Review and Spotlight: The Brooklyn Rider Almanac

Brooklyn Rider

Brooklyn Rider: The Brooklyn Rider Almanac (Mercury Classics)

On both of its previous albums, Brooklyn Rider—violinists Johnny Gandelsman and Colin Jacobsen, violist Nicola Cords, and cellist Eric Jacobsen—coupled new compositions with material from the classical repertoire: Beethoven's String Quartet No. 14  on 2012's Seven Steps  and Bartók's second string quartet on 2013's A Walking Fire. Boldly departing from that strategy, The Brooklyn Rider Almanac sees the group changing things up by featuring specially commissioned work from a diverse array of composers. The result is an adventurous, seventy-eight-minute collection that draws upon the talents of figures who largely operate outside of the classical world, people such as Wilco drummer Glenn Kotche, Deerhof member Greg Saunier, and jazz pianist Vijay Iyer. The thirteen-track recording also features compositions by the quartet's own Jacobsen and is supplemented by three digital-only tracks by Tin Hat's Carla Kihlstedt, The Clogs' Padma Newsome, and jazz guitarist Bill Frisell.

Brooklyn Rider didn't just gather material from the artists involved, however, but commissioned each composer to select an artistic figure from the last fifty years who personally influenced him/her and incorporate the spirit of that influence into the work produced. And so we have singer-songwriter/violinist Christina Courtin drawing inspiration from Igor Stravinsky, jazz saxophonist Daniel Cords composing his piece with ‘80s pop artist Keith Haring in mind, American singer-songwriter Aoife O'Donovan inspired by William Faulkner, and so on—arresting combinations in all instances.

The quartet attacks the material, which understandably extends into stylistic areas other than classical, with its customary vigour. With so many of the pieces either composed by jazz artists or drawing on related figures for inspiration, it's no surprise that much of the material is rhythmically charged, something for which Brooklyn Rider is ideally suited. Albanian cellist Rubin Kodheli's “Necessary Henry!” thus swings with impassioned fervour, much as Henry Threadgill's own compositions do. The Almanac's funkiest cut is Iyer's “Dig the Say,” which grooves with a rhythmic drive one would expect from a piece inspired by James Brown, and “Morris Dance” by Ethan Iverson (pianist in The Bad Plus) naturally has its share of fleet-footed dance moments, given the title's reference to American choreographer Mark Morris.

Not all of the pieces are uptempo, however. American multi-instrumentalist Dana Lyn draws out the quartet's ruminative side during the first half of “Maintenance Music,” her homage to American artist Mierle Laderman Ukeles, before the intensity escalates in the second. Australian musician Padma Newsome, taking inspiration from Aboriginal artist Albert Namatjira, provides Brooklyn Rider with five exquisite minutes of plaintive folk material in “Simpson's Gap,” while a rustic folk character also infuses Aoife O'Donovan's lyrical “Show Me,” something encouraged perhaps by the settings of the American South that appear in Faulkner's writing. One also wonders whether Courtin had Stravinsky's neo-classical period in her thoughts when she composed “Tralala,” given its courtly elegance.

A break from the purely instrumental proceedings occurs when Shara Worden's multi-tracked vocalizing appears alongside hand-claps and pizzicato playing within Jacobsen's “Exit” (from the suite Chalk and Soot). Inspired by American singer David Byrne, the piece is the album's most stirring, melodically speaking, and is further elevated by Worden's hypnotic delivery. Inspiration is undoubtedly the project's theme, and not only in the core idea of artists composing material with inspirational figures in mind. The very concept of The Brooklyn Rider Almanac  is in itself an inspired idea, and so too is the quartet's playing, which is as always at a consistently high level.


textura is thrilled to feature the following artists in its fifteenth Spotlight: Balmorhea, Brooklyn Rider, Mark Lomax, and Ken Thomson, all of whom have recently issued superb albums: Balmorhea's Self-Titled (Re-mastered 2014), Brooklyn Rider's Almanac, The Mark Lomax Trio's Isis and Osiris, and Ken Thomson and Slow/Fast's Settle. We sincerely thank the artists for contributing to this month's article.


Who: Brooklyn Rider aka Colin Jacobsen, Johnny Gandelsman, Eric Jacobsen, and me, Nicholas Cords (I'm also known as ‘the sheriff'). We indeed live in Brooklyn, about ten minutes apart from each other. We met other around the time we were in conservatory; some of us were at the Curtis Institute of Music, others at Juilliard. We found each other because we had similar tastes in music and wanted to make music together and try to make a positive impact. Our lives orbited closer and closer, and we eventually decided to commit to full-fledged string quartet-hood. We named ourselves after the pre-WW1 artistic collective known as Der Blaue Reiter. Their Der Blaue Reiter Almanach from just over a century ago was the inspiration for our The Brooklyn Rider Almanac.

What: We've adapted an inclusive approach as a string quartet; we invite music by Mozart to John Zorn under our tent. We've also collaborated with musicians from a wide variety of styles and cultures, which also forms an important part of who we are. We've resisted the idea of specialization; for instance, while we focus a good deal on the music of our time, we would never call ourselves a new music quartet. And while we also play classic repertoire (Debussy, Janacek, Beethoven, Brahms), we resist the part of the tradition that wants to put these works on a pedestal. As great as they are, if we can create an even playing field, we create an interpretative and intuitive working space where we're able to draw elements from one thing to help with another. For instance, when we created our group composition “Seven Steps,” it was almost a form of group therapy to deal with the challenges of learning Beethoven's opus 131. With our latest project, The Brooklyn Rider Almanac, we've asked composers from the worlds of jazz, rock, and folk to write works inspired by their favorite creative muses: artists, musicians, choreographers, writers, photographers, painters, etc. This seemed like a fitting project to celebrate our tenth anniversary, one which embraces our inclusive attitude to the string quartet.

Currently: We're definitely celebrating the release of all of this Almanac madness! It's been at least two years in the making, and involved lots of communication and planning. Now is the fun part: we get to share with our fans thirteen-plus brand new quartets, a lot of them by folks not normally associated with the world of the string quartet. We are also super excited that we'll be releasing a series of videos, interviews, remixes, and essays based on this work. We hope to weave a web that allows the listener to go further if so motivated. Because each work was inspired by another artist of the composer's choosing, we knew that we had this incredibly rich world to work with; we wanted to enable the curiosity of our fans to experience more than just the music. And all the while, we're also thinking about future projects: we have premieres of new works by Tyondai Braxton and John Luther Adams happening this winter, and have been in the beginning stages of some new collaborative projects...

Musical philosophy: We're pretty much in the right place if we're engaged in projects we feel collectively passionate about and which push our collective and individual comfort zones. And, we need to be having fun in the process. That's an important part! The inherently fun thing about the string quartet is that there are 1,001 ways to exist as a quartet and still remain absolutely true to what a string quartet is. That just opens up so many worlds we would like to live inside. Lastly, we also always try to consider the audience experience at every stage of planning and rehearsal, just to make sure we don't get too much in our own heads. But beyond these points and the proclivities we all come to the table with, we actually try not to rigidly adhere to a philosophy per se.

Influential figures: We're deeply influenced by all of our collaborators; over the years, we've worked with Kayhan Kalhor, Martin Hayes, Béla Fleck, Shara Worden, Dawn Upshaw, and many, many others—not to mention a whole lot of composers and other artists outside of the sphere of music. Working with this wonderful creative array helps us fight off some of the intensely focused work that a string quartet has to do. The amount of hours you need to put in to play a late Beethoven quartet, not to even mention your own respective instrument, is huge. That's a lot of time in a room, closed off to the world. But the more we make our process porous to collaboration and inspiration, the better we can be as a string quartet.

Influential works: We're highly influenced by just about everything we endeavor to learn. Playing Haydn is like a Rosetta Stone of how to be a string quartet. It's all there: he teaches you in his music how to have a conversation with your instruments, how to sing like a church chorus, how to crack a joke. Philip Glass teaches us how to achieve the ideal blend, how to understand the meaning in simple gestures, how to trust each other. And as for the works in The Brooklyn Rider Almanac, each one of those pieces has taught us something new, made all the more relevant because of the personal relationships we have with all of the composers.

Influential events
: We're celebrating our tenth anniversary with The Brooklyn Rider Almanac, and now that we're sharing these works in live contexts, I'm reminded that playing concerts always inspires us. Every one feels like a unique and influential event, and this is where we feel we are at our best. We are driven primarily by the personal relationships we forge with audiences, friends, collaborators, and students. I would say those relationships come first, more than any particular artistic work or influential event.