DON GONYEA, HOST:
If you're just joining us, this is WEEKENDS on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Don Gonyea. And it's time now for music.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
GONYEA: What happens when two very talented women - one an alt-country rising star, the other, one of classical music's great new talents - meet one another? Well, in the case of singer Tift Merritt and pianist Simone Dinnerstein, a friendship ensues. But what happens when they decide to make music together? They can't exactly meet in the middle because where is the middle? So something else entirely happens.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BURIED LOVE)
TIFT MERRITT: (Singing) I shall bury my weary love beneath a tree in the forest tall and black where none will see.
GONYEA: Tift Merritt and Simone Dinnerstein dropped by NPR's performance studio during a recent trip to D.C. And I wondered how two such totally different musicians - and different people, really - ended up forming a duo. First, Simone Dinnerstein.
SIMONE DINNERSTEIN: Tift is very deep thinking, kind of bookish. I mean, she looks really hip, but she's actually kind of nerdy.
MERRITT: Don't you say mean things about me on the air.
MERRITT: No, I think we're two people who are really serious about our love and our dedication to what we do. And, you know, I think we intend to talk about music in terms of genres as a kind of a library system so we can just keep track of things. But, you know, music, in the end, has more in common with itself than it doesn't.
GONYEA: So when you say, oh, let's do a song together for the first time, what does that entail? How do you begin to figure out how to merge your respective talents and your respective styles?
MERRITT: Well, I think that was a huge question mark. And Simone and I play music in completely different ways, and I was very scared that so much could go wrong. I mean, I play by ear, and Simone plays music on the page. And so I thought, how would we create a language that we could both speak to each other?
And I think, in the end, I became much more mindful of being technically proficient and getting inside of songs and knowing them deeply, even if I had to do it by ear. And it was a journey to get there.
GONYEA: What's your take on it, Simone?
DINNERSTEIN: It felt, at first, that what it meant to be a classical pianist in this situation would mean that I'd need to play a lot of notes, to show that I could play a lot of notes, because that's what I do all the time. And it didn't work with Tift. It just got in the way. And it turned out that our meeting place was much more linked to sound and to color and to emotion. We had to start really listening to our instincts and following that more than thinking what does it look like to put classical and, you know, alt together.
GONYEA: So before we go too much further, I want to hear you play. I understand you've got a Schubert piece for us. Before you start, tell us what it is and why you chose it for the record.
DINNERSTEIN: This was actually the first song that really, I think, was sort of the seed of us playing together. It's a song called "Night and Dreams" by Schubert. It's one of my favorite Schubert songs. And I just had this kind of vision of Tift singing it and of her also playing the harmonica in it. I could just hear the color, a kind of blues feeling to it. So Tift took the translation. She decided obviously not to sing it in German.
MERRITT: Well, it's funny because I didn't know what Simone had in mind at first. And I went, and I found this song, and it was in German. And I was going: Oh, my Lord. How will I do that? And then I found the translations, and Simone said: No, no, no, no, no. Make it your own. And so I tried to rewrite it in this very plainspoken, sort of cowboy poetry, in a way.
DINNERSTEIN: And we change things also. In the piano part, I changed the register of the piano part, and I changed the rhythm. And even some of the chords are not what's written.
GONYEA: Well, let's hear it.
DINNERSTEIN: OK. Thanks.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "NIGHT AND DREAMS")
MERRITT: (Singing) Dark of night, you find me here. Dark of night, you fall so quietly. Come to hide the harsh of daylight. You hold me so tender, tender, quietly. All night when dreams break in the morning you will hear me cry out come back, come back home.
GONYEA: That's pianist Simone Dinnerstein and singer Tift Merritt with the Franz Schubert piece "Night and Dreams." They're in NPR's performance studio. So, guys, when I listen to that, it just feels utterly comfortable, utterly natural. And dare I say it, it even sounds simple and easy. I'm sure it's not. But did this song kind of provide one of those aha moments for you guys?
DINNERSTEIN: It's very interesting, your reaction to it and it seeming very natural and simple. And I think that that is a success for us that it sounds absolutely natural.
DINNERSTEIN: But I have to say, in my classical world, I was very - and I still am a little bit - I was very worried about the reaction to this song because taking Schubert and just rewriting it is not something that most people do in classical music. And, to me, we are still conveying the Schubert. I mean, even though it's being funneled through all these different lenses, this is Schubert's music. I mean, his melody, his harmony, it's beautiful.
MERRITT: But, you know, in a lot of ways, that's exactly what the folk tradition is about, where the fundamental principle is you take a song and you serve it. And so many of these beautiful songs have been handed down and handed down. And you are part of the tradition that keeps those songs alive, but you try to bring something of yourself to it while still serving the song.
DINNERSTEIN: I think that that's what music should be about.
GONYEA: That's concert pianist Simone Dinnerstein and singer-songwriter Tift Merritt. Together, they recorded a new record called "Night." You could hear a few selections at our website, nprmusic.org. Tift, Simone, thank you so much for doing this.
DINNERSTEIN: Thank you for having us.
MERRITT: Thank you. It was great.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "COLORS")
MERRITT: (Singing) Have I held too tight? Should I just let go? When you break is it from weakness of trying to be too strong. White bones in my fingers hang on like...
GONYEA: And for Saturday, that's WEEKENDS on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Don Gonyea. Check out our weekly podcast. Search for WEEKENDS on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED on iTunes or on the NPR app. Click on programs and scroll down. We are back on the radio tomorrow. Until then, thank you for listening and have a great night.