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IN CONCERT: The Knights of Fresh Music-Making - The Knights make their Southern California debut at UCSB Campbell Hall

The Knights
Santa Barbara News-Press

By Josef Woodard

There are orchestras, such as we hear on a regular basis even right here in Santa Barbara, and there are The Knights, a fresh model of an orchestra, reinventing and reinvigorating as it goes. Making its Southern California debut Saturday night at UCSB Campbell Hall, the young and innovative NYC-based chamber orchestra, a malleable and mobile operation run by the brothers Colin and Eric Jacobsen, will perform an enticing but accessible program, with Wu Man, virtuoso of the Chinese pipa, as special guest.

This is a contemporary orchestral entity with ears open to contemporary sounds, on one hand, but with a strong sense of traditional roots as well. Just recently, the group released a Beethoven, with the Fifth Symphony and Triple Concerto, but last year's release, "A Second in Silence," somehow made sequential music from composers as varied as Schubert, Satie, Philip Glass and Morton Feldman.

Among the projects coming up for The Knights is a role in an unconventional project created by composer Lisa Bielawa and called the "Tempelhof Broadcast," later this spring. Taking place on the airfield turned public park in Berlin where the Cold War airlift took place, the work enlists several hundred musicians, amateur and professional, gathered on the old tarmac and interacting in different ways.

When not active in The Knights, both Jacobsen brothers keep busy as members of their acclaimed string quartet, The Brooklyn Riders, as well as being ongoing members of Yo-Yo Ma's Silk Road Ensemble. "Between those three groups," Colin Jacobsen commented during a recent phone interview from a tour stop in Lafayette, Ind., "most of the year is taken up with activities, which is exciting. And they inform each other but are also totally different groups."

News-Press: It seems that this group is well respected and established at this point. Have things gone faster and stronger than you expected in the beginning?

Colin Jacobsen: Looking at the momentum that the group has, the current phase of the group is since 2006, when we first played with our wind-playing friends. Prior to that, we were a string orchestra and we only did a couple of things a year, and they were basically just for fun. We had such a good time doing it, and got feedback, so then we started putting more energy into it.

It's definitely a labor of love for my brother and I. It's about bringing together these friends that we've had for many years and who we have developed bonds with, basically through playing chamber music in our living room at first. Growing out of that, we put on a concert and were asked to give a name to the group we were playing with. My brother said, "Oh, this is The Knights," and that stuck. We grew into the name, I would say, and find ourselves lucky to be continuing to play together, years later.

NP: This is a very interesting program you're bringing to UCSB. It's like an encounter with some 20th-century repertoire, and newer, but without the audience fear factor attached, maybe.

CJ: I hope audiences will enjoy this program. I think it's pretty colorful, and pretty much all the music on it tells a story of composers or people stepping outside of their immediate time or place for inspiration. In the case of Stravinsky, he was looking back to Bach. Of course, this is a big year for Stravinsky, with the "Rite of Spring" having its centennial, but actually, the "Dumbarton Oaks," the piece we're playing, is having its 75th anniversary. We're looking forward to actually playing that piece at Dumbarton Oaks in D.C. in October.

Milhaud, from a similar time in the early 20th century, goes to Brazil and gets obsessed with all things Brazilian, incorporating about 30 popular Brazilian songs into that piece, in strange and surreal ways. Lou Harrison was inspired by Wu Man herself. The pipa is a Chinese instrument, of course, but that piece also incorporates Harrison's love of gamelan music and even a Neapolitan song and a 14th-century Spanish song. It's kind of all over the map. Wu Man's own tune, "Blue and Green," is partly based on Chinese folk music. I arranged that for The Knights.

As an orchestra, people in the group have different skills. Mike Atkinson arranged the Debussy "Afternoon of a Faun" for our group, as well. We see The Knights as a place where all of those different passions and talents can find voice, hopefully, over the course of years, and even in the course of this program.

NP: Have you collaborated with Wu Man in the past?

CJ: This is the first time that The Knights have worked with her. But both my brother and I played in the Silk Road Ensemble, which is where we met her, in the summer of 2000. That's an old friendship, and it's great to bring her into our orchestral family. She commands the stage for her pieces, but it's also very interactive with the group.

NP: Your album "A Second in Silence" is a beautiful piece of work. I don't know that there is another album existing which combines Schubert, Satie, Glass and Morton Feldman.

CJ: I don't know. That idea for that album came about the way many things in The Knights do, through discussion. Within the group, we have different committees, and there is a programming committee. We get together and listen to stuff and brainstorm. There's a violist in the group, Max Mendell, who is a Morton Feldman aficionado. He suggested that there was something about the simplicity of the melodic lines of Schubert that worked well with those kinds of minimalist composers, particularly through the lens of Samuel Beckett, who was obsessed with Schubert, and who worked with Morton Feldman. The Glass piece on the album, "Company," was actually written for a stage reading of Beckett's prose poem "Company."

At first, we knew we wanted to play "Unfinished Symphony" and the youthful Third Symphony. We started listening to stuff and started to feel a spiritual connection between those works, that resonated with us. The more we played them together, the more we thought, "This is going to be an interesting album."

NP: Reading what's in the program, it does seem audacious, but when heard from beginning to end, there is such a seamless logic to it. Was that the underlying message?

CJ: Yes. I'm glad you listened to it in that way, because we hope people will. But a lot of people don't have time to sit down for a whole album. We hope people take the time, because that's the way we thought of it, as a "through" thing. For our programs in a live situation, as well, we hope that the pieces will be both centers unto themselves but also talk across centuries and cultures to each other, and that an audience at our show will have a journey.

NP: The group evolved and went through different phases, but as it has become more serious and organized, are you motivated by this idea of thinking beyond the norms and traditions of the classical music world and are you trying to consider new ways of doing things?

CJ: Yeah. I would say that the important thing to my brother and I, at least internally, is to start at the place that we always have, which is this sense that The Knights is our orchestral sandbox. If you put yourself in the mind of a child and are free to explore things as a group, then creative things will happen. That goes for all aspects of thinking about programming, thinking about a context, where we want to play music.

In Santa Barbara, we're interacting with students. We may show up somewhere random and play, taking music directly to people. But we want to find interesting projects that resonate with us, as well.

NP: It is intriguing that you touch on these different shores of repertoire. Now, you have recorded Beethoven's Fifth, recently released on CD, and "Unfinished Symphony," and I'm assuming you'll continue taking on those standard pieces, along with contemporary work. Is that mix critical to the group's sense of self, or sense of mission?

CJ: Yeah. And we want to play to where people are. That's the concert hall, but it's also sometimes just showing up somewhere and playing, or finding a project like Lisa's, that's unusual. We're going to keep brainstorming ways that the orchestral and concert experience can continue to be meaningful to people. I think it's possible that in the digital age, the live experience takes on an even greater value.

NP: Speaking of the portability of this group, the orchestral tradition is usually very grounded, in a home team situation with some amount of touring, but orchestras are generally rooted in a particular hall, in a particular city. You're presenting a different kind of model. It's mobile.

CJ: Yeah. There is a sense that we could show up at your home, at your school, or at your local bar. We've been in all of those places at some point. Even here in Lafayette, we have a free day, and we might show up at the local hang bar and play some stuff.

NP: Feel free to do that in Santa Barbara.

CJ: I think it might happen. I can't say for sure, but we may do something like that. I think it's good to have a mix and catch people by surprise.

That goes for the concert hall, too. Obviously, we love the concert hall because it's the most focused listening experience, but within that, hopefully, the music gets to a place, in terms of our ideal as musicians, where audience and musicians are really present in the moment, and full of active listening so that the moment is fraught with possibility. That's our goal, and that can happen in many places.

NP: Generally speaking, would you say the musicians in the group are part of this new generation of classical musicians who are well-trained and grounded in tradition but are also open-minded about stretching out beyond the classical world as we've known it in the past.

CJ: Oh yeah, we're a group where people come in from many different places. The flutist, Alex Sopp, plays with The Knights and two other groups, Why Music and the Now Ensemble. You can hear her flute on basically every indie pop album. She has created a need for herself, to where people think, "If I'm going to make a pop album, I need Alex Sopp."

I think you'll find that most people in The Knights have many different interesting lives outside of The Knights. For us, The Knights is an upswelling and a coming-together. Then we go away and do lots of other things and hopefully come back fresh, bringing new creativity to the group.

NP: You have basically carved out your own musical existence and reality, outside of the classical system. Early in your career, could you have imagined your musical life turning out the way it is now?

CJ: I did not imagine it, when I was, say, in school. My brother and I came from a musical family. Our dad played violin in the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra for over 30 years. The world that he came from was much more specialized and defined. Either you played in an orchestra or you were a soloist. Chamber music was something you did for fun, in someone's living room without so much of a viable life outside of that. There were things like Marlboro that gave people the chamber-music bug.

People have just spread out all over the country, and there's so much great chamber music all around the country now. At the time that we were in school, we saw a world out there that was changing — the business of music totally changed, with record companies and elsewhere. Either you could see a great abyss before you, or you could possibly see opportunity to do something different.

I do feel lucky to be part of a generation and there are so many great groups out there who are trying to find their own way in the world and do something different. Hopefully, The Knights is part of that.


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