Brooklyn Rider: Connecting the Past with the Present

Brooklyn Rider

By Anastasia Tsioulcas

Raves don't often come for classical musicians from both The Strad Magazine and the online indie music bible Pitchfork: but it's all par for the course for the string quartet known as Brooklyn Rider, who navigate diverse artistic universes not just with ease but with absolute joy.

Each of these musicians have won serious plaudits within the traditional classical world. For example, violinist Johnny Gandelsman was a prizewinner at both the Kreisler and Menuhin violin competitions, while fellow violinist and composer Colin Jacobsen won an Avery Fisher Career Grant; violist Nicholas Cords was a four-year commentator and artist in residence on the weekly WQXR radio program "On A-I-R", while cellist Eric Jacobsen has collaborated with such superstars as Dawn Upshaw and Mark O'Connor.

These intrepid musicians create fresh, vital, and artistically visionary performances that have been hailed by critics and audiences around the globe--and not just in one ensemble. Founders not just of Brooklyn Rider but of the chamber orchestra The Knights (conducted by Eric Jacobsen), under which name they frequently play and record with cellist Jan Vogler for Sony Classical, all four are also integral members of Yo-Yo Ma's Silk Road Project, with whom they have traveled the furthest reaches of the globe.

But while they are perhaps best known for their championing of new music from around the globe, this string quartet is among today's finest interpreters of the canonical string quartet repertoire. As the New York Times said in a recent live review, "Brooklyn Rider’s playing...was energetic, finely detailed, solidly unified. But it was not until its propulsive, rhythmically and texturally fluid performance of the Debussy String Quartet that you could see how technically polished and interpretively insightful this quartet is."

Their newest and self-released album, Dominant Curve (In a Circle), has made a big splash on the Billboard Traditional Classical chart, and the quartet's 2010 performances include venues ranging from South by Southwest--for which they were the only classical artists given a showcase this year--to the Spoleto Festival USA to the US Open tennis matches this fall. Three-quarters of the Brooklyn Rider members joined Ariama editor Anastasia Tsioulcas to discuss their work.

AT: Let's talk a bit about the idea behind Brooklyn Rider itself. Your group's name refers to The Blue Rider group in Munich in the 1910’s, right? Artists like Wassily Kandinsky were involved, and Schoenberg was a friend of theirs as well.

NC: That’s right—we really set out to work not just with other musicians, which we often do, but with other creators as well: visual artists, dancers, and so on, people whom we feel are really torchbearers of performance and creativity. That’s the Blue Rider model. So we’ve recorded with artists who range from the Iranian composer and kemencheh virtuoso Kayhan Kalhor to the Japanese composer and shakuhachi flute master Kojiro Umezaki to the Uzbek composer Dmitri Yanov-Yanovsky, but also with visual artists like Kevork Murad. And Colin writes a lot of music for us as well.

AT: Your most recent release, "Dominant Curve" (In A Circle), was centered around the Debussy String Quartet in G minor.

Nicholas Cords (NC): Debussy has really been a touchstone for Brooklyn Rider. His vision was not narrow, but was very wide and stretched out into the world; just think of the impact that the World Expo in Paris had on him. [When Debussy attended this 1889 event, he encountered the Javanese gamelan for the first time; afterwards, he began exploring alternative tonal systems in his music in a groundbreaking way. –AT] He hewed to tradition, but also forged a new path—and that’s been an incredible inspiration for our work. Brooklyn Rider is part of a 300-plus year tradition of string quartets, but we are also trying to forge a new way.

Colin Jacobsen (CJ): The Silk Road Project is like a 10-year-long, expanded version of Debussy and the World Expo.

AT: Are there any groups that were a particular inspiration for you? I don’t mean to say that they were a template for you, but it’s hard not to think that the Kronos Quartet—another string quartet deeply involved in music of our time—might not have served as some inspiration.

Johnny Gandelsman (JG): At the very least, Kronos really expanded the possibilities of repertoire for the string quartet; they helped create a body of music that went well past the traditional boundaries of Beethoven to Bartok, as much as we all love that canon.

NC: At this point, we’ve played music that was originally commissioned for them—and they’ve played music that was originally written for us. So it goes both ways for sure. But I’d say that we’re very committed to the core repertoire as well; why record Debussy otherwise? We’re also very committed to educational projects. We feel like that’s a huge part of what we want and need to do as musicians today.

AT: So how do you come up with programming ideas, especially when you’re playing repertoire that’s so well known and celebrated already, like the Debussy?

JG: Context and theme are central to how we try to build our projects. It’s interesting— in our experience, thematic programming is the key to connecting with audiences.

CJ: That’s something we really learned from all our work with Yo-Yo. The traditional orchestral programming of overture, concerto, and symphony doesn’t necessarily excite 21st-century audiences. Moreover, really building programming is a way of taking possession of the music we’re performing. I think about rock bands in that way; how a band builds a set list says something very personal about who that band is, what they want to say.

NC: Yo-Yo talks a lot about how when everything is accessible to everyone—as it is in our time, when virtually any musical tradition in the world is available to nearly anyone at any moment—there is an even greater impetus to creating meaningful experiences.

AT: So what’s the next Brooklyn Rider project?

NC: We’re working with the [Irish fiddler] Martin Hayes; we had him perform last year at our own festival, the Stillwater Music Festival in Minnesota, this August. It’s the fifth year of our festival, and that’s been really amazing for us to build. This year, we’ve asked the chamber/rock trio 2 Foot Yard to collaborate with us, as will Kojiro Umezaki. And we’re bringing The Knights to Stillwater for the first time as well in 2010.

CJ: We’re also working on a recording of all five of Philip Glass’ string quartets.

AT: All five? Many groups leave aside his first quartet, which was more of a student work he wrote while being tutored by Nadia Boulanger—he doesn’t really sound like “Philip Glass” yet.

NC: That’s true, but the first Glass quartet is a really structural work: there are all these cells that create a bigger architecture. We’ve also found that playing all of these Glass quartets has actually helped us become a better ensemble; there are so many nuances in the chordal playing, in texture, in phrasing—and they are emotionally so red-hot! Uncovering all of that as a group has been a vital experience for us.

CJ: It might sound strange, but in the Glass quartets I find an element of Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier: it is great music on any level, but you can practice them nearly devotionally. It’s a deep experience.

NC: All really good works have a blueprint embedded in them; the Glass quartets are like those. It’s a matter of the musicians decoding that blueprint.

AT: I know that you find your collaborators to be among your greatest inspirations. Can you speak a bit more to what you’ve learned in those collaborations?

JG: The Silk Road Project is a great place to start, in terms of observing how that group has articulated and then executed its vision in terms of performance. Moreover, working with the other Silk Road artists has been huge for us. That’s how we first met Kayhan Kalhor, for example—and if you’d asked us ten years ago, trained as we were in the Western classical music conservatory tradition, that we’d be getting up on stage with Kayhan with no music in front of us, we would have said, “Are you ---ing kidding me?” (everyone laughs)

But we came to understand with these collaborators, whether Martin Hayes or Kayhan or whomever, that their masterful virtuosity and the specific techniques that they use, like crazy bowings or what have you, brings you past technique to a new state of being—and you don’t realize how you got there.

CJ: You tell the truth by going crazy.

JG: Right. The commonality amongst all those disparate performers is that all the technical stuff is there for a larger purpose. We play in a different way for having worked with Kayhan, and with the vocalist Alim Qasimov from Azerbaijan, and with Yo-Yo. Yo-Yo is a perfect example. He has absolutely all mastered his own tradition, but he goes way beyond that tradition. He transcends. And that’s our ultimate goal, too.