More classical banjo music from John Bullard

Virginia banjoist John Bullard has prepared another album of solo classical banjo, this time with new pieces written specifically for the instrument in this style.

The album is titled John Bullard Plays 24 Preludes for Solo Banjo by Adam Larabee – Volume One Books 1 & 2, Nos. I-XII. That’s quite a mouthful, but very much in keeping with the way that classical works are named. In Volume One, the first 12 preludes are presented.

Bullard has become a premier performer of classical banjo music, and has recorded and performed for years using both newer compositions and music from the Baroque era, much of it originally written for the harpsichord, which shares a good bit with the sound of the banjo. Unlike many who have done so, however, John uses a tone ring resonator banjo, played with picks, which he feels is necessary to make the banjo into a concert instrument.

Like most classical performers, John went the conservatory route, and was awarded the first degree in music performance with the banjo at the Virginia Commonwealth University’s Department of Music in Richmond. In case you are wondering, he is also proficient in and well familiar with bluegrass banjo in the Earl Scruggs style, but since devoting himself wholly to classical music some years ago, it has become his sole focus.

Larabee, the composer, created these pieces a few years back for John to perform. He shares that what he has written follows in a long tradition in the classical world.

“24 Preludes for Solo Banjo, celebrates the long-standing tradition of classical musicians writing pieces in all major and minor keys to showcase an instrument’s versatility and capability in all keys, as well as the breadth of tonal palette and timbres each various key has to offer. JS Bach, Chopin, Shostakovich, and many others have written 24 preludes in this tradition. The banjo — being a relatively new instrument (early 1800s), and relegated almost exclusively to folk music since that time, with a brief foray into popular classical music — has not inherited the same legacy that traditional classical instruments have. These solo banjo preludes are written in a mostly early 20th-century, at times almost neo-classical style. I have also tried to make each prelude feature a different form, performance technique, timbre, or rhythmic style. There is an all-pizzicato or muted piece, one featuring natural harmonics or ‘chimes,’ a Bulgarian Ratchenitsa, a Basque zortico, a passacaglia, a jazz ‘stride piano’ style cakewalk, a theme and variations, a Brazilian choro in the style of the great Villa-Lobos, and a Russian march a la Prokofiev. It has been a wonderful experience to feature the banjo in these many diverse styles and settings. I hope that more composers continue to write for the banjo in this way to create a new 21st century repertoire for this beautifully unique and versatile instrument!”

Bullard has made a video of one of the pieces, Prelude No. 6, C Sharp minorPresto, a brief work that takes full advantage of the five string banjo’s ability to execute arpeggios. If you love the sound of the banjo, this should be appealing even if you know little about classical music.

This first volume of John Bullard Plays 24 Preludes for Solo Banjo by Adam Larabee is available now from popular download sites online, and from the artist directly on bandcamp.

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About the Author

John Lawless

John had served as primary author and editor for The Bluegrass Blog from its launch in 2006 until being folded into Bluegrass Today in September of 2011. He continues in that capacity here, managing a strong team of columnists and correspondents.