Johnny Gandelsman of the hipster string quartet Brooklyn Rider tells Mark Tjhung why the world really is their oyster

11.07.11
Brooklyn Rider
Time Out Hong Kong

By Mark Tjhung

Brooklyn Rider isn't your average string quartet. Since emerging from the famed Silk Road Ensemble, the occasionally exotic, always adventurous and frequently fascinating New York-based quartet has captivated everyone from Gramophone magazine to online indie music tastemakers Pitchfork, pushing existing quartet boundaries and bridging the gaping chasm between classical and indie rock. Over the phone from his house in  yep, you guessed it  Brooklyn, the quartet's founder and violinist Johnny Gandelsman talks to us about how Mozart, gypsies and Texans are a match made in heaven.

What was the idea of Brooklyn Rider from the outset?
The cool thing about a string quartet to us is that it's so flexible. Besides the fact that there's some incredible history of music for string quartets, it can also sound like a village band or like a rock band. What we wanted was to play music we love, whether it be Mozart or music of the gypsies or music from Mali. We didn't want to exclude any genre. We definitely didn't want to be a quartet that does only classical or new music or world music collaborations. We want to be open to the world of music and allow things to influence us. In today's world, music from literally all over the world is so close. All you need is the click of a button and that can be really inspiring.

Brooklyn is such a hub for the creative arts at the moment, especially music. Do you feed off that?
Absolutely. It's very inspiring to be part of this community that's so creative. We go to shows, have recorded for our friend's album and collaborated with visual artists. I think it's something that really drives our thinking about the things we want to do and what's close to our hearts.

You've developed quite a cult following, with people seeing you as an act that crosses over the classical-indie rock divide. What's your reaction to that?
Today, the music world is so much closer than it was even 20 years ago. Fans are incredible listeners, so whether they're listening to indie rock bands or folk music or classical music, I think they can pick out if there is a real musicianship going on.

I heard you played at the rock festival SxSW as well?
[Yeah], we were the only classical group around. We weren't concerned but we didn't really know what to expect. But it was wild. The place was totally packed and the people that were there really appreciated what we did and were really into it. It's a pleasure to be able to share what we do with a wider audience and that's important to us. So we play in pubs and we hope we can do more of that in the next couple of years. We're hoping to collaborate with indie rock musicians or other groups.

You're coming to China for the first time on this tour. You've explored a lot of exotic influences before  are you eager to explore more music from this part of the world?
On the last Silk Road album, Off the Map, one of the pieces we did was by a Peruvian composer of Chinese heritage, Gabriela Lena Frank  this piece had sheng and pipa. So I feel like that Eastern connection is already there, but we would love to do more. We're going on a Silk Road tour to Asia in the spring and a lot of the programme will be inspired by music from China.

In Hong Kong, you're playing works from Mozart to Zorn. How do you determine such a programme?
Actually, the programme is kind of a perfect Brooklyn Rider programme. You have a Mozart quartet, Phillip Glass, a piece written for us by our violinist, Colin [Jacobsen], a John Zorn piece, who is this mythic figure in the downtown New York avant-garde scene, and then a Beethoven quartet. On paper, it may look like it doesn't make sense but we trust our audience to make the connections. And we talk during the show. It's a lot of fun.

What do you want the audience to take away from the performance?
I think when you go to a place you've never been, you really want a programme that will show the audience who we are. This particular programme represents who we are right now, this month. I would hope [the Hong Kong audience] would look at it and think wow, that looks really unexpected and interesting, and want to experience it.