Doug Balliett: A Master of Music

Doug Balliett’s diverse musical talents have taken him down an unusual path.

Doug Balliett is one of classical music's few composers whose go-to instrument is the double bass—a fact that he took some time to find peace with.

Doug Balliett: I had this time when I was like, "Ah, I wish I wasn't a bass player. It's like the turtle of instruments. It's like what you'd give a D student." Now, I totally disagree.

As well he should. This uber-prolific 35-year-old has already abandoned a job many musicians could only dream of. After tiring of life in the bass section of the San Antonio Symphony, this Juilliard graduate returned to New York City, where he would spend the next ten years playing in everything from a half-band, half-book club, a 17th century string band, and a so-called "trout quintet" (a piano quartet plus double bass), to name but a few.

Balliett: I can play a Bach cantata on original instruments one day, the next day play a Ferneyhough piece, or a Behatfur piece for bass flute and five-string bass. And the next day I can go and hear a rehearsal of a piece that I composed. That's a really interesting life, to me. So, "Why not?" I say, if it's a chance. Thank God for the specialist, but if I'm allowed to do whatever I want, why not create a more mosaic career?

And all of Balliett's creations are unified by one special trait.

Balliett: The kind of music I write is always striving for beauty. And there's certain circles where I think it would be rejected completely, like, the European avant-garde orchestras are not programming my music, because it's probably too beautiful in a traditional sense. I don't care. It's fine. Maybe it's the time we live in, that there's too much turmoil for beauty to be relevant. I disagree. I think there's more of a need for it than ever. And when I think about "What is my music contributing to the world,” I hope that it's giving somebody a moment of comfort, or a moment of distraction, or just engagement. That's sort of the high that I'm always chasing. That's what I want. Not to create a revolution, or even to go into the history books or anything like that. Just to provide a service to people who want to hear music.

AJC: And to see joy on their face.

Balliett: And to see joy on their faces. That's the best part.

AJC: There's an emotional honesty to what you do, as well. Does that ever feel like you're exposing yourself in some way?

Balliett: Yeah, it's terrifying.

Especially terrifying was a song cycle for his muse and frequent collaborator, Majel Connery. The piece was modeled after Dichterliebe, Schumann's most celebrated setting of Romantic poems.

Balliett: What's so great about it is the narrator is, at times, so happy and excited to be in love, and, at other times, so miserable and wishing he wasn't in love. And to me, it's like a great Beatles album. It's just a collection of amazing songs. Every one is a hit. I love it. It's such an inspiration to me. So I wanted to make a cycle for Majel that was like that, each song responding to Dichterliebe—but based on my own most recent falling in love story, and it is almost embarrassingly autobiographical. But why not? I'm feeling those things so strong, and they're screaming at me, and they're coming out at the piano. And why should I ignore that and try to do something else? This is the most honest thing that I'm feeling at that time.

But for all the emotion he invests in his music, Balliett also puts a fair amount of academic muscle behind it, too. He recently took his own teacher's place as head of the Double Bass Historical Performance Program at Juilliard. You could say he's kind of got a thing for the past.

Balliett: It's not that I think that it was better back then, but I sure do love imagining myself back then, or just imagining life back then. It's a place I go when I'm drifting off to sleep.

And whereas most composers learn about music of the recent past in order not to repeat it... 

AJC: You've gone back 500 years of educating yourself about what's come before. Is that not incredibly frustrating when you sit at the keyboard and go, "Everything's been written?"

Balliett: A little bit. You have to silence those thoughts and say, "Oh, G-major six, yeah it's been written thousands of times. So I'm part of a tradition of musicians who write G-major six." I think it's foolish to try too hard to create something completely new. That's a losing battle. And I talk to my composer friends a lot about this, who feel the burden of sitting down at the blank page and being expected to come up with something completely new. It's impossible. There will always be revolutions, but I think very few composers set out to do a revolution. I think most of them are trying to write the music they hear in their head—and, if it's revolutionary, so much the better.

And so Doug Balliett will continue to look to history to inspire him to create music whose beauty speaks to us in the here and now.

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