Acoustic instruments are amazing things. They give the player the opportunity to actually put their hands, feet, mouths and voices to work shaping sound. Taking a sound that exists in their minds and (hopefully) bringing it forth through an instrument that is part inanimate object, part temperamental living thing.
Over the past few months, I’ve heard new music that demonstrates something really exciting. These acoustic instruments that are so special (and hard to play) are being used to create new, beautiful and detailed textures. This isn’t new for Bluegrass instruments, like banjos and acoustic guitars, but it is reaching new levels of artistry and requiring ever higher levels of technique. Traditionally, each instrument in a so-called “Bluegrass Band” has had a prescribed set of patterns from which to choose during the performance of a song. The mandolin usually plays on the upbeats (as a snare drum would do), the banjo player would use the distinctive rolls invented and pioneered by the great Earl Scruggs, the guitar strums, etc.. These are all distinct textures that were developed over time, and that eventually came together in a combination that we recognize as Traditional Bluegrass. It has been highly refined and is performed by many at a very high level. Recently, though, there’s been a great deal of really terrific music made in which these instruments are foregoing those traditional moves and using their unique timbres to build new patterns and sounds that support the music in new ways. Players are taking the foundation that Bluegrass, among other styles, provides and jumping off from there. These sounds are then woven together to create sonic landscapes that have previously been the territory of Classical Music, progressive styles of Rock, even Electronic Music. It seems to me to be a natural step, maybe even one that is overdue.