By Cristina Schreil
For the premise of its 11th album, Brooklyn Rider didn’t have to look beyond its own music stands. Each of the recording’s five works were either commissioned or premiered by the string quartet in the past few years.
The featured composers—Tyondai Braxton, Evan Ziporyn, Paula Matthusen, Kyle Sanna, and the quartet’s own violinist Colin Jacobsen—draw upon myriad inspirations. It’s almost an understatement to say the record is diverse. Expect to hear works inspired by Chinese philosophy, an ancient Roman cistern, the downtown New York scene of the ’70s and ’80s, the process of generative techniques, and American photography titan Minor White, whose work prompted the album name: Spontaneous Symbols.
“I think what’s great is that each composer went into something they really care about deeply,” says Johnny Gandelsman. The violinist detailed Brooklyn Rider’s busy recording process, the way they found the album’s focus, and how a baked good provided some unexpected help.
“It’s a really nice thing to be able to do, to have the composers in the studio just lending an ear and guiding a little bit or offering perspectives that we may not know.”
What came first, the idea of an album with special ties, or did you step back after a few years and realize you had an album?
It was more of the second. We commission new music all the time. We saw that we have this collection of incredible works, all American composers, and we wanted to put them all on an album together.
Could you speak about some of the things that inspired these works?
Some of the pieces are looking at relationships to nature, like Evan Ziporyn’s Qi, which is one of my favorite pieces on the album—although it’s hard to choose a favorite. I think he captures something very special. For example, in the second movement, “Garden,” this idea of meditation and waves of being—waves of emotion—is so beautifully represented. And then these kinds of musical silences that he captures are beautiful.
Paula’s been using electronics for music for a long time, it’s a big part of who she is as a composer, and when she was in the American Academy in Rome, getting inspired by architecture, [she encountered] this amazing underground world of the cisterns underneath the academy. Hearing the drops of water captured her imagination. [She turned] it into this really delicate and hauntingly beautiful piece.
Tyondai’s piece is very, very extraordinary. What’s been great is I realized after we recorded it that playing it and listening to it are very different things. While playing it, it can feel sort of random and discombobulated sometimes, but that’s also just nerves and performing it in a live setting. Listening back to it, I love the crazy symmetry that it creates, and the energy.
How did you incorporate the recording of the water droplets into your recording process?
We use these transducers at specific moments in the piece. One at a time, we put a transducer on the body of each instrument and then the tape is amplified and the sound comes out of the f-holes of the instrument. It’s super cool. There’s actually an Instagram video of our cellist demonstrating how a transducer works.
What was your method of ordering the pieces?
We talked about a kind of continuous experience. So, leading the listener a little bit through the entire record. Tyondai’s piece is wonderful to start with and we’ve started concerts with it, so that felt good. And continuing with that energy, but then expanding it a lot, was Colin’s piece. And Evan’s piece is a transition across a long period of time, from a very energetic piece to then, by the end, this very low, hushed place, disappearing into nothing. Paula’s piece kind of appears from nothing. And then Kyle’s was the one that had to finish the record. I think it’s a great ender.
You recorded across four different sessions in 2017. Why?
Even though we had those five days I don’t think we had a single day that looked like a full day in the studio. The most challenging thing is just the lack of time and the scheduling.
There’s also a lot of material and we wanted to have as many of the composers in the room as possible, which was great. It’s a really nice thing to be able to do, to have the composers in the studio just lending an ear and guiding a little bit or offering perspectives that we may not know. Also, for the composers to hear it in that environment, they might discover something they didn’t know about the piece or realize. That was very special.
What do you mean?
For example, Kyle’s piece, it was really great to have him there because we were still making some choices in the studio, trying to figure out certain things about the piece. And within the piece there’s a certain amount of freedom that’s written into it; to have his guidance was really cool. For example, there’s a movement, “Tetons, Wyoming,” where you hear a music box that Kyle built himself and you also hear this crinkling. Just trying out different versions of how to make that sound was really fun. And what we actually—I don’t know if I should tell you what we actually ended up using. Well, I guess I can tell you. It’s basically a brown bag that used to host a delicious croissant.
What’s it like to have the composer in the quartet?
That’s the best. It’s an amazing thing to have a composer in the group. Basically, ever since we became a quartet and even before we had a name, Colin started writing. I think he reached a whole other level with this piece that I think is brilliant and amazing. It’s really cool because it’s not abstract writing—it’s writing for the four people who are playing it, which is very personal. And Colin’s style of notation is very open. It’s very similar to [what] you think about Mozart or Philip Glass, or people who only write what’s absolutely necessary; a lot is left for the performer to figure out.
It’s a lot like a laboratory. He brings it in and we kind of figure out what he has in mind. If the page doesn’t look like what he’s hearing, we adjust our playing. It’s very collaborative, but it’s awesome that a 20-minute-long piece is also a huge audience hit anywhere we go, particularly with kids. There’s a lot of extended techniques and funny sounds, but it’s not gratuitous. There’s a lot of meaning behind it. It’s brilliant.