Brooklyn Rider - The Brooklyn Rider Almanac (2014)

Brooklyn Rider
All Around Sound

In my college years, deep in the throes of my Russian composer Alexander Borodin obsession, I stumbled upon Les Vendredis. Les Vendredis, French for Fridays, began as an informal gathering at the mansion of successful lumber merchant turned music publisher Mitrofan Belyayev of musicians to play chamber works. Later attracting many of Belyayev's in form of Borodin, Glazunov, Rimsky-Korsakov, and more - the visiting composers began  creating works specifically to play at the gatherings (many of which were gathered into collections named after the weekly gathering). During much of my college career I wondered why such a thing didn't exist nowadays. Though their inspiration comes from a different source - New York based indie classical quartet Brooklyn Rider ultimately resurrected this idea at least in spirit with their latest project/album The Brooklyn Rider Almanac.

Inspired by the European artistic collective La Blaue Reiter (The Blue Rider) from which the quartet drew their name, The Brooklyn Rider Almanac is a multi-disciplinary project that essentially explores the nature of inspiration and influence. Tapping gifted artists/musicians not necessarily known for their classical output like singer/songwriter Aoife O'Donovan ("Show Me") or Deerhoof's Greg Saunier ("Quartet, Parts One and Two"), the commissioned works draw from equally inspiring sources - jazz guitarist Bill Friskell looks to John Steinbeck, O'Donovan to William Faulkner.

Brooklyn Rider start the almanac (the recorded first installment of their project) off with a bang - "Necessary Henry!", composed by Albanian cellist Rubin Kodheli and inspired by multi-instrumentalist and avant-jazz composer Henry Threadgill, is perhaps the best introduction to the project if not Brooklyn Rider in general. A driving fortissimo combustion - it's a work of charming ebbs and flows that effortlessly encapsulates Brooklyn Rider's genre fluidity. It's a piece of understated cool that tests the instrumental prowess and limits of the quartet's members - it's a mounting wave of kinetic energy that requires rapidfire changes not only between musical ideas but extended techniques. Brooklyn Rider, as always, of course tackle the challenge head on. Despite the swift perpetuum mobile feel of the piece, Kodheli and by extension Brooklyn Rider are able to keep the piece from feeling overstuffed with ideas - the saving grace being the sudden lulls in intensity with the subtler, more nuanced jazz-inflected passages. 

Though Brooklyn Rider have worked outside of the confines of the their quartet setup before (their earlier collaboration with Iranian composer/kamancheh player Kayhan Kalhor springs immediate to mind), it no doubt still comes as a bit of a shock when Shara Worden of My Brightest Diamond's voice enters on the piece "Exit" composed by Brooklyn Rider's own Colin Jacobsen. Drawing text from Kandinsky's Klänge and taken from the Chalk and Soot song cycle which features choreography John Heginbotham but inspired by David Byrne, "Exit" is another excellent indicator of what Brooklyn Rider set out to do with their project. The piece actually resembles something more in line with art song/folk song than anything from the Talking Heads frontman himself and therein lies its appeal. Blending a wide variety of forms (and coming from Kandinsky's own rejection of form), the piece remains singularly unique. What makes the piece the most radical of Brooklyn Rider's output is purely based on the departure of form - in this case that of the traditional quartet. Even with the addition of Worden, the piece still defies easy classification - making ample use of body percussion in the form of handclaps and footstomps.

Perhaps more than ever, Brooklyn Rider are proving not only exceeding difficult to pigeonhole but actively rebelling against such attempts. While The Brooklyn Rider Almanac is a testament to the nature of homage and influence, it also does its best to and succeeds in transcending those very things. Each contributor on the almanac brings their A game and Brooklyn Rider theirs, the union pushing each to creative heights thought previously unreachable. Brooklyn Rider have endured ten years based not only on the merits of their artistic ability but their continued efforts to keep the ensemble form relevant. Moments like the rhythmic dexterity of Vijay Iyer's "Dig the Say" or Ethan Iverson's "Morris Dance" choir-vocal ending and it becomes quite apparent what separates and ultimately unites Brooklyn Rider with the multitude of chamber groups embracing and marrying classical and contemporary influences - a thrilling enthusiasm, a creative fearlessness that keeps Brooklyn Rider not only true to their artistic statement but excitedly scaling to new creative peaks. The Brooklyn Rider Almanac is a snapshot of this wonderful moment in nothing else and no doubt a placeholder for Brooklyn Rider's next unpredictable endeavor in possibly the best way.