It could be very easy to hate someone likeYo-Yo Ma. Not only is he incredibly talented, there seems to be no end to his ability to astound as a musician. At just over 55 years of age, he has probably performed and/or recorded every major piece in the classical repertoire written for cello and in the process set the new standard for the instrument in our generation. Not since Pablo Casals has there been such a single dominant figure playing cello. While there have been other excellent cellists in the past 40 years, Ma has managed to eclipse names like Harnoy, Previn, and others in a relatively small number of years.
While that alone would make him remarkable, it’s his seemingly insatiable interest in the world around him that makes him such a unique figure in the world of classical musicians. He made it obvious from early on that he was cut from a different mold. Like many other musicians he started playing when he was young, four years old, but unlike most he understood there was more to the world than Bach and Mozart. So after graduation from the Julliard School in New York, he completed a Liberal Arts Degree from Harvard University, all by his twenty-first birthday. It would be really easy to despise this guy. He’s just too brilliant.
Unfortunately he’s just too brilliant – I don’t think I’ve ever seen a picture of him where he doesn’t appear to be glowing. It’s impossible not to like somebody who takes such obvious joy in not only doing what he does, but finding ways to spread the joy to as many people as possible. Every time you turn around it seems like he’s doing some new project that explores the different directions music can be taken, and pushes his own instrument in directions most people wouldn’t even have dreamt of let alone bring to fruition. His latest project on Sony Masterworks, The Goat Rodeo Sessions, is a perfect example. Not only does it show off his skills as a musician, it throws into relief the originality of his ideas.
For this recording he is joined by three other instrumentalists: Chris Thile on mandolin, Edgar Meyer on bass and Stuart Duncan on fiddle. Thile and singer Aoife O’Donovan accompany the quartet with vocals on two of the eleven compositions performed on the disc. Thile is also the odd man out in most people’s idea of a string quartet. But that makes sense as the music the four, and occasionally five, of them make is nothing like what you’d hear from most string quartets. In fact I haven’t heard anything quite as original from this type of configuration since I heard the Kronos Quartet performing Hendrix’s “Purple Haze” on violins, viola and cello.
Each of the tracks on the recording are originals, with ten being composed by Thile, Meyer and Duncan. O’Donovan joins the other three in writing “Here and Heaven,” the first of the two songs she contributes vocals to. Normally referring to a song as an original simply means the people performing wrote it themselves rather than playing somebody else’s work. However, in this case the music on this disc is truly original. The five musicians involved in the project bring widely divergent backgrounds with them. From Ma–the classically trained cellist who doesn’t improvise, to Duncan–the Nashville fiddle player who doesn’t read very much music, the challenges faced in creating and performing the music you hear on the disc would have been huge.
According to the liner notes, the term “Goat Rodeo” is defined as a situation- defying order. Yet, no matter how chaotic the creative process might have been, the final result is sublime. The opening track “Attaboy,” a stirring mix of the four instruments defining the new genre they’ve invented through their search for common ground, gives listener a taste of what’s to come. This is not merely four guys mixing bluegrass, country, Irish and classical music together. Instead it’s finding the place where they all converge and then leaping off into the unknown from there. Forget any expectations you might have based on any knowledge of the individuals involved, as they won’t prepare you for what you’re going to hear.
Flashes of bluegrass, jigs, reels, madrigals, waltzes and almost everything else you can think of or recognize weave in and out of the material as the four men create tapestries of music you would not have thought possible. Of course it doesn’t hurt that each of them are able to make their instruments sing in ways that most people only dream of accomplishing. Just to make things interesting, Thile picks up the banjo and gamba on one track, “Here In Heaven” (which he also contributes vocals to); Duncan grabs the banjo for “Less Is Moi”; and Meyer hops over to the piano on “No One But You.” However, no matter who is playing what, the end result is the same. Music captures the imagination and stirs the soul in ways you might not believe possible until you hear it.
I know I’m avoiding specifics about individual tracks on this disc, but it’s not like you can say “the lyrics on this song are cool” and “you really have to check out the solo on this song.” These pieces are each moments of musical magic that transcend the usual definitions we use for categorizing or compartmentalizing music. When boundaries have been redefined, language is the last to catch up as we scramble to find words that will do justice to something we’ve never had to talk about before. If I tell you that one song sounds like a mix of bluegrass mandolin, Irish fiddle, jazz bass and a beautiful cello sonata, what kind of image would that envoke? That sounds like four instruments running off in four different directions all at once.
Yet there are songs in which that’s exactly what it sounds like, except all four instruments are running in the same direction and are standing together on incredibly solid footing. What does happen is you hear these different styles and instruments in ways you’ve never heard before, and it gives you an even deeper appreciation for them. Personally I’ve always loved the sound a cello makes. But when hearing it on this disc, in the company of the other instruments, its sound affected me stronger then ever before. Maybe hearing the cello in unfamiliar territory made it stand out more, but it is the same for each instrument. You can’t help but notice them and appreciate them far more then you would normally.
Earlier I had briefly mentioned singer Aoife O’Donovan, who along with Thile provides vocals on two tracks. Aside from the fact they sound like they’ve been singing together forever, what struck me is how they found the common ground between the folk music of the British Isles and the bluegrass and country music of North America. You’d be hard pressed to tell it today based on what passes itself off as country music, but it owes its existence to the traditional folk music of Scotland, Ireland and England. Hearing the voices of O’Donovan and Thile together, and the music created to accompany the lyrics they sing, is like listening to history come alive as you hear the two forms meeting and merging. It’s one among many of transcendent moments you’ll experience listening to this recording.
In mythology you often read that before there was life there was chaos. It’s only through the imposition of some sort of order its maelstrom of divergent energies assumes a familiar form. The Goat Rodeo Sessions is an example of how chaos inspires the miracle of creation. The four musicians on this recording may not be gods, but they have certainly created something full of life, beauty and splendour. It might not be a new universe, but its definitely a new world of music.