BY DAVE ALLEN Don’t let the name throw you – Brooklyn Rider isn’t an invading army from the Big Apple looking to dethrone our world champions and displace our native cultural treasures; two of the members even attended the Curtis Institute of Music in our fair city. BR is a string quartet that, like the Kronos (interviewed here in November and seen and heard later at the Kimmel Center), isn’t content with the two-violins-viola-and-a-cello mold. The group’s outside-the-box playing and thinking led to participation in the Silk Road Festival, a collection of Asian and Middle Eastern music curated by cellist and classical music god Yo-Yo Ma, and later to collaborations of all kinds with musicians from Iraq, Iran, Russia, Ireland and some of the cooler places in the U.S. of A. Their name comes both from their home borough – the funky, arty-bohemian paradise celebrated by writers and indie bands alike – and from “Der Blaue Reiter” (The Blue Rider), a community of artists in the early 20th century which included revolutionary blokes like Kandinsky and Klee and which foresaw a bright future for artistic collaboration. I spoke with violist Nicholas Cords about the group’s breakthrough at, of all places, South by Southwest, their stage presence and live show, and the draw of non-Western music for players trained on Mozart and Beethoven.
PHAWKER: What’s it like being a string quartet at a huge rock and roll festival? What kind of reaction did you get from audiences, and what kind of vibe did you get overall?
NICHOLAS CORDS: First of all, the reaction and the audience were really overwhelming. I think people were really excited by what they heard. Our set was a piece of traditional Persian music, a movement from the Debussy string quartet, an arrangement of a Mexican song, and a piece by one of our quartet members. It was 25 to 30 minutes, with a lot of diversity of music, and people really got into it. It was at a place called the Parish, about a 300 to 400 person room, and it was packed at 12:30 in the afternoon. On the plane going there, everyone was going to SXSW. We met a record guy, and we were talking about the show. He says, “I’d love to hear you guys! When are you playing?” We tell him, and he says, “Oh, I don’t usually get up before 2 in the afternoon.” There were seven or eight groups in the showcase, and we were the very first one. For a string quartet to go to a festival, that’s a pretty big stretch, and kind of a risky move for us. But on the other hand, our mission is to bring the string quartet repertoire to members of our generation, so it’s really the ideal situation for us.
PHAWKER: What do you get from playing non-Western music – Persian, Armenian, etc. – that you can’t get from the Western canon?
NC: All of us come from pretty solid, traditional conservatory backgrounds. I went to the Curtis Institute of Music, and so did one of our violinists. Within the realm of classical music, though, it’s kind of a narrow training. You’re not really asked to improvise, or to listen in a certain way. That’s what we’ve gotten from a lot of different people. We’ve played with Kayhan Kalhor, a Persian kamacheh player. We recorded the album “Silent City” with him. We’ve played with Irish fiddler Martin Hayes. We’re doing the program with 2 Foot Yard. What’s unique is the sense of listening. When you’re playing a concerto – not that violas have many concertos – you practice it for hundreds and hundreds of hours. You build a physical memory of that piece. When you’re playing it, the quality of listening is different from the hundreds of hours of practice. When I play with these people, automatically my listening changes, especially in the context of things that are improvised. Martin Hayes has one of the greatest bow arms I’ve ever seen. It’s like a needle and thread, and it’s quite amazing how little he exerts himself while playing. When we played with Kayhan Kalhor, we learned about Persian modes and different feelings associated with the modes. We take things like that.
PHAWKER: Tell me about your live show – what do you have going on visually, or in terms of stagecraft or stage presence? I know the group has a kind of emphasis on combining music with visual art – do you make that part of your show?
NC: It really depends – it changes a lot. The visual component isn’t always a part of it. But that’s one of the great things about live performance – the experience of people coming on stage is quite powerful in itself. One thing an audience might notice is a lot of open communication between the four of us. A lot of how we play is based in the moment. Obviously, we rehearse quite a lot, but we’re not a group that likes to seal the deal in rehearsal. We’ve been playing Debussy, and we challenge ourselves never to fall on one interpretation night after night. We also stand when we perform – except for the cellist. It gives us a lot of movement and a lot of communication, and it’s easier for the audience to see. I think the energy level is higher when you stand. Sometimes it presents a problem, because there’s no way of being on stage, and it’s constantly evolving. We self-produced our CD release party at a place called Angel Orensanz Center. It’s a converted synagogue on the Lower East Side. We got to craft and create our ideal experience. We had a lighting designer make the space really beautiful. We also had this art exhibit, because we have a lot of artist friends, and we wanted to give them a place to show some of their newest works. We wanted the live experience with the art all around the room. The audience was set up in a circle in this very, very beautiful space. We’ve collaborated with an Armenian artist, Kavork Mourad, who does live painting. We had this whole set-up with this project he’s doing with black ink and paper. He’s able to start a pre-made animation to accompany this whole series of folk songs that all have a story to tell. Being Armenian and in the art realm, he’s able to animate these songs in a great way. We’ll do that more with other artists in the future.
PHAWKER: I know that the group got the Yo-Yo Ma seal of approval with your involvement in the Silk Road Project. How do you relate to early generations of classical players? Do you look to collaborate with older, more established artists?
NC: First of all, Yo-Yo Ma has found the fountain of youth, I think. When you’re playing with him on stage, his energy level… I can never imagine it decreasing. I never even think about the age thing. I do think about the experiences he’s had and what’s brought him to this. He’s very generous with that, but he absolutely manages to be part of the ensemble. We all have a ton of respect for the tradition he’s coming from, and it’s very much passed down. We all worked with teachers who represented the greatness of that tradition. I worked with Karen Tuttle, just a towering figure in viola at Curtis. When I started studying with her, she was in her mid to late 70’s. Eric studied with Harvey Shapiro, who was the founding cellist of the Primrose Quartet and who taught at Juilliard. He was teaching well into his late 90’s. Colin studied quite a bit with Robert Mann, the founding first violinist with the Juilliard String Quartet. Not a day goes by that we don’t draw from that tradition. As a group, one thing we love is old recordings – string quartet recordings from the 1920’s and ‘30’s, as well as singers, pianists and orchestras from that era. They’re just amazing. We’ve done a lot of collaboration with composers, too, like Osvaldo Golijov. We just did a film score with him that will be coming out soon – “The Oath.” Colin and Eric have a group called the Knights, and we just did some concerts in Europe with the Knights and Dawn Upshaw. So we’re very open to that, and that’s a big part of what we do.
PHAWKER: Tell me about having a composer as part of the ensemble. Does that add insight into other new works? How does Colin lead you through his pieces? How does he show you what he wants?
NC: I think the great thing about having a composer in the group is that it sheds an interesting light on the tradition of the string quartet. Most of all the composers who wrote for string quartet were composer/performers. With Colin, when he writes a piece, he’s writing it for us very specifically – for us as individuals. Another composer, Lisa Bielawa, is writing a piece for string quartet and voice – her voice – and within the music score, she has our names – Colin, Johnny, Nick and Eric. She has written this piece with us in mind. Colin does the same thing – although he doesn’t write our names, it would weird if he wrote for himself as “Colin” – but the parts that he writes are kind of tailored to our strengths. He wrote one of the first pieces we ever performed – “Brooklesca” – and it continues to evolve with every performance as we bring elements of our own style. Every piece he writes I’m just in love, and the rest of the quartet does too. You could imagine there was a string quartet, and everyone really loved them, but there was one person in it who was a composer and they didn’t like his music, but he just kept writing for them. That would be a terrible situation. Fortunately, it couldn’t be further from the truth – everyone really looks forward to the next Colin Jacobsen piece. You know, this new project with 2 Foot Yard, we’re all writing for it. Having Colin in the group, he says, “I’m gonna compose stuff for you,” and you get an insight into the piece and you get the courage to try it yourself. And Colin, he’s not a traditionally-trained composer. He compares it to the young child who will put blocks together and try to make something, and then rearranging the blocks until you get something you like. We’d also like to try to write more as a group – to create music the way a band creates music. Of course, it’s different for every band, but to write something together as a quartet – once it happens, I feel like it shouldn’t be unusual at all anymore.
PHAWKER: Even though I know you studied at Curtis, Philadelphians tend to be suspicious of New Yorkers. What should Philadelphians know about New York – specifically about Brooklyn – and about the impact the city has had on the group’s music?
NC: It’s kind of a tale of two cities in a way, because I really feel a big connection to Philly because of Curtis. For Johnny and I, so much of who we were as musicians was formed in Philly. We’ve been looking forward to this concert for so long because it’s in Philly. Plus Johnny’s birthday is the day of the concert, or the day before. The Brooklyn thing, for us, it’s this incredible community of people. You have people living here from every culture, and the way of living with all other culture is pretty successful. It works pretty well in Brooklyn. If we’re on tour somewhere – and I remember this from taking a cab in Cairo – and you’re asked where you’re from, you say Brooklyn, and he says, “oh, my brother lives in Brooklyn.” There’s less than six degrees of separation there. With the kind of music we like to play and the way we like to play it, it really comes from this multiplicity of people and of traditions. Brooklyn has kind of become a buzzword. There was this cover of the New Yorker with people crossing the Brooklyn Bridge and the hand of God pointing to Brooklyn, and they’re all coming over with suitcases and moving vans. But behind the whole phenomenon, it’s just an incredible community of musicians of incredibly traditional music players – indie bands, electronic acts – and all kinds of writers and artists. It’s kind of an artist’s heaven – although it might some artist’s idea of hell, because it’s kind of saturated.
Brooklyn Rider plays with 2 Foot Yard at 7:30 tomorrow night at the Kimmel Center’s Perelman Theater. Tickets available here.