Béla Fleck discusses the origins of his name and instrument,
the return of one microphone, his banjo concerto, dealing with
weakness, his writing process and artistic expression.
By Ben Finane
With the passing of Earl
Scruggs in 2012, Béla
Fleck assumed the title of
most popular living banjoist. His
musical road has wound through
bluegrass, jazz, world and classical
music. The fifty-three-year-old was
commissioned to write a concerto for
banjo and orchestra by the Nashville
Symphony. A recording of the
work will be released in August on
I didn't realize that you had such a classical name [Béla
Anton Leo Fleck].
Yeah, I do [laughs], I got stuck with them. Three serious
Béla for Bartók. Is the Anton for Dvořák or Webern?
And then Leo Janáček. Those were big shoes to fill. It
sounds inevitable that you found your way -
It's an unusual story, actually, because my parents split up
when I was one year old and my father is the one who gave
me all those names. This is one of those splits where the
parents were completely out of contact. So I didn't actually
meet my father until I was in my forties.
Sounds like your dad knew he was pushing you in no
uncertain terms toward music.
It was hard to fathom. It was one of those very strange
I thought, 'Well, Béla just must have Hungarian roots.'
I have honorary Hungarian citizenship, simply because
the Hungarian embassy was so disappointed that I wasn't
Hungarian, they made me one. Absolutely true.
So I don't think a lot of people know that the banjo made
its way to America via West African slaves. Can you take
us through the history?
You just said it all. The slaves taken from West Africa
included people that played instruments that were from
the banjo-type tradition, or what we'd call the banjo now.
I guess we'd call it some kind of lute or oud tradition.
And Pete Seeger's the guy who told me that the banjo,
before Africa, probably came from Mesopotamia, down
the Tigrisâ€“Euphrates River into Africa, at some point
way, way back. And I don't know how he knows, but
I'm sure he does. I'm comfortable with him being an
authority - or not. [Laughs.]
Pete Seeger, of course, was very much responsible for
bringing folk music to the fore in this country.
He played a huge part, especially in the Northeast. I love
this idea that I got from Pete Seeger that, as an American
instrument, the banjo's actually from Iraq.
That's something to think about.
Sure. Let's stick to Africa, but if we wanted to incite a few people, we could go that way. I'm not pushing for that. A
lot of Gambians, West Africans came over, and in Gambia
they say that slave traders took slaves that played the banjo
because more people survived the trips if there was music
on the boats. I don't know. That could be folklore; it could
be true. I have no idea. But they said that on the early trips
a lot of people died, and the slave traders didn't like drums,
because drums could incite people and the Africans could
communicate with each other through the drumming. But
an instrument like the banjo, they said, was innocuous,
lifted the spirit. I don't know. I was told that in Gambia,
but I'm not sure how they would know.
It's heavy to consider that that was the banjo's introduction
to this country. I grew up in east Tennessee, so
bluegrass is in my blood, and growing up it was always
the received wisdom that these were tunes passed down
from our Scotch-Irish tradition. But in fact it's a revival
movement of sorts, you might say 'faux-traditional.'
Yes, bluegrass is. But if you think about traditional music
in general, bluegrass is a small branch of a bigger tree. And
it's a more modern branch that was really built around
the microphone, based on moving in and out of the
microphone - that's how it's balanced. And it's a small group. It's not a community music where you have six or
seven guitar players and five or six banjo players and eight
or nine fiddle players all playing in a room together, like
they do with Irish music. There's one of each instrument,
so it's show music. It's a showcasing of the tradition, and
obviously it changed a lot when Earl Scruggs came into
Scruggs was a real game changer who brought the
banjo into the light with a new and formidable picking
Yeah, remember that they called him the Paganini of the
banjo in The New York Times when he played Carnegie
Hall with Flatt and Scruggs. [Lester Flatt, Scruggs's duo
partner, played guitar. -Ed.]
Explain this technique of 'moving in and out of the
Well, one of the cool things about bluegrass in the early
days - based on necessity - was the choreography. You
didn't have a lot of microphones for the whole band to
play on; you had one microphone. And so the band had
to move in and out of that microphone. And the good bands were beautiful at it. Flatt and Scruggs were a thing
of beauty working that one microphone - and you heard
everything perfectly. For Curly Seckler to have a mandolin
solo, he'd have to go up to the microphone. If you were
going to sing harmony, you needed to be just the right
distance from the microphone, with the lead singer at just
the right distance, too. Everybody would be at the perfect
distance, and everybody would know how to get out of
each other's way.
You can still see remnants of that at those great venues
in Nashville -
I'm thinking of The Station Inn - where
singers move back from the mic as they increase in
volume, creating these haunting echo effects.
Yeah, it's true! And in recent years, I would say the past
twenty, the one-mic or very-few-mic approach has come
back to bluegrass with a strong relevance. Whereas
for many, many years everyone thought more is better.
When everybody could have their own mic, everybody
had their own mic. And they got monitors and everyone
could hear themselves really well, and they just sort of
stood in place, and bluegrass lost a beautiful thing about
itself, which was the motion of it. Now it's back - that's
a good thing.
So what's great about classical music is there's no mic
at all. How's that for a transition to get to your recently penned banjo concerto? There's not a lot of precedent
for this sort of piece. I think Pete Seeger did something
in the sixties.
That's right. There was a piece written for Pete Seeger,
and he apparently wasn't able to do it or wasn't comfortable
doing it and passed it along to Eric Weissberg, who
played the piece. I've heard it: it's an esoteric, artsy
piece. I was asked to play it a few years ago and didn't
want to take it on, mostly because I wanted to do my
And your piece is not esoteric in the least - which I think
brings us to the American vernacular. I've always seen
Americans as outsiders to classical music, which to me
remains a European tradition. But our advantage, what
we bring to this music, is a comfort with importing and
juxtaposing our own seemingly disparate sonorities.
I like that. I think about people like Gershwin, people
outside of the classical music scene, writing classical
works. Someone like that has a lot of appeal for me, being
an outsider. In fact, my piece is now titled The Impostor. I
think of it as if you're trying to sneak this banjo into the
orchestra and yet you believe you're not who you are . . . .
It's the idea of sneaking into a masquerade without anyone
knowing that you're actually a gutter snipe. At the end of
the piece, it comes out.
Certainly there's some chromatic material at the
beginning of the piece that gives way to more familiar
bluegrass patterns in the finale.
Yeah, just at the very end, kind of like when the game is
over. And you pull off your mask and it turns out you're . . .
a Montague! I kind of like that image. Even though
nobody's ever been rude to me or anything about being a
banjo player, I can't imagine that I'm not benefiting from
everybody's low expectations.
This is a through-composed piece with no room for
improvisation or collaboration. How was that different
from your normal process?
When you improvise, you're going to play certain kinds of
phrases that fall out of you very naturally, but when you
compose, you have the time to come up with things you
never would think of playing when you're improvising. So
I love improvising, but I do so much of it that I figured,
'Well, why play in a classical situation and improvise? Why
not try to learn as much as I can from the discipline of the
situation?' So I tried to write things that I never would
have thought of, that I would have to compose and think
Do you think that discipline will find its way back when
you return to your . . . non-classical music? I was trying to
think of a word for what you play but I don't want to say
'bluegrass' or 'traditional' -
Yeah, because I'm stuck in some sort of netherworld, noman's-
land. Next week I'm playing duets with Chick Corea.
Last month I was in India with Zakir Hussain. In between
I was with Marcus Roberts, playing, basically, jazz.
So to answer your question: I've always thought of
myself as a writer, whether it was for the Flecktones or
tunes I've written to play with bluegrass bands. I've even
won composition awards, but I realized that I had never
actually written a piece from start to finish, every note of
it. When I write, I tend to write a sketch, a melody and
chord changes. Then I teach it to a band, a band full of
improvisers, and we come up with arrangements together.
And that's not the same thing as writing every note
for everybody. So I had to come up with my own bass
line, my own harmony, rhythmic counterpoint, melodic
counterpoint. While sections of this concerto could have
been played by the Flecktones or other groups I've played
with, the opportunity with the orchestra was to have
eighty people playing and all these voices be carefully
I could take some of that thinking and bring it back
to non-classical situations now, though it would be a
pretty dirty trick to play on some of my friends. I'm not
going to show up and tell Chick Corea, 'Hey man, I've got
fifteen pages of stuff I want you to play.' He's such a great
improviser, I wouldn't ask him to do that. But maybe on a certain piece, with the Flecktones or an acoustic group, I
might do it.
Soon after writing this piece, I wrote a piece for
banjo and string quartet [with Brooklyn Rider], about a
twenty-five minute work, that makes up the second half
of the album. I'm pleased with it, and there are things I
learned writing the concerto that I was able to bring to
this piece in terms of what I wanted to do better: a more
relaxed approach, a little less desperation, more freedom
and excitement. There's some desperation in that concerto,
being my first time through the composition process.
Were there influences for you classically? I know you did
the Perpetual Motion album [Sony Classical] in 2001. Are
there classical composers that you like to return to?
Absolutely. I think to be a complete musician you have
to have some kind of relationship with jazz and with
traditional music and with classical music and with music
from around the world. I don't have an encyclopedic or
studied classical knowledge, but I have a lot of familiarity.
I grew up in New York; my stepfather played cello. I hung
around with [bassist] Edgar Meyer, who helped me fall in
love with Bach - again.
Edgar is a big influence on me: he's the closest friend
I have, he's a great classical musician, he's a top-tier
player on his instrument in the classical world - with a
healthy career outside that world. So watching him write
pieces for bass and perform opened my mind to the
idea that the banjo could do the same. And Edgar has
a problem that there's not a lot of repertoire for a bass
player like him, 'cause no one's expected to play the bass
like that. So there's no bass concerto by Bach. There are
cello concertos. So Edgar is in a position where it's 'How
do I play what I want to play?' And he's created a lot of
We wrote a couple of concertos together where Edgar
was the leader and I was the collaborator. I learned how
he did it, but I wasn't capable of doing it that way because
I don't have the same grounding in theory. I also have a
different personality. So I had to do it my way, which was
sort of . . . dumb, you know?
What do you mean by that? What was dumb about it?
What's dumb about it is I don't know what I'm doing, so
my unconscious mind has to play a big role in the process
- and that's always been a big piece of how I work. It's
the strength and the weakness at play. I don't really know
classical harmony, but I've been around a lot of music and
listened to a lot of it. So I write and I keep on writing until
it sounds good to me, but I honestly don't even read music.
I'm just moving notes around on the computer screen
until they sound good to me. And I'm not saying I don't
have some wherewithal, because I do, but my wherewithal
is working with musicians one-on-one, or pulling good
performances out of musicians or arranging for musicians in the room. My strengths are not in writing out, conceiving
something on paper notation. I have to use my ear and
react to things and rewrite, rewrite, rewrite. But eventually,
I come up with something I like and it tends to hold some
water because I've worked so hard on it that I've ironed out
most of the flaws in my nature - with a lot of hard work
and elbow grease.
I don't think you're alone there. We call that the trichord
theory of composition: try this chord, try that chord . . . .
Yeah! That's what I do. I might start out with a little melody
and write a bunch of counterparts to it, and then decide
that the melody doesn't work and write a new melody to
the counterparts, and just keep on rewriting until it shapes
up - and gradually it does. I tend to lose interest in things
when there's nothing left for me to do, and that's when
Perhaps not reading music really makes you get inside
every note. Do you feel bad about it? Do you say, 'Oh
geez, I should really learn how to read music'? Or do you
feel that 'This is my method'?
I've had so many people tell me that I would benefit a
lot from learning to play the piano, but it's hard after
playing the banjo for thirty-five years to go back to being a
beginner and try and learn to read music so I can try and
understand harmony and look at scores and understand
them. What I have achieved is an understanding. While
it will never be as solid as good learning would have been,
it has given me some other things that I'm happy with. I'm
a self-made man, for whatever it's worth, with lots of flaws,
but not like anybody else.
And it's also supposed to be about artistic expression,
and you can only express what you are. You can't express
what you were or what you would have been if you had
gotten training. If the music communicates to people, then
it's a success, and the other stuff actually doesn't matter - on
a personal level. As far as looking at my concerto years
later and comparing it to works by Bach, Beethoven and so
forth, I'm not too concerned that that's ever gonna happen.
I'm more concerned that it's an honest expression of myself
as a musician and that I think it's good and that I can get
behind it and stand up there and that I would like to go out
and play it over and over again. And I've enjoyed getting to
play it again and again. I like the piece. That's a selfish, weird
thing to say, but if I didn't, I'd have a real problem. Because
I'm gonna be out there playing it and I'm a front-runner
in the banjo world, so I want to do something that isn't
embarrassing for all of us. So I really put a year of hard labor
into it - and it is what is.