John Bullard breaks the banjo barrier in the latest classic version

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The banjo isn’t exactly the first instrument that comes to mind when you think of the classical concert hall, but Virginia native John Bullard blended his bluegrass and Bach background to put the unlikely instrument under the conventional projectors.

A long-time interpreter of the music of Johann Sebastian Bach, her latest album is a throwback to the Baroque composer’s two famous books of preludes and fugues known as the Well-Tempered Keyboard. American composer and fellow banjoist Adam Larrabee’s collection of new compositions is titled ’24 Preludes for Solo Banjo, Vol. 1.”

Bullard and I recently connected to discuss his latest release and why the banjo is better suited to classical music than you might think.

This interview has been edited for clarity and length.

Interview Highlights

On commissioning new music for the banjo

I was kind of guided to the idea of ​​commissioning new works from my teacher, John Patykula. John always encouraged me to commission new music for the banjo rather than relying solely on transcriptions of older works.

He told me the story of the great classical guitarist [Andres] Segovia and how, in its early days, it relied primarily on transcriptions, but eventually began to commission new music from living composers of its day.

Today, many of these commissions from Segovia constitute the standard repertoire of classical guitar.

Working with composer Adam Larrabee

I was talking to John Patykula, and he was like, ‘well, you should talk to Adam’, and I had met Adam through my teacher because Adam and I had both been to the Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond.

We were tossing around some ideas, and Adam said, “You know – what hasn’t been done for the banjo, and would probably be a good place to start with new music for the banjo would be a cycle of 24 preludes”. A prelude in each major and minor key is a sort of tradition that originated in classical music and dates back to Bach and the Well Tempered-Clavier.

Each is its own little world, really, and Adam deliberately didn’t compose them as a seamless piece of work. He intentionally made each his own little soundscape and each features either a playing technique or a compositional idea.

On his banjo roots

[I started playing the banjo] somewhere between [the ages of] 12 and 13. I was one of those kids who got slammed hearing “Dueling Banjos” on the radio in the 70s, and it really knocked me out hearing that.

It would go on forever, and then eventually they would get into bluegrass picking. It was just a really weird thing as a young person to hear on the radio, and it really, really caught my attention, and [I] was like “I have to learn how to do this.”

It was the same time that the movie “Bonnie and Clyde” came out, and Earl Scruggs’ “Foggy Mountain Breakdown” was the theme music.

Plus, in those days, you could turn on the “Beverly Hillbillies” on TV and occasionally catch Earl and Lester there. These are the things that really struck me as an impressionable kid and made me want to learn to play.

Getting into classical music

When I was in music school [Virginia Commonwealth University], I was kind of trying to get away from the banjo, believe it or not. Because other than the bluegrass, not much was going on with the banjo. I was looking for other outlets in music and entered music school as a composition major.

That’s when I started studying classical guitar. But word got around in the music department that my real instrument was the banjo, and so one of my teachers asked me to bring the banjo to show and tell.

So, I played some bluegrass, and I was putting away the banjo, and the teacher came up to me and tapped me on the shoulder and said, “hey, have you ever thought about playing Renaissance or Baroque music on the banjo, because to me it sounded a lot like a lute or a harpsichord.

It was like the light bulb moment for me where it all started; this teacher.

On the visibility of the classical banjo

Every time I play somewhere in concert, people really like to hear the banjo in that classic context, and they always say, “I never thought of that” or “I never imagined that a banjo could sound like that.

They are still amazed by the sound and really enjoy the experience. So I know I’m slowly converting people, hopefully more and more, you know.

There are more people who are interested in learning at least some classical music to have in their repertoire. It’s sort of become a thing to have a few Bach pieces in your bag of tricks.

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