How Dinnerstein and Merritt got their groove, together | AspenTimes.com
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How Dinnerstein and Merritt got their groove, together

Stewart Oksenhorn
The Aspen Times
Lisa-Marie Mazzucco

Simone Dinnerstein told me about the vast musical divide between herself and her recent collaborator Tift Merritt. Dinnerstein, a classical pianist who established her reputation with a 2007 recording of Bach’s “Goldberg Variations,” spoke about having to learn to play fewer notes, and even to improvise some of those notes, to find common ground with Merritt, a folkish singer-songwriter. Dinnerstein talked of adapting to the idea that in popular music, there is a paramount instrument — the voice — that doesn’t get interfered with by other instruments.

But what really hit home about how huge a distance there was between the two musicians was when Dinnerstein spoke of Merritt’s musical values.

“She’s also into the pocket, what she might call the groove,” Dinnerstein said, pausing before the words “pocket” and “groove” as if they were from a foreign language.

The two have found common ground, performing a few batches of concerts over the past three years and in March, releasing the album “Night.” Dinnerstein and Merritt, both of whom have played separately in Aspen, make their local debut as a duo tonight with a 7:30 performance in Harris Hall.

The relationship didn’t begin with the goal of making music together. In 2008, Dinnerstein had an album coming out, a live recording from a concert in Berlin. Merritt has a radio program, “The Spark,” in which she interviews different kinds of artists, and Gramophone magazine, wanting someone from outside the classical-music realm to interview Dinnerstein, chose Merritt.

“In preparation, we listened to one another’s music,” 40-year-old Dinnerstein said from her home in Brooklyn, N.Y. “We really responded to one another. Her album ‘Another Country’ had just come out, and my husband and I listened to it a lot whenever we went on car trips. Tift and I realized we had so much in common. We became friends, would get together.”

Dinnerstein eventually found the audacity to suggest they move the relationship to the next level.

“I was the one who pushed it,” she said. “I think Tift was, very fairly, worried about how it would be. We didn’t want it to be forced; we wanted it musically relevant and meaningful. And not a compromise but new terrain that we wanted to reach together.”

The duo began with a song by Schubert. Dinnerstein had a vision of Merritt singing an English version of the piece; Merritt went beyond that, writing her own translation and adding a harmonica part.

“That was the seed. That opened the path to other songs,” Dinnerstein said.

The duo made its debut at Duke University, which has an innovative concert series that Dinnerstein and Merritt had both appeared in individually. That program gave them a short residency and also helped them find composers, including jazz pianist Brad Mehldau and singer-songwriter Patty Griffin, to write material for them. Merritt wrote a few songs, and the two added to their repertoire arrangements of work by Leonard Cohen, Bach, Billie Holiday and a take on Johnny Nash’s “I Can See Clearly Now.”

With unlikely artistic collaborations of this sort, the participants usually talk about how easy and comfortably the two visions came together. They also tend to emphasize how much of a gap needs to be bridged in the collaboration. But in this case, the distance was truly wide, and finding an uncompromised spot between 18th-century European music and 21st-century American folk took experimentation, imagination and effort.

“It was very difficult. We each had to move beyond our comfort zone,” said Dinnerstein, who had some familiarity with Bob Dylan and similar folk-style artists from a few decades ago. “It turns out there are lots of rules I’d never imagined in her style of music. She feels more bound to those rules than I feel bound to the rules of classical music. I had to improvise for the first time.”

An even harder step was learning how to stay out of the way. Much of Dinnerstein’s career is devoted to recitals, where whatever sounds are heard come from her. Not so when playing with Merritt, who, as a vocalist, gravitates toward the spotlight.

“I thought I had to use my facility on the instrument, use lots of notes,” Dinnerstein said. “I had to pare it down, which was difficult but rewarding. I’m creating a bed of texture or timbre to what she is doing. It was about the sound, not about the number of notes.

“Tift is used to playing with a band, and the biggest objective is for the words to come through. Counterpoint is not part of that picture. Different instruments might have solos, but it’s almost unheard of for another instrument to add a layer of comparable interest to the vocal line. The music I’m working on is very much about counterpoint, having different voices that are equally interesting doing the same thing at one time.”

While Dinnerstein has had to learn foreign concepts like the rhythmic pocket, Merritt also has had to become familiar with new tricks — like learning to make music without a pocket. Dinnerstein brought in a song by Philip Lasser, a classical composer she has worked with before. Merritt had trouble with the piece, complaining she couldn’t find the groove.

“I said, ‘There is no groove. It’s a piece of music without a groove,’” Dinnerstein said. “If you try to give it a groove, it will sound awful. She’s used to songs with a beat. And I find it interesting when you don’t have a beat.”

Even the simplest nonmusical matters have required an education for both artists. Before their first concert together, Dinnerstein specified her standard procedure: Take the stage, bow, and then begin playing.

“Tift said, ‘Why would we bow? We haven’t done anything yet,’” Dinnerstein said.


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