By Ryan Chen, PhD Candidate, Mechanical Science & Engineering

"He done traveled all over the world.
He came back just to give you some game.”

– intro to Kendrick Lamar’s “i”

Opening a blog post about Yo-Yo Ma, Edgar Meyer, and Chris Thile performing Bach trios with a lyric from a rap album is certainly confusing, but I promise it’ll all make sense at the end.

This April, Stanford Live’s audience will be treated to an evening of Bach trios with Yo-Yo Ma, Edgar Meyer, and Chris Thile. Any cursory search for these artists on YouTube will show you that they – like so many others – revere, appreciate, and have intricate personal histories with the music of the master. Here are just a few examples:

 

Yo-Yo Ma performing Cello Suite No. 1

 

Chris Thile performing Violin Sonata No. 1

 

Edgar Meyer performing the Prelude to Cello Suite No. 2

 

That their upcoming performance of Bach trios will be impeccable is without a doubt, but merely thinking of it as an excellent recital of classical music might miss the mark. While they are all master interpreters of Bach’s music, the diversity of the musical experiences they will bring to the stage to inform their interpretations may be unparalleled among classical music recitalists. Again, just a few examples:

 

Yo-Yo Ma, Edgar Meyer, Chris Thile, and Stuart Duncan perform from their nominally bluegrass album “The Goat Rodeo Sessions” for NPR Music’s Tiny Desk Concert series

 

Yo-Yo Ma and the Silk Road Ensemble

 

Chris Thile and Brad Mehldau on CBS This Morning

 

Yes, those are the same artists you just watched so beautifully perform music from the early 18th century.  People who prefer the second set of videos might even consider Bach to be antiquated, stale, only for culture snobs, etc. On the other hand, among the people who prefer Bach, there may be some who think the music in the second set of videos is of lesser artistic merit. Not Ma, Meyer, and Thile. They envision music on a continuum with no artificial boundaries for modes of expression. This outlook doesn’t just enable them to criss-cross musical genres (they probably dislike that term), it practically demands it. They seek out whatever form of music they find most artistically rich, no matter the nominal label, the instrumentation, or any other factor.

The music of Bach is widely considered an inflection point for all music, but the influence can flow both ways, just as learning calculus can give a greater appreciation and understanding of the beauty and elegance of trigonometry. Through their performance, Ma, Meyer, and Thile will give the audience insight into what their diverse musical stylings have to say about Bach and, if we’re imaginative enough, what Bach might have to say about the music of today.

Now, back to the lyrics that opened the post: Chris Thile has covered Kendrick Lamar on A Prairie Home Companion and advocated for him to get Grammy recognition. So, perhaps it’s fitting that Thile and company are taking a page from Kendrick's playbook, exploring all across the musical world to craft fresh takes on even ostensibly "old" stuff like Bach. And just like K-Dot, they’ll give it some game.