Mix­ing it up

BROOK­LYN RIDER’S WIDE-RANG­ING REPER­TOIRE

Pasatiempo - - CONTENTS - James M. Keller

Brook­lyn Rider’s wide-rang­ing reper­toire

The string quar­tet known as Brook­lyn Rider is so ad­mired for cham­pi­oning con­tem­po­rary mu­sic that its pro­gram on Fri­day, Feb. 9, at the Len­sic Per­form­ing Arts Cen­ter looks sur­pris­ing; it starts with Mozart and ends with Ravel. Less stan­dard reper­toire comes in be­tween — an ar­range­ment of a song by Brazil­ian bossa nova pi­o­neer João Gil­berto and a new work, ti­tled Qi, that the group com­mis­sioned from com­poser Evan Zi­poryn — but fram­ing them with two of the most canon­i­cal quar­tets in the reper­toire seems like an em­phatic state­ment.

The group is in­deed mak­ing a point: There is no con­flict in­volved in be­ing de­voted to both new mu­sic and es­tab­lished clas­sics. In a re­cent phone con­ver­sa­tion with Pasatiempo, vi­o­lin­ist Colin Ja­cob­sen, a found­ing mem­ber of the ensem­ble (and ar­ranger of the Gil­berto song on the pro­gram), pointed out that Brook­lyn Rider has a his­tory of mix­ing things up that way. “On our record­ings,” he said, “we of­ten base our se­lec­tions around a big piece from the string-quar­tet canon — Beethoven’s Op. 131, the De­bussy Quar­tet, Bartók’s Quar­tet No. 2 — and then put strange bed­fel­lows next to those works.” There’s noth­ing un­usual about quar­tets drop­ping a con­tem­po­rary piece into a recital of clas­sics, but Brook­lyn Rider thinks through that process deeply. “In this pro­gram, Zi­poryn’s Qi and the Gil­berto piece will pick up on things Ravel was work­ing with — his har­monic lan­guage, de­tails of his tex­tu­ral writ­ing. Peo­ple do think of us as a new-mu­sic quar­tet or as a group that col­lab­o­rates with mu­si­cians who work out­side the clas­si­cal canon. But ac­tu­ally, what brought us to­gether was that we en­joyed play­ing the stan­dard reper­toire more with each other than we did in other sit­u­a­tions, and when we played to­gether, we felt that there was new life within that mu­sic.”

The four­some traces its an­ces­try to the first years of the cur­rent cen­tury, when its mem­bers start­ing over­lap­ping in other groups, most no­tably in the Silk Road Ensem­ble, a col­lec­tive of mu­si­cians rep­re­sent­ing di­verse mu­si­cal tra­di­tions from around the world. Ja­cob­sen ex­plained: “Johnny Gan­dels­man [the other vi­o­lin­ist] and Nick Cords [the vi­o­list] went to Cur­tis to­gether, I went to Juil­liard, and we kept in­ter­sect­ing. My brother, Eric, was the orig­i­nal cel­list, but in 2016 he was re­placed by Michael Ni­co­las be­cause Eric wanted to spend more time work­ing as a con­duc­tor. There was a rather long lead-up to our be­com­ing es­tab­lished as Brook­lyn Rider, but through all the ensem­ble play­ing we hap­pened to be do­ing to­gether we found that we had a chem­istry. A cham­ber ensem­ble like this has got to feel that strong con­nec­tion. If you don’t feel from the begin­ning that you are 90 per­cent of the way to­ward a vi­sion of what a quar­tet should sound like, then I think it’s a pretty dif­fi­cult thing to em­bark on.”

By about 2005, the four found­ing play­ers for­mally co­a­lesced into a group. They se­lected the name Brook­lyn Rider as a hy­brid moniker that al­luded on one hand to the Blue Rider (Der Blaue Reiter) — the avant-garde artis­tic move­ment of nearly a cen­tury ear­lier — and on the other to the very hip New York City bor­ough where the mu­si­cians were based. The quar­tet now per­forms about 50 con­certs each year, and the mem­bers con­tinue their out­side af­fil­i­a­tions, prin­ci­pally with Silk Road Ensem­ble and with The Knights (an in­no­va­tive Brook­lyn-based cham­ber orches­tra con­ducted by Eric Ja­cob­sen). Vi­o­list Ni­co­las is also a mem­ber of the ac­claimed In­ter­na­tional Con­tem­po­rary Ensem­ble (ICE). “Fit­ting it all to­gether is like a dif­fi­cult jig­saw puz­zle,” Ja­cob­sen ob­served, “but it makes for a full and ful­fill­ing mu­si­cal life, mov­ing among groups in dif­fer­ent con­fig­u­ra­tions. We block out time to fo­cus as a quar­tet, but we love the fact that we can all go away and do other projects. I love be­ing able to work in dif­fer­ent scales that way, and then come back to the string quar­tet, which is such an in­ti­mate medium.”

The play­ers’ in­volve­ment with Silk Road Ensem­ble brings them into close con­tact with mu­si­cians out­side the Western clas­si­cal tra­di­tion. Their record­ings, for ex­am­ple, in­clude col­lab­o­ra­tions with the banjo vir­tu­oso Béla Fleck and the Ira­nian ka­mancheh player Kay­han Kal­hor. “Some­times,” Ja­cob­sen said, “these ex­pe­ri­ences af­fect our ap­proach to quar­tet play­ing in tan­gi­ble, tech­ni­cal ways. It can in­spire us to look for spe­cific col­ors we might not oth­er­wise have thought about. For ex­am­ple, in Santa Fe we’re play­ing the Ravel String Quar­tet, and we may re­mem­ber a cer­tain sound Kay­han Kal­hor made on his Per­sian spike-fid­dle and de­cide that is a color to con­sider for a par­tic­u­lar pas­sage in Ravel. In Silk Road Ensem­ble, we of­ten work with mu­si­cians who come out of an oral tra­di­tion rather than one that is text-based. That can lead to a real in­ter­nal­iza­tion of the mu­sic, want­ing to trans­late mu­sic that you’re read­ing into some­thing that is very or­ganic and in­ter­nal and that is singing through ev­ery pore in your body. In our Western-style train­ing we are taught how so much of a per­for­mance can come from de­tails that can only be sug­gested by the writ­ten score — tim­ing, tone color, bal­ance — but for peo­ple who have learned mu­sic by ear, that be­comes all the more nat­u­ral.”

The four­some’s pro­gram spans more than two cen­turies, from Mozart’s G-ma­jor Quar­tet (K.387, writ­ten in 1782) to Ravel’s Quar­tet (1902-1903), to Gil­berto’s “Undiú” (1973), to Zi­poryn’s Qi (2013). The new­est piece on the pro­gram, Qi is also the cen­ter­piece of Brook­lyn Rider’s lat­est CD, Spon­ta­neous

Sym­bols, which was re­leased by In a Cir­cle Records this past Novem­ber. Zi­poryn, a per­former on clar­inet and bass clar­inet as well as a com­poser, serves on the fac­ulty of M.I.T., was a co-founder of the Bang on a Can All-Stars, and was a mem­ber of Steve Re­ich and Mu­si­cians. His com­po­si­tions gen­er­ally fall into the cat­e­gory of post-min­i­mal­ism or draw on cross­cul­tural in­spi­ra­tion, par­tic­u­larly from In­done­sian mu­sic. He writes: “The string quar­tet al­ways makes me think in el­e­men­tal terms — per­haps the com­bi­na­tion of reper­toire (Bartók and Beethoven, tough acts to fol­low), the in­stru­ments them­selves, and the in­tense in­ti­macy with which groups like Brook­lyn Rider work to­gether.” Here his mu­si­cal thoughts grew out of the idea of qi, which he de­scribes as “the tra­di­tional Chi­nese char­ac­ter for life-force, a con­cept as ubiq­ui­tous and dif­fi­cult to pre­cisely de­fine as anal­o­gous prin­ci­ples in all cul­tures and re­li­gions.” “Evan’s piece,” Ja­cob­sen said, “is about en­ergy and how it moves in mu­sic and how it re­lates to the world. The piece has a move­ment about lu­cid dream­ing, then one that in­volves the ideal of Zen med­i­ta­tion, and a fi­nal move­ment, ‘Trans­port,’ which is about how that en­ergy goes out into the world.”

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