, percussion was a little bit out of my bailiwick. How complicated should you write for percussion instruments? How simple? Should you use them to outline things? Should treat the percussion instruments in an orchestra like a big drum kit? Is that the best use of them? You have a big bass drum, a snare, different kinds of cymbals. Then there is tuned percussion like marimbas or xylophones or celestas -- there are so many options. It's like a whole other world.

I waited until the end to do that because when I co-wrote with Edgar Meyer, that's how we did it. We kind of wrote the piece and then came back and figured out what the percussion should be. So I took that approach to it. It was challenging and for a long time, I wasn't sure if I had the right parts.

 

Fleck and his wife, banjo player Abigail Washburn.
Fleck and his wife, banjo player Abigail Washburn.
Courtesy of Argot Pictures.

Why did you decide to document this process and make it into a film?

The last and only film I ever made before this one was this trip to Africa (Throw Down Your Heart) which was a huge endeavor. It was very ambitious to plan upfront -- to go to Africa with a camera crew and sound engineers and all of the equipment and record in four countries. So when I was thinking about this (project,) this was kind of like another adventure here at home. I thought about how simple it would be to film it -- I thought, there's no reason for me not to get a little camera and just start catching this thing as I do it.

I thought it might be interesting -- it could be a short piece to help people find out about the concerto after it came out. But I also liked the idea of capturing the moment of creation and just putting a camera on me and sitting in front of me and doing this work. Or, just getting a camera that is there that I forget all about.

Then I realized that the orchestra, for a lot of people, is an adventure and an area that is unknown. It was to me, in the same way that going to Africa was. Exploring the orchestra was unknown for me and I think, a lot of people I know. It could be a similar kind of adventure but here at home and much easier to do. I just started filming little things and talking to friends about this piece. Obviously I thought it was a huge moment in life trying to create it, so that is probably the narcissistic part of the thing; the idea that I was writing a piece that was worth anybody caring about how it was written. I had to believe that before I started writing it in order to set up cameras.

Then again, it is so easy to set up a camera these days. I thought, why not start and see what is happening. As I got into it, things started to come up that were really easy to shoot. My brother (filmmaker) Sascha Paladino is in that business and he had friends he could get to shoot momentous moments. As we went along, we started to get more and more. I thought, we should really finish this and really get it all.

Is there anything behind the name of this piece, "The Imposter," that means anything in particular?

Yeah, in fact there was a scene that didn't make it into the film -- after the big night was over, I was talking to Futureman from the Flecktones. He was saying, 'what is the concept of this piece? Is there a storyline?' I told him the whole storyline -- I felt like the banjo was a character who was sneaking into a masquerade party and making believe that he belonged in the situation.

Because of his mask he could operate in this situation. By the end of the story, he's unmasked and has to escape -- maybe he's sneaking out or caught robbing the place or something. I started to think about it like, the banjo was sneaking into the orchestra and making believe it belonged. Everybody had masks on so nobody quite realized that he wasn't supposed to be there. Maybe the banjo is trying to fit in and act like a classical instrument for the first movement.

I titled the first movement "Infiltration"; the second movement is called "Integration." That's where the banjo just starts to fit and everybody is buying it. The third movement is called "The Truth Revealed" and that's when I start to play some real banjo music in it -- some real bluegrass and that kind of stuff. Then everyone realizes I'm not supposed to be there.

But you're in Nashville and originally performed this piece with the Nashville Symphony, so to me, the banjo still seems appropriate.

I live here; I think that's the only reason that orchestra was willing to give me a chance. I've been here for so long and the banjo itself has a real place in the community here.

 

Banjo legend Earl Scruggs with Béla Fleck.
Banjo legend Earl Scruggs with Béla Fleck.
Courtesy of Argot Pictures.

Earl Scruggs makes an appearance in How to Write a Banjo Concerto. Had you connected with him prior to the filming, or did you tap him just for this?

We actually got to know each other in the '80s when I moved to town. John Hartford, who is a great singer, banjo player, fiddle player and songwriter, introduced me to Earl Scruggs back then. But it was always a very rare experience for me to spend any time with Earl until maybe the last five years, when he was pretty well retired and was home a lot. I got to know him pretty well and I would go to his place a lot -- which was the only reason I felt okay about asking him to come over and hear the piece. It is why I dedicated the piece to him.

He did a lot of things in his life, but he didn't get in front of an orchestra. He came to the performance (of the piece) and it was the last performance he went to before he passed away. So it was heavy, some kind of a special thing happened there.

The way it is framed in the film, the making of this concerto is also the first time you get into finding out about your namesake, composer Béla Bartók. Why did you decide to dig into his music at this time in your life?

I think Béla Bartók's music is music that I can compare to coffee, a little bit; when you first taste it, it is a little bit bitter. But the more you drink the more you get hooked on it. Partly because I had mixed feelings about my father, I wasn't jumping up and down to get to know Bartók's music, although I can't say I hadn't heard it and that there were things that I had heard that I really like. But I hadn't made the effort that you would expect me to make.

At the point of writing this concerto -- in a way I'm sort of dealing with the idea of being a composer, even if it is only for this one piece. But being named after three composers by my father, it seemed like it was time to see what was in Bartók for me, and what would turn me on. Boy, there was a lot.

Sometimes you're just not ready for something and I think it was more emotional. Taking on this piece was also taking on some of that personal stuff, too. I think it was the right time for it. It never was the right time; but I always knew that someday, I would need to get to know his music and really want to. This seemed like a perfect time to do it.

Béla Fleck: How to Write a Banjo Concerto screens tomorrow night, June 17 at 8 p.m. at the Sie FilmCenter. Fleck will be on hand for a Q&A session after the film. Tickets are $20 to $25 and are available at the Sie box office, online or by calling 303-595-3456.

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2510 E. Colfax Ave.
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