An Interview with Brooklyn Rider

10.05.10
Brooklyn Rider
Trap Door Sun

If you ever thought classical music was boring, then you probably weren’t listening to the right people perform it. The music of Brooklyn Rider is anything but boring. In fact, it is a fantastical journey of sounds and textures and emotions.
 
Their latest recording, Dominant Curve, features works by Debussy as well as pieces by Rider’s Colin Jacobsen, John Cage, Kojiro Umezaki, and by Dmitri Yanov-Yanovski. Curve is nothing short of brilliant as it continues the quartet’s tradition of somehow capturing the sound of raw emotions.
 
If you haven’t had the pleasure of listening to Brooklyn Rider then now is the time. Click over to your favorite online music purveyor and grab a copy of their latest album. Enjoy!

TDS: First, tell us a little bit about Brooklyn Rider.

ERIC JACOBSEN: We've all known each other for over 10 years. In some cases we've played together for our whole lives—whether it being tennis or tag or Beethoven.
 
Many stars had to align for Brooklyn Rider to begin. Johnny and Nick were roommates in college; some of us met playing in a beautiful chamber orchestra called Wild Ginger Philharmonic; we all like eating and drinking; we all have loved playing chamber music for many years and yes, now we all live in Brooklyn. It might be naive to say there is only one special someone out there for everyone, but I do strongly believe that many personality and characteristic traits have to agree for a marriage (oh yes, and for a quartet).

TDS: You are (self) described as genre-defying and (by others) as "trendy" or "hipster". You are also respected by "traditional" classical musicians. Is it difficult to maintain the balance that makes you appealing to the different audiences?

JOHNNY GANDELSMAN: That's a good question. "Trendy", "Hipster"? What are those definitions, anyway? They might apply to the way we dress. They might refer to venues we like to perform in (Nublu, Joe's Pub, etc.), places where a set by a string quartet might be unexpected.  They certainly don't refer to the actual music we play, at least in my mind.

We put a lot of thought into programming - for example:  a concert in DC had Schubert's "Death and the Maiden" quartet on the same half as Philip Glass' 2nd quartet, "Company".  To some, that kind of half might seem strange. To us, the connection between the 2 are very clear: both composers use seemingly simple melodies and harmonic and textural structure to express human emotion in incredibly deep and powerful ways. And after working on Philip Glass's quartets (we're in the process of recording all of them), we find that perhaps Schubert was at heart a minimalist as well.

I guess what I'm trying to say is this, we see the string quartet as an amazingly broad medium for music making, much broader than the standard quartet repertoire (which in itself is inexhaustible). The world we now live in provides limitless opportunities for creative inspiration; all the music of the world is at your fingertips, just a few clicks away. The possibilities are endless. It's a great time to be a musician.

As far as balancing our appeal to a wide audience, I think all we can do is continue our creative work in an honest way, and hope that what we are passionate about translates to our audiences and builds a mutual respect and trust, whether it's late Beethoven or Bon Iver.

TDS: When performing the work of "the classics" in an experimental (or more progressive) nature, are there times when you have to pull back and say to yourself we need to be truer to the piece? Or, do you interpret it how you see it and not worry too much about anything else?

NICHOLAS CORDS: First of all, I think that most of the great composers who wrote for quartet in our tradition—Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, and on and on—were themselves progressive in their language and approach as composers relative to their time. It is true that they came out of established traditions, but they also had creative souls, which fueled new ideas and extended boundaries. I think this same thought can be applicable to the performance of string quartets. So, if our performances of the core repertoire come across as outside of the norm, it also comes from an internal desire to move our tradition ahead in response to the time we live, inspired by our unique musical experiences as individuals.
 
The tradition of quartet playing is an absolutely amazing tradition, but we really prefer not to only take it as an accepted performance tradition. Starting with a clean slate allows us to see the piece without intermediaries. In our way of working, that often necessitates new ways of performing a familiar work.

TDS: When you first started out, were you ever concerned that you might be ostracized by traditional performers because of how you play? (Or do you feel like sometimes you are?)

COLIN JACOBSEN: I think we formed Brooklyn Rider partly in response to your question! There was a sense that we could not pursue our aesthetic ideals in music as fully in any other situation as with each other.
 
We all went to conservatories (Juilliard and Curtis) and worked with teachers like Robert Mann of the Juilliard Quartet, Arnold Steinhardt of the Guarneri, and Harvey Shapiro of the Primrose, and played for people like Isaac Stern. So we were lucky to study with some of the greatest upholders of the classical tradition. However, we did feel that there was a certain tunnel-vision that went along with conservatory training (possibly coming more from some of our peers than teachers) based on a kind of instrumental athleticism that seemed to want to “slam-dunk” a musical phrase.
 
So, we sought refuge, and rebellion, in a time-honored way. We went to the past in order to move forward. We listened to tons of historical recordings, not of 50 or 60 years ago, but from the years 1900-1940 more or less. And what we discovered there was an amazing freedom, a sense that the spirit rather than the letter of the composer was being honored.
 
How was this freedom and clarity achieved? We felt partly it was using less vibrato, focusing more on blend of chords, allowing harmonies to speak for themselves and vocalizing melodic lines with the use of portamenti (sliding from one note to another).
 
Then, while these ideas were brewing, we started playing in the Silk Road Ensemble with Yo-Yo Ma. This was a whole other education that opened our ears to many new sonic possibilities, rhythms, melodic inflections, improvisation, etc. Many of the musicians from (Iran, India, China and Azerbaijan for example) in Silk Road Ensemble both deeply know their tradition and are seen negatively by some “purists” within their tradition, because they dare to innovate, try new things out. Their example helped embolden us to follow our vision with Brooklyn Rider.

One exciting development within classical music is that there are more composer/arranger/performers out there now then there were in the past 50 years or so, I believe. I think if you’ve tried to create something, you have much more empathy for the creative process and want to know why a composer wrote something the way they did. This means that the focus immediately goes more to the content of the music rather than how you sound on your instrument. And allows you to meet a composer on a more equal footing rather than merely as an executer of their scribblings on a page, which can never tell the whole story! So I think there are some kindred spirits out there.

In the end, I don’t know if our teachers would approve or like everything we do. But if we do end up teaching some day, I doubt we’d want our students to copy everything we do either!
 
As to the rest, we’ve learned that unfortunately you can’t please everyone. You can only follow your vision with deep commitment and try to communicate it in the moment and hopefully enough people will appreciate it.

TDS: What drew you to Debussy on your recent album, Dominant Curve?

JOHNNY GANDELSMAN: Claude Debussy is one of our heroes! He came from an established French tradition, and already in school he was somewhat of a rebel, looking outside of his tradition for inspiration. He would do unorthodox things, and when asked about them, his reply was: "Pleasure is the law."  
 
It seems arrogant, but also genius. As an artist you have to do what you have to do, regardless of what's expected of you, what's popular. In 1889 Debussy went to the World Exposition in Paris, where he heard music from Indonesia, China, Middle East. His world was completely changed, as his musical language was enriched beyond measure with all the sights and sounds of the unfamiliar world. His innovations expanded the Western Musical language tremendously, and paved the way for young composers to look to the East for inspiration. Debussy's string quartet is one of staples of the quartet repertoire, and the first piece we worked on as Brooklyn Rider, about 5 years ago. We felt that it was a great piece to build an album around.

TDS: Do you think your music is drawing younger people into the classics? Or, are you re-defining the genre to appeal to a younger audience? In other words, are you changing their tastes or simply appealing to them?

COLIN JACOBSEN: One good thing about being a musician today is that people, and especially young people, seem to have very eclectic tastes when it comes to music. They are less likely to stick to one category of music then any generation that has come before.
 
However, if you think about music as information, (which in a digital age seems to be more and more the case) there’s such a huge amount of it available at any moment that it can be overwhelming. How does your music stand out in such a crowded situation?
 
We believe it actually works the old-fashioned way: your music touches someone at a concert (or online or on the radio, etc.) in a meaningful spiritual, mental or visceral way and they tell their friends about it and slowly the word gets out. When we played at South By Southwest in Austin, Texas this year as part of NPR’s showcase, it was in a lineup of acts that were mostly from the indie rock universe in a club setting. We wondered how people were going to react to a string quartets’ presence and found that within a few minutes, this mostly young audience was one of the most attentive and engaged that we had played in front of to date.
 
Lesson learned: young people who are serious about music are looking for music with real depth and don’t necessarily care which genre it comes from.
 
Another good thing about being a musician today (and I think this goes for all genres) is that there is more experimentation happening. Perhaps this is because the old structures of recording companies and touring models are changing. It seems as though fewer people are able to sell a monstrous number of albums, but there’s more room for bands to get a sizable and very loyal following, even though (or maybe because) they have a willingness to take risks.
 
I suppose there are a few concrete things we do that reach out to younger audiences: We play in venues where they feel more comfortable, (i.e. clubs, bars, outdoor venues, etc.)
We write and arrange music for the quartet ourselves—something that is taken for granted in the jazz and pop worlds but has been largely absent from the classical over the last 80-odd years. When we program works from the classical canon like Debussy, for example, we try to put it in a context that doesn’t refer exclusively to the insular world of classical music but reaches out to music of our time, music of other cultures, pop and jazz worlds.
 
We also don’t assume that just because a piece is written by Beethoven, and is supposed to be great, an audience is necessarily going to connect with it. It’s possible that the aura of “greatness” that hovers around a Beethoven, or a Shakespeare, actually does them a disservice in that it obscures the very human element present in their works. I’d like to think that our rehearsal process is one of discovery that allows us to enter into a healthy relationship with whatever we’re playing and view the concert as an extension of that process. It allows for a beautiful out-of-body experience: hopefully we’re not just delivering a polished ready-to-go, packaged version of whatever we’re playing. We’re also listening as if we’re one of the audience members in the room, in that moment. In an ideal world, that identification with the listener would allow us to connect meaningfully with an audience of any age or background! We’re working on it.
 
TDS: A lot of the great composers had some sort of inner turmoil or self-destructive behavior. Is there something about yourselves that you don't like, or would like to change, but that also makes you able to write and play the way you do?

ERIC JACOBSEN: Yes.

TDS: What's next for you guys?

NICHOLAS CORDS: Generally speaking, I think we are trying to stay fully committed to several areas that we feel passionately about. We love the existing quartet tradition; you might see us move sometime soon into the universe of the late Beethoven quartets, for example.
 
We love new music and are always looking for ways to bring new works into the world by composers with whom we have sympathetic relationships.
 
We also love instrumental collaborations; we plan to do more with Martin Hayes, the great Irish fiddler sometime in the near future. We feel very comfortable in the recording studio and try to think a number of projects in advance. To that end, we have been recording the string quartets of Philip Glass and have loose plans for a Brooklyn Rider EP of mixed repertoire.
 
We love the creative possibilities within our own group; Colin is writing a new piece this year for our longstanding collaboration with the Persian kemancheh virtuoso Kayhan Kalhor. We have also given some thought to writing a group composition—we'll see! All of that being said, we also like to stay light on our feet so that we are able to respond to new opportunities when they come knocking!