Performance Monday, October 31, 2011 | 7:30 PM

Brooklyn Rider

Zankel Hall
Start a concert with a piece that Brooklyn Rider wrote as a group, end with Beethoven, and in between hear Philip Glass. It’s this flair for the unexpected and the eclectic that has made this top-notch group one to watch. As indie tastemaker Pitchfork puts it, they are “poised to earn attention on their own terms—regardless of which composers they work with.”
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The Program

Seven Steps

We have always been heavily invested in the music of our time as we constantly work with composers, arrangers, and guest collaborators. All of this is done with an eye toward making the string quartet relevant to the present generation of listeners. Engaging in this process while grappling with the great canonic works in the string quartet repertoire (such as Beethoven’s Op. 131) makes this investment in the present especially exciting to us.

For us, playing Beethoven is an inspiring journey into a supremely creative mind. What’s more is that his music speaks as currently as just about anything being written today. It is truly mind- and world-expanding to experience his music as a performer or an audience member. Beethoven’s late period in particular suggests so many different worlds that can serve as fodder for a composer in the present. Not that Beethoven is the only source of inspiration! We often refer to the string quartet as the band of the 18th century—portable, playing the music of its day, popular. We like to think that the string quartet is also a viable band in the 21st century. What is happening today in the realm of bands (alternative, rock, experimental, folk, and so on) is truly exciting to us. Some incredible music is being created collaboratively across a wide variety of genres. Why shouldn’t a quartet also endeavor to create music together rather than always relying on the singular voice of the composer?

Seven Steps plays with the number seven—not just because it suggests the spiritual world that Beethoven explores in his late works (in addition to all of the Biblical references to seven, the Buddha was said to have taken seven steps at birth), but because our piece is also divided into seven very short fragments, just as Beethoven’s Op. 131 is written in seven movements. More important than the link to Beethoven, we think about this piece as seven steps forward for us as a string quartet. The process of creating music together requires a great deal of trust, and we see this as opening another chapter in our evolution. We certainly don’t intend for our piece to rise to the same transcendent heights as Beethoven, but what is extremely important to us is to constantly push our boundaries outwards. Being closer to the creative process ourselves not only results in the creation of new music, but also helps us to achieve more empathetic interpretations of other people’s music.

—Nicholas Cords

© 2011 The Carnegie Hall Corporation

Together Into This Unknowable Night

By the time I got around to wanting to actually put notes down on paper—for myself and others—it was relatively late in the game. I already had some hard ideas about what I thought was worth it, informed at least as much by playing in bands as by playing in string quartets. Really I think what I wanted to do then, fresh out of college, was write the great American novel, but my days were spent as La Monte Young and Marian Zazeela’s assistant, fetching laundry, and so on. Regardless, this is what I thought “real” minimalism was: a set of brave calculations and agro drones that was, well, eternal. But the music I was writing was more like the guys on the other side of that minimal line, with rhythmic patterns that added up to sad melodies, phasing right through you. The discrepancy couldn’t have bothered me less. Who cares what’s “real” minimalism, “real” classical music, or “real” anything? Once it’s clear what you love, such dictums reveal themselves as the last refuge of pseudo-intellectual scoundrels, whose self-worth or even livelihoods are tied to making sure we think such questions have any meaning, let alone merit. Never mind the bollocks: Program notes ! = music.

I wrote Together Into This Unknowable Night after searching for a way to work with the boys from Brooklyn Rider again. I must say, the good folks at the Barlow Endowment offered me more to write the thing than I even asked them for. “Only in the arts,” I remember thinking. But then I had to do it, and it’s hard to ignore that now it’s a gig. I wanted something that took the quartet somewhere overwrought, something they could lean into with heart as much as bow. Big vertical stacks that would take that centuries-old quartet resonance and let you live inside it. Music that is as much noun as verb, as much a story as a place for your story. And I want it to feel like we’re sorting it all out together. The live AM radio always helps with that, as do those oddly figured motifs and blurry electronic brushstrokes. See you in there.

—Christopher Tignor

© 2011 The Carnegie Hall Corporation

String Quartet No. 3, “Mishima”

From the very first notes of our rehearsal process, we felt an affinity to the inimitable musical language of Philip Glass. The glowing sonorities of his string quartets coaxed us towards a truly collective spirit as an ensemble. Not only did the music require us to be completely emotionally invested, but it seemed to demand that we proceed with a heightened sensitivity to blend, transparency, and tone color—as if the notation served as a kind of Rosetta Stone, and it was our job to decode. Beyond the fundamental approach to the score, Glass’s synergistic combination of interlocking patterns and elemental harmonies inevitably caused us to draw connections to the familiar, whether it be the gossamer-like inner voices of Schubert, the urban landscape of New York, or the drone-infused textures of Persian music. All of this and more made this project feel deeply rooted within our collective experience.

As a quartet, we have always been heavily invested in reaching across audience groups. Philip Glass is an absolute exemplar of this type of musician. His uncanny ability to be simultaneously a composer of our time and curiously “unstuck” from time fosters a shared appreciation among fans of classical, rock, electronic, experimental, jazz, world music, and others. Though perhaps most widely known for his dramatic scores to such iconic films as The Hours, Kundun, Mishima, and Koyaanisqatsi, as well as for his operatic works, including Einstein on the Beach, Satyagraha, and The Voyage, the string quartets represent some of his most dynamic and personal compositions. The six interconnected movements of Philip Glass’s String Quartet No. 3, “Mishima” were assembled by pulling together material from the composer’s own score to a Paul Schrader film about Yukio Mishima, the great Japanese author. He was one of Japan’s most important literary figures of the 20th century and famously committed ritual suicide after a failed coup d’etat.

—Nicholas Cords

© 2011 The Carnegie Hall Corporation

Kol Nidre

Kol Nidre
is a work composed in 1996—supposedly in less than an hour—by the legendary New York iconoclast John Zorn. Traditionally used as the prelude to Yom Kippur services, the Kol Nidre is a musical form that has inspired composers from Bruch to Schoenberg. Zorn’s version seems to share more of a spiritual kinship with the world of late Beethoven than it does to the Jewish tradition. It is interesting to note that it has often been remarked that the traditional Kol Nidre can be heard in the opening bars and in the sixth movement of Beethoven’s Op. 131. Whatever the case may be, Zorn’s Kol Nidre serves as an effective porthole from the present-day NYC world of Brooklyn Rider, Christopher Tignor, and Phillip Glass to the world of Beethoven.

—Nicholas Cords



© 2011 The Carnegie Hall Corporation

String Quartet in C-sharp Minor, Op. 131

One of the ultimate motivic compositions in musical history, Beethoven’s Op. 131 String Quartet is a through-connected journey of epic scope and constant variation; the motivating ideas behind its seven inter-connected movements are as clear in the macro view as they are on a cellular, individual voice-leading level. The work also shows great thematic variation; Beethoven grapples with personal demons and spiritual callings practically in the same breath with laugh-out-loud-funny moments.

Op. 131 makes huge demands of the musician; indeed, studying this piece forces the musician to come to grips with challenges that are seemingly too great to overcome. The performer must thoroughly embrace a system of trial and error, similar to the compositional parallel we can observe in Beethoven’s sketchbooks. But despite the difficulties, the piece constantly shines a light in the darkest corners of the rehearsal, and inevitably brings one face to face with the creative process itself. It constantly challenges both player and listener, perennially finds relevance in a fast-moving world, and creatively speaks across a wide range of audiences in the present.

Our joy as performers is to inhabit this world, with all of its joys, challenges, and contrasts. It is worth restating that, concurrent with our preparation of Op. 131, we developed our first ever Brooklyn Rider group composition (Seven Steps). We felt an acute need to have a place where the inspiration and sensory overload of working on Op. 131 could overflow—in other words, having a place to let the world of late Beethoven work itself out in a sphere which is more guided by a spirit of free play rather than the heavy weight of Beethoven’s pen. It is no secret that composers for generations after Beethoven approached string quartet writing (among other forms) with a certain degree of trepidation. For us as performers, however, the example of Beethoven inspires creative involvement on all levels, whether it be in our own composition or in our interpretation of this iconic work. It is our response to Beethoven. Tonight’s performance is surely guided and informed by this process.

On another note, we admit that we hold in very high regard the recorded performances from the Rose, Busch, and Capet string quartets, all active in the pre–World War II era. Hearing these performers, themselves only separated from Beethoven’s era by the generation of their teachers, magically freshens the score. The incorporation of glissandos, rubatos, and sparing vibrato by these performers presents a radically different sound world than the present. In 2011, we are the product of an era with an enhanced valuation of projection; strings and instrument set-ups are designed for maximum power, and we play in larger and larger halls. Another feature of the present is a fascination with perfection, quite possibly the result of trying to simulate recorded music (with its infinite possibilities for correction and revision) in the live context. Even if my comments appear biased, it is clear that each generation comes with distinct advantages and disadvantages. For different ears, any of the above qualities could be seen in a positive or a negative light. It is nearly impossible (as Woody Allen’s most recent film, Midnight in Paris, argues) to make judgments good or bad about any of this. One has to see it all as an examination of a continually evolving style and not be tempted to make golden-age proclamations. It is perhaps most telling that the world of late Beethoven continues to reinvent itself and find new relevance in a fast-moving world.

All of this said, having the prior example of past performers is a luxury. Op. 131 was a quartet ahead of its time, and one has to marvel at the challenges the original performers must have had to overcome without any recordings or performance history (some of the early readings of the work had to have the time marked by Beethoven himself). Beethoven was Ivesian in this regard; this music was not made for the easy chair! And despite our advantage, our load is not necessarily lightened. The music will continually require a grand-scale examination by whatever quartet decides to make the journey, especially since our job as performers is to make music relevant to our personal experience. Ultimately, by acknowledging both the past and the present tradition, by engaging in our own study of the material, and by engaging in the creative process, we can arrive at an interpretation which is personal to Brooklyn Rider and hopefully to all of you, our audience.

—Nicholas Cords



© 2011 The Carnegie Hall Corporation

This performance is part of Off the Beaten Track.

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