By Greg Cahill
Sooner or later, adventurous chamber players get an itch to work on a solo project or to collaborate with others on a side project. Making that move—breaking free of the comfort zone that comes from a longstanding role in an established ensemble—can be daunting, but the artistic rewards can be great.
“I welcome opportunities to collaborate with musicians other than those I’m used to working with,” says violinist Evan Price of the Hot Club of San Francisco, who made his solo debut with 2017’s Dialogues (Azica). “There is comfort in the familiar, of course, and I feel fortunate to have had the chance to grow with several ensembles over periods of years. But being jolted out of that comfort zone once in a while is a valuable opportunity to discover a new way of working, or perhaps help me better understand and appreciate the people I have around me day-to-day. Invariably, when I return to my ‘normal’ life, my friends notice something fresh in my playing that I picked up along the way.”
To explore the benefits and pitfalls of going it alone, Strings asked five players about their own experiences with solo and side projects.
jazz violinist, fiddler, educator
Member of the New York Pops Orchestra, Esperanza Spalding’s Chamber Music Society, Mark O’Connor’s American String Celebration, and Darol Anger’s Four Generations of Jazz Violin; on faculty at Berklee College of Music and Manhattan School of Music; 2018 Grammy nominee: Best Improvised Jazz Solo
Has played or recorded with Bruce Springsteen, Regina Carter, Jenny Scheinman, Bucky Pizzarelli, and 9 Horses, among others
First Song (Double-Time Records) and But Beautiful (Arbors Records)
“I love learning about other musical languages and the ways in which artists have woven those dialects, along with their own unique voice, into the art they create. This exposure to compositional, musical, harmonic, rhythmic, and technical concepts reaching beyond what I either know or typically do nurtures experimentation and growth that not only fuels the music I perform as a sideman, but also my own narrative as a soloist—in short, I view that soloist/sideman relationship as symbiotic.
“As a bandleader, I find the most challenging issue to be the different hats I wear at any given moment: musical director, chamber musician, booking agent, tour manager, publicist, sound technician . . . luckily, my band is comprised of folk who themselves are bandleaders and therefore understand this juggling act and what they might do to assist.
“I’m currently working on my third solo album, my first since moving to New York City 15 years ago. The album features my band of ten years: Jesse Lewis, guitar; Ike Sturm, bass; Jared Schonig, drums; and special guests Chris Dingman, vibes, and my sister Rachel Caswell, voice. The album will hopefully be released in the spring of 2020. Several other people or bands with whom I regularly collaborate, including composer and arranger Chuck Owen and the trio 9 Horses, have projects in development as well.
“I firmly believe that every gig is a learning experience, be it musical, social, and everything in between. All these factors feed into how each member of an ensemble performs, how we interact as a unit, and how we best support and challenge each other in our artistic venture. That said, my favorite collaborations have been those that are truly cooperative—where as a group, we work together to explore and refine a piece. It’s amazing what can happen when you get a crew of stellar musicians with humble natures and a common goal in the same room.
“At a fundamental level, my process of musically preparing for a recording project is the same no matter who’s in charge since my goal is to do the best I can realizing the bandleader’s music. Differences surface in the logistical preparations—as the soloist, I’m responsible for compiling charts, scheduling rehearsals, booking the studio/engineer/producer/musicians/photographer, et cetera. But once in the studio, I’m putting forth the same energy, focus, and commitment to the music, musicians, and moment as I do for every session.”
Member of Brooklyn Rider and the Silk Road Ensemble; former member of the Knights chamber orchestra
Kayhan Kahlor’s Silent City; Yo-Yo Ma’s Sing Me Home; Ken Burns and Lynn Novick’s The Vietnam War PBS-TV documentary soundtrack with the Silk Road Ensemble
J.S. Bach: Complete Sonatas and Partitas for Violin (In a Circle)
“At this point in my life, the difference between what are the main and what are side projects is mostly a question of time commitment and availability. Fifteen years ago, I was equally invested in Silk Road, the Knights chamber orchestra, and Brooklyn Rider. Every single day of playing in those groups has informed my identity as a musician, and I’m grateful for all of it. However, these days I have to prioritize. I stopped playing in the Knights about five years ago. Silk Road is going through a structural transition. So for the moment, my main priorities are [Brooklyn Rider] and solo work. I am also paying more attention to my own label, In a Circle Records.
“Until quite recently, Silk Road’s lineup has also been quite consistent. Working on music for this [PBS-TV] documentary was a fun and rewarding experience. Ken Burns’ team wanted some improvised music, to describe certain moods or scenes in the film. They also identified some popular and folk music they wanted us to re-imagine. I volunteered to produce the project. I’ve known each player in the group for many years, so I knew whom to approach about arranging music, what to say to a group of improvisers to get close to what the film producers wanted, and so on. Working with Ken and Lynn’s team was a total joy, because of the importance they place on music in their films. Mutual respect was palpable, which made the experience that much more satisfying for all.
“Playing with musicians like American banjo master Bela Fleck, Irish fiddle magician Martin Hayes, or Iranian kemancheh virtuoso Kayhan Kalhor has opened my eyes and ears to things like ornamentation, improvisation, groove, and, most importantly, imagination. Each one of these fine gentlemen is an innovator, tirelessly searching for new layers of meaning and possibilities, both for their instruments and their traditions. I think Bach was exactly the same, constantly extending and expanding the range of possibilities for violin, cello, organ, keyboard, and so on.
“In my experience, collaborations work best when in addition to deep mutual respect, there is built-in time for a project to grow and for trust to develop. That has been the case for Brooklyn Rider’s projects with Bela, Kayhan, Martin, as well as the great Swedish singer Anne Sofie Van Otter, just to name a few.
“I’m currently working on a new solo album—recording the complete Bach Cello Suites, to be released on my label in early 2020. Another solo album will follow, which will feature new solo works written for me this past year. There is also another project with Ken Burns in the works.
“Lots of stuff to do.”
jazz violinist, composer, arranger
Member of the Hot Club of San Francisco; former member of the Grammy Award–winning Turtle Island Quartet and Quartet San Francisco; US Scottish Fiddling Champion; the Kentucky State Fiddle Champion; Canadian Junior Fiddle Champion; and Canadian Novelty Fiddling Champion
Composer and arranger for the New Century Chamber Orchestra, Chanticleer, the San Francisco Girls Chorus, Stevie Wonder, and Jimmy Page
“First, there’s a big difference between being a sideman or member of an ensemble and being the leader of a project. Since most of my career has been spent as an ensemble member—aka a team player—I find the challenges associated with leading my own group or producing my own album to be potentially quite distracting. I’m speaking of the pressure of having to make all the decisions, from choosing or creating music to play to getting everybody into the same room at the same time. But to focus on the artistic side, working in a group is like solving an equation in a small number of variables, whereas designing the scope of the project itself involves many more variables and questions to be answered. You really have to know what you want to do and have confidence in your vision.
“Composing and performing my own concerto with the San Francisco Chamber Orchestra really pushed me artistically. Although I’ve spent my life around strings—playing violin, arranging for string ensembles, composing small-scale works—I had never taken on such an ambitious project. And I set my own challenges, too. I wanted to write a piece that would look and feel like a traditional violin concerto and would allow me to show off my individual technique and skills as an improviser, preserving my identity as a jazz musician while letting the orchestra do what it does. In the end, I think I moved further in their direction than I asked them to come to me, probably because I was responding to my own lifelong preconceptions about what a concerto soloist should sound like—how I should project and rise above the orchestra.
“This year I participated in the creation of an eponymous debut CD by the Proteus Trio, a cross-genre piano trio full of composers and improvisers. I will also have the pleasure of playing on my friend Greg Ruby’s new recording of the music of Oscar Aleman. I’m hoping to do some duo concerts with cellist Mike Block. And I’ve been in conversation with mandolin power duo Mike Marshall and Caterina Lichtenberg about composing a double mandolin concerto for them—now that will be a challenge given what a mediocre mandolinist I am!
“Working with an ongoing group is nice because as you become familiar with the way a group works best, many questions are answered, and many variables are, in effect, solved. A solo project presents you with many more unanswered questions and no one to answer them but you! Naturally, that situation can be a blessing and a curse. For me, being my own boss is a revealing, soul-searching affair that has me groping between the couch cushions in search of the musical identity I always assumed I would have when I needed it. It’s extremely healthy to do, but exhausting.”
violist, composer, arranger, activist
Member of the Attacca Quartet and the Affiliate Ensemble of Carnegie Hall; founder of Musicambia, a non-profit that brings musical-instrument curricula to inmates in jails and prisons
Collaborated with Joshua Bell, Simon Rattle, Itzhak Perlman, David Byrne, Björk, Sting, David Crosby, Becca Stevens, Trey Anastasio, and others
Oak & the Ghost (New Amsterdam)
“As for how my solo project has differed from ensemble projects, the differences are fairly broad. I find that with any ensemble project the key ingredient for a successful project is about balancing collaboration and vision. Taking for granted that everyone in the ensemble is equally invested, the next step is to be sure that everyone’s artistic goals are satisfied. This can mean extensive conversations about repertoire, album, outside collaborators, mic placement, studio choice, tour schedule, and so on. Always making sure everyone is heard, yet the product and vision stays focused and clear.
“This may mean sacrificing something you are hoping for in the mic placement or perhaps including repertoire that you personally don’t feel is the ideal choice. Or maybe even recording in a style that you don’t prefer. This is where collaboration has its greatest strength and weakness. On one hand, getting someone’s outside perspective takes into account a number of different ideas and situations you haven’t considered, therefore making it a stronger product. On the other hand, when personalities are not balanced, someone’s specific requests can overbalance the others and create a loss of artistic investment from the group.
“In my experience with solo projects, the goals are the same, but the process is fairly different. When I was embarking on recording my compositions for [2019’s] Oak & the Ghost, I was able to ask myself a very exciting question, ‘If I could record this music in any way I would like, how would I do it?’ This opened up a new world of experimentation. Instead of considering the ‘best’ way forward, I was able to take great risks from a number of different angles.
“For example, even though many of the works are for string quartet, why did it need to be recorded in a live setting? Why couldn’t we record each line separately? And if things are recorded separately, why couldn’t we add aspects of studio sound design to individual lines after the performance? And what if we were able to create a musical project that was not, in fact, a representation of a live performance but something that could only exist in a studio setting? The list goes on.
“Now, it’s easy for me to personally take these risks as the project will be released under my name and through my own funding sources. However, if this were a collaborative project, taking these risks with other people’s money, and artistic branding, it would go through an extensive editing phase.
“What I ended up realizing through Oak & the Ghost is how much potential there is for experimentation. And that is not to say that it isn’t possible in a collaborative setting, but that risk taking and experimentation seem to have fewer hurdles on your own. As for the approach with the most successful product, that is for the listener alone to decide.
“I’ve always thought of the Renaissance musicians of the past as the gold standard for musicians of the future: performers, improvisers, composers, organizers. I feel I am only expressing a part of myself when I play classical music on viola. The world of music is so deeply infinite that I’ll always feel the need to incorporate other aspects of musical life.
“Working with other collaborators is always a highlight of my year. After years with the Attacca Quartet, we have evolved into thinking as if we are one brain. It makes for amazingly quick decision making and spur-of-the-moment musical inspiration. As well as minimal talking during rehearsal, the playing says it all. However, it means that when collaborating with others my brain is shocked into overstimulation of other approaches. It ends up being a slower process in which more talking and explanation may be necessary but a more colorful approach blooms. The pleasant musical surprises are many.”
Former member of the Attacca Quartet (for 14 years); on faculty at the Juilliard School Pre-College Division; violin instructor, Fordham University
Caroline Shaw’s Orange; actress and performer on the A Late Quartet soundtrack (and violin coach to Philip Seymour Hoffman)
“As a violinist, I firmly believe that one needs to be versatile. Keeping up with solo repertoire challenges me to stay in my best technical shape, as well as approaching music in a way that is significantly different from that of a supportive role I was playing in the Attacca Quartet. Playing the same music with the same people for an extended period of time has its benefits and demerits. It is great because you know everything about each other’s playing, and there is a certain comfort in that. However, it can get stagnant if you are not bringing something new to it. Side projects helped me ‘stay fresh’ mentally and musically.
“I personally work better—and harder—when there is pressure, so I tend to get more work done when others are involved. It is harder for me to complete a personal project for this reason. Working with others could be challenging depending on who is involved, but that can be said about any group, whether it is a permanent group or a one-time thing. When I played with people who had vastly different ideas from me, it was difficult at first because they seemed to hear and feel everything in a way that was foreign to me. But then I remembered the first thing Earl Carlyss taught me during the first year at the Juilliard School: A true chamber musician is someone who can execute others’ opinions as if they were their own. I tried to think about, feel, and hear the music from my colleagues’ point of view, and after a while, we were able to make truly wonderful music together. It was fascinating to immerse myself into someone else’s interpretation. It taught me a lot, and I felt that I was able to add a new language to my musical vocabulary.
“Because quartet rehearsals were the priority at the time, finding time to practice was one of the biggest challenges. Also, in quartet rehearsals, there is always someone who can give you honest feedback, so I needed to get used to recording myself and giving myself feedback. I learned a lot about my own playing!
“I am interested in working with a Japanese koto/shamisen player at the moment. I have not yet started anything—see, I tend to slack off on my own—but what I envision is a collaboration between instruments from the East and West, celebrating music from both parts of the world. I was born and raised in Japan, but I spent all of my adult life in the United States. So I feel that I am part of the American culture, but I still have strong connection to my Japanese roots. I see this project as a way to redefine myself as a person.”