The Boston debut of the string quartet Brooklyn Rider came Friday as one of five “Stave Sessions” which have extended the regular fare of Celebrity Series programs. From what I saw and heard, the concept should be adjudged a huge success. The venue, the Calder-esque Berklee School of Music’s cafetorium, complete with full bar and café tables, was not your traditional concert space, and the crowd skewed at least 20 years younger than at a typical chamber music concert. Though outside of normal concert conventions, it was also, in some senses, the purest musical experience I have ever experienced, and I’ll explain why shortly.
Brooklyn Rider has just marked its 10th season, a notable achievement in the life of any quartet, and all the hype is justified. It is said that they have redefined the string quartet; that they play with the passion and verve of a rock band; that they have breathed life into a moribund tradition. All true. And with a rich and colorful raiment. They also clearly like and enjoy each other, another achievement after a ten-year relationship! With an engaging stage presence, they still project young musicians’ joy in a whimsical turn of musical phrase, or in unexpected humor.
Brooklyn Rider’s work, and their very existence, is based on an intellectual exercise: they take their inspiration from the interaction among Arnold Schoenberg and Wassily Kandinsky and Die Blaue Reiter, a group of artists and musicians who in 1912 published Die Blaue Almanach, a collection of artwork, essays, and music as a testament to the artistic temperament of their time while offering their vision of the future. In their current album, “The Brooklyn Rider Almanac,” the group has sought to foster and channel a similarly rich, genre-bending collaborative stew among artists and intellectuals.
Music—all art—both reflects the time in which it is created and at the same time creates the time in which it exists. When listening to Handel, we see lovely billowing baroque art and royal pageantry, and listening to Schoenberg we see Georg Grosz’s grotesques and hear the footfalls of Nazi soldiers. With the advent of YouTube and social media, the world in which music is created and exists has shifted again. The democratization of music and all art permits anyone with a mouse and internet connection to express her creativity and have it seen by millions.
After thoroughly digesting the standard quartet repertoire, Brooklyn Rider seems to be riding a new wave. Some of what they played Friday night was as technically challenging as any Bartok quartet. They have chops in spades, perfect intonation, death-defying rhythmic accuracy, and passionate conviction. They could play anything and probably have.
What they are reaching for is an integration into the music of our time. They have recognized that music is music, whether it’s the heartfelt expression of a folk song or the self-taught grit of a punk rock tune or an hour long symphony. It isn’t all written down.
In conversation with a knowledgeable “popular music” artist, I described what I felt was the difference between a three-minute pop song and a standard classical work: The song is a tent, and a classical work is a cathedral. Both will keep you out of the rain, and each has its place. But pop’s short ABACA form is not the “frozen architecture” of a symphony. In “classical” music there’s an intention to work out form, and to speak to people both alive and those not yet born. Whether the work is now or will become successful, is up for conjecture. But I doubt if even Taylor Swift expects “Shake it Off” to be around in 100 years. At the same time, you can’t go camping in a cathedral…
In keeping with Brooklyn Rider’s informality, and like in most rock concerts, there was no printed program or published set list. Since this concert was showcasing some recent commissions from composers outside the standard classical realm, there was no way to know what to expect, no anchor, no preconceived notion. There was nothing to do after the quartet sat down but listen, fully immersed in the sound, experiencing it only in real time. It’s an indescribable feeling, a sense of floating.
The opener turned out to be by Vijay Iyer, an American jazz pianist and writer who chose as his inspiration James Brown. Entitled Dig the Say was moto-perpetuo-ish, with a Ravel-like harmonic flavor.
Dana Lyn’s Maintenance Music, inspired by Mierle Laderman Ukeles followed. Ukeles has been the artist in residence at the Department of Sanitation in New York for 40 years, and has sought to elevate the artistic value of the everyday. It’s an interesting proposition, and her piece is interesting as well. My overwhelming thought was that Philip Glass has won…there were minimalist rhythmic patterns that shifted over time.
And then, in John Steinbeck by jazz guitarist Bill Frisell, there were glassy non-vibrato passages, very plaintive, resolving into beautifully balanced and harmonically pleasing chords.
Ethan Iverson, the next composer, was dancer/choreographer Mark Morris’s music director for many years, and two of Morris’s dancers are now the wives of the violinist of Brooklyn Rider. This family affair had a conversational quality redolent of a sickly sweet, Viennese café—alternating nattering conversations with lovers in dialogue and argument.
Next up was a work by Glenn Kotche, the drummer from the alternative rock band Wilco. His Ping Pong Fumble Thaw was written initially for solo drumkit, in the style of minimalist electronic music from Cologne by the artist Jens Massel. Thaw is highly rhythmic and uses much pizzicato.
Venezuelan multi-instrumentalist Gonzalo Grau’s Five-Legged Cat, was inspired by Chick Corea. My favorite work of the evening, it was a merengue in five, the most traditional in form of any of the pieces played, and it carried a strong flavor of Stravinsky in the mix.
Simpson’s Gap by Padma Newsome, an Australian multi-instrumentalist inspired by Australian artist Albert Namatjira’s watercolor landscapes, came in the form of theme and variation
Greg Saunier, the drummer from the group Deerhoof contributed Quartets, Parts One and Two, a work inspired by Christian Wolff. I heard Deerhoof a few years ago in Boston when they opened for The Flaming Lips at the Bank Boston Pavilion. I found them pretty unlistenable, but I did like this piece. Which contains a great deal of choreographed silence. The quartet members were frozen still like mechanical dolls (I thought of Coppelia), then brought back to life in the middle of a phrase. We were told that that Saunier made mention of the distinctive syntax of Captain Kirk (William Shatner of Star Trek fame). It seemed a bit contrived, but interesting nonetheless, and given the fact that two quartet members are married to dancers, organic somehow.
I’ve heard Bostonian folk singer/songwriter and New England Conservatory alumna Aoife O’Donovan, several times with her folk group Crooked Still. With her Irish roots and familiarity with bluegrassy strings, writing for quartet seems quite logical. Show Me was inspired by William Faulkner, particularly The Sound & the Fury. Its Celtic sadness and rhythmic sense hint of Grieg.
The closer, Necessary Henry! by Albanian cellist Rubin Kodheli was inspired by saxophonist and composer Henry Threadgill. This intensely difficult, yet pleasing piece reminded me of Bartok quartets.
Ultimately, I applaud Brooklyn Rider’s premise. They asked for short pieces inspired by artists that had special meaning for the composers. The eclectic results yielded quite a mixed bag overall on this evening, but reaching out to composers who may never have thought of writing for string quartet is a bold act which can erase arbitrary divisions.