We caught up with Meyer in Mississippi the day after the 2002 MacArthur’s were announced. Here’s some of what he had to say about the recognition, the music, and where composition fits into it all.
Molly Sheridan: So, you’ve probably answered this ten times by now, but I know that you find out about these awards with a phone call totally out of the blue. When did you get yours and what was your initial reaction?
Edgar Meyer: I was in Denver to play a recital and was just practicing in the middle of the afternoon. They reached me and said this is the only call you’ll get and congratulations. I was extremely thrilled. Called my wife and they had told me to tell no one else. I tried and didn’t really succeed, but…
Molly Sheridan: I can imagine. So what does an award like this mean for you at this point in your career? You’ve obviously had a lot of commercial success, but this kind of recognition I imagine is something special.
Edgar Meyer: It is. The easiest was of saying it is that I’ve just been perfectly happy about it. There’s no complication. It’s just thrilling and probably for a combination of reasons. There have been different folks who’ve gotten it that I’ve admired a lot, certainly a group of people I’d want to be associated with and I guess I like the idea of it not being so job specific. I’ve always been a little bit in the cracks in terms of what my job was and so in a sense I was actually more comfortable getting this than I might something else just because it’s a lot of encouragement to be myself and not to worry about it.
Molly Sheridan: This is obviously a significant amount of money. Do you have any idea what work you might want to do with this? Any projects you’ve been kicking around but not known how you might fund?
Edgar Meyer: Not so much that. I’ve been happy with my opportunities and mainly do what I want to do but for instance the one thing that’s certain is that I’ve wanted to have a really great piano. I’ve been playing a little more in concerts on the piano and gotten to know a lot of pianos across the country. Every once in a while there will be one that’s really memorable and so I will certainly spend a year or two trying to find one of those and have it in my house. But besides that no specific plans yet. I think it may occasionally give me a little bit broader set of options. That I may consider some things that I may have wanted to do but been a little shy to do both because I thought they were not enough in the middle of what my career is or where it could seem a little flaky. And I hope that’s O.K. I haven’t really figured it out is what it boils down to. Obviously I haven’t considered it all.
Molly Sheridan: It’s an open field.
Edgar Meyer: More open.
Molly Sheridan: And as you mentioned, the list of people who have also received this award is amazing. As far as George Lewis goes, is that someone that you’ve met or heard his work at all?
Edgar Meyer: No, I was actually going to get on the Web and find out more about him. I’m openly interested; I even suspect I’ll try and contact him in the next six months after I learn more about what he does. Especially since I’ve only seen a one-sentence description of what he does at this point.
Molly Sheridan: A little bit of a larger question, I know that you’re active composing, performing, you’ve done some really interesting fusion projects. What are your personal artistic goals right now? Is there anything that you’re sort of working towards?
Edgar Meyer: I tend to be recording oriented and have been for a long time so at the core of it there’s often just a desire to make as beautiful a recording as I can figure out how to. I’m currently on the beginning end of trying to become a much stronger improvising player, but it’s possible that my interest in composition may just be a little overwhelming—that I may be more fundamentally interested in that than I am in being a good improvising player. It’s a little tricky, so I’m trying to sort some of that out and mainly improve in all the areas that I’m working. Probably, at the core, I just want to make nice records and I think that that tends to include playing issues and writing issues.
Molly Sheridan: You said you are still figuring the composing part of your musical life out, but where do you see that fitting in the next few years?
Edgar Meyer: Well, for me in the last 15 years it’s been the largest area of musical growth, even though my identity has been strongest as a bass player. Composition is where all the real activity with me has been. And it feel likes it’s my largest area of interest. In music it’s the thing I’m most interested in but that being said I’m really interested in all these things. You know I do love to play and am very interested in probably still pursuing a lot of the things I have been doing. Not the specific people and projects per se but the general areas of activity are already defined to some extent and the balances could change but I just don’t know. Composition is central for me and whether or not that’s reflected in what the output is, it’s still the thing that interested me the most at this point, and that’s probably been an evolution over 20 years.
Molly Sheridan: Why do you think that is, what is it about composition that prioritizes it that way?
Edgar Meyer: You need it all. You can’t have composition without playing…I don’t have a good way of saying it. I can say that in terms of what moves me composition is closer the heart of it. There are a lot of things I love about playing and I’m not really interested in one area of music at the exclusion of others. It’s not a lack of interest in playing. I’ve never really thought about it. To me it’s just automatic. Somehow over 20 years composition just became more interesting than playing. But I don’t want to go too far with that, I don’t want to knock things out of balance. It’s more my speed to think that they all matter. I think that they’re really a lot of times the same thing. They’re not the kind of activities where one can be done clean of the other. Generally, for music as I know it, the separation is not really possible and I don’t believe personally in overspecialization. So, the first thing is that I don’t separate the writing and the playing, but composition is an activity that I always assumed that I’d do later in life and I ended up doing it a lot sooner than expected and to my great pleasure.
Molly Sheridan: What made you think it was something you’d put off till later?
Edgar Meyer: Well, I just grew up so much a player. I mean I did a lot of little bitty pieces and wrote stuff to play in ensembles more in improvising bands and things, but growing up I looked at myself as a player—maybe as a hybrid player, as an improviser and more classical—but the composer didn’t enter my head as my identity until I was quite old. I was probably 25 when I first started to really believe that it was an equivalent part of my identity and now at almost 42 it feels like it’s an even larger part. And it is true that there’s a physicality to the bass that seems like it could be questionable as I get older, but frankly my mind’s going down too but not as fast [laughs]. What I really believe, and I hate to say it out loud, but playing is a little bit of a young person’s game, the physical side of it matters a lot. In my observation, a person’s sum total experiences—especially musically—can be reflected in the next composition, and that is not as true, especially playing a classical piece, in performance, if you have no compositional input. So it’s an opportunity to bring to bare whatever the total of your musical experience is, composition allows that to happen more freely than playing.
Molly Sheridan: Well, again very many congratulations on this prize.
Edgar Meyer: Well, thank you. I feel quite fortunate.