Brooklyn Rider’s “Healing Modes” is out now
Brooklyn Rider have been touring their Healing Modes project over the past two seasons, which pairs Beethoven’s Opus 132 with new commissions created to explore the interconnectedness of music and healing. The long-awaited recording is now available on Bandcamp and other platforms.
The healing properties of music have been recognized from ancient Greek civilization to the field of modern neuroscience and expressed in countless global traditions. The slow movement of Beethoven’s Opus 132, a ‘Song of Holy Thanksgiving From a Convalescent to the Deity in the Lydian mode,’ is among the most profound expressions of healing in the string quartet repertoire. This autumnal masterwork is presented in its entirety alongside five compact new commissions by Caroline Shaw, Gabriela Lena Frank, Du Yun, Mantana Roberts, and Reena Esmail, which explore the subject of healing from a wide range of historical and cultural perspectives.
“Healing Modes,” the newest album by the adventuresome string quartet Brooklyn Rider, is based on a program the group refined in concerts during the past few years, but its core theme—the interconnection of music and healthfulness—could not possibly be more relevant or necessary than it is currently. In a season awash with now postponed events intended to celebrate the two-hundred-and-fiftieth anniversary of Beethoven’s birth, this collection is inspired by the third movement of the composer’s String Quartet No. 15 in A Minor, a luminous hymn conveying his thankfulness after he recovered from a life-threatening illness, in 1825. The quartet’s five movements are interwoven with five newly commissioned works that explore complementary notions. Reena Esmail and Gabriela Lena Frank, like Beethoven, expressively recall personal maladies overcome; Matana Roberts and Caroline Shaw address the U.S.-Mexico border conflict and the Syrian refugee crisis, respectively, as afflictions of the body politic; Du Yun turns inward and outward at once, evoking the societal stigma of mental illness. The concept proves sound: the juxtapositions are illuminating, the playing persuasive, and the timing almost impossibly serendipitous.”
The New Yorker
“Some of Brooklyn Rider’s most memorable releases have been collaborations with Irish Fiddler Martin Hayes, saxophonist Joshua Redman, mezzo-soprano Annie Sophie Mutter, and others. But any thought that a release by the string quartet sans partners might be less compelling is soundly laid to rest by the double-CD Healing [sic] Wounds. In fact, it could be seen as one of the group’s most defining statements, not only for featuring the quartet alone but for the material presented, five newly commissioned works by Reena Esmail, Gabriela Lena Frank, Matana Roberts, Caroline Shaw, and Du Yun plus Beethoven’s massive Opus 132 quartet. Once again, the group’s programming choices impress as inspired and imaginative.
Interestingly, the inspiration for Healing Modes derived not from the commissioning idea but from Beethoven’s fifteenth string quartet, written near the end of his life after recovering from an illness (a bowel infection, much more serious during his day than now) and whose slow movement, “Song of Holy Thanksgiving From a Convalescent to the Deity in the Lydian Mode,” is considered one of the most moving expressions of healing in the string quartet canon. Out of that the concept in general emerged, which resonated with the quartet in thinking about how central a need healing is today and prompted an interest in seeing how contemporary composers might address it. It would be hard to imagine a more fertile current topic for creative exploration than healing, and consistent with that the works encompass a broad range, from personal experiences with illness to political issues.
The decision to disperse the five movements of the Beethoven work throughout the recording was a masterstroke. In sequencing the album this way, the group avoids having the recording split down the middle, the earlier work here and the new ones there. Instead, the temporal distance separating the halves seems smaller in mixing the contemporary pieces with the Beethoven movements. When Roberts’ piece seemingly flows into the first movement of his opus, the seamlessness borne out of the sequencing arrangement is even more pronounced.
Setting the project tone is borderlands … by Roberts, who tackles the human rights issue of the US-Mexico border crisis and calls out the US administration’s immigration policies in the process, healing in this instance focusing on the mending of cultural fences and bridging of differences. Emblematic of her jazz sensibilities, the piece was presented to the quartet as an interpretable graphic score involving improvisation and vocalization. Beginning quietly, the material awakens with tentative string gestures and speaking voices before settling into a unison figure executed urgently by the group. Episodes of dramatic and at times violent character follow, some involving pizzicato, vocalizing (“We hold these truths …”), and percussive effects and others rapid string flourishes, scrapes, and swoops.
Frank wrote Kanto Kechua #2 in her early thirties upon receiving a diagnosis of a life-threatening autoimmune disease, news that paradoxically triggered a creative period that saw her write music, poetry, and a fantasy novel, plus take up knitting, tarot cards, origami, soap-making, and beekeeping. Drawing on her Peruvian-Chinese background, she wove into the work’s design motifs from native Andean folk music, the haunting result a work straddling folk and boldly experimental forms that overlays a high violin line over a whirling mass. Like Frank’s, Esmail’s contribution, Zeher (Poison), emerged from personal illness, in her case a throat infection that made it difficult to swallow, breathe, and speak for two weeks and got her thinking about what the loss of voice represented for her. Helping greatly to distinguish the work’s striking presentation is its incorporation of two Hindustani ragas that see the strings’ vocal-like melismas wailing and intertwining over a droning base.
Pieces by Pulitzer Prize winners Du Yun and Caroline Shaw round out the commissions, the former’s i am my own achilles’ heel inspired by the condition known as Alice in Wonderland syndrome whereby warped perception suggests the disproportion in size of different body parts. In keeping with the theme, Yun’s piece wends unpredictably for twelve explorative minutes through a fantastical expanse of effects, some parts nightmarish, anxiety-ridden, and grotesque, others subdued, ruminative, and crepuscular. Apparently excited to contribute to the project because the Beethoven quartet is one of her “desert island” pieces, Shaw evokes the “nest-like” structure of his work in her own Schisma, the title a Biblical reference that connects today to the plight of Syrian refugees seeking safe haven in the Greek islands. While at times the music surges aggressively, it’s as striking during its contemplative moments, Shaw drawing on her own abilities as a violinist to enrich her elegant creation with a luscious field of bowed and plucked effects and glissandos.
One of the more significant takeaways from the project is the group’s treatment of Beethoven’s five-movement work. Someone more cynically inclined might think the quartet included the early piece as a calculated sop to listeners more disposed to traditional than contemporary material, but anyone harbouring such an inclination is misguided: Brooklyn Rider’s towering, forty-two-minute performance reflects a deep connection to the piece, and the group certainly brings an equal level of conviction to it as the others.
Though the opening movement begins in a restrained mode, it quickly gains in brio, the move perhaps designed to mirror the composer’s recovery from illness. Both the melody-rich music and the quartet’s passionate rendering of it exude serenity and an expressive joy that’s infectious; as inviting is the affable second movement, packed as it is with elegantly lilting figures and a blithe spirit. The work ends with two concise movements, the fourth a devilish march and the fifth an effervescent allegro characterized by interlocking rhythms and an incessant straining for resolution. As compelling as the framing movements are, however, it’s the epic third that registers most powerfully, especially when the adagio includes three prayerful chorale episodes the quartet members voice with characteristic feeling. The music gracefully soars in their hands, their handling of tempo and dynamics sensitively calibrated and the movement reaching an affectingly elegiac resolution in its final minutes.
In their performances of the album’s six works, violinists Johnny Gandelsman and Colin Jacobsen, violist Nicholas Cords, and cellist Michael Nicolas seem to have absorbed the material so completely that the pieces create the impression of being less performed than spontaneously generated; so strong is the level of attunement between performer and material, one could almost imagine Brooklyn Rider recorded the pieces in the absence of notated material. Fourteen years on from its inception, the group continues to demonstrate the continuing vitality of the string quartet as a creative conduit for chamber music material of all kinds.”