By Brian Wise | From the September-October 2021 issue of Strings magazine
Few string quartets have attracted the overused phrase “emerging artists” like the Attacca Quartet. More than 18 years since its founding as a student ensemble at the Juilliard School, the term has become something of an inside joke for the quartet’s members. “We’re old but we’ve been emerging for longer than anyone,” says Amy Schroeder, the first violinist and founding member.
“We’re one of the oldest young quartets I know of,” adds cellist Andrew Yee, the quartet’s other original member.
But as it reaches the elusive place known as “mid-career,” the New York–based Attacca comes by its youthful vibe honestly, with its eclectic, try-anything ethos. Since making a splash a decade ago with a complete cycle of Haydn’s 68 string quartets, it has won admirers for its recordings of works by John Adams, Michael Ippolito, and Caroline Shaw, the latter album winning a Grammy Award in 2020.
And after collaborating with choreographers, filmmakers, and video game developers—once making a cameo in the game Red Dead Redemption 2—the quartet is turning its focus to a very different medium. In July, it released Real Life, a collection of ten electronic-music arrangements, as part of a new recording contract with Sony Classical.
Produced by Michael League, leader of the jazz-fusion band Snarky Puppy, the album features several original strings-and-electronics arrangements, including “Real Life,” written by producer Louis Cole, and “Electric Pow Wow Drum,” by Canadian electronic-music group The Halluci Nation. A parade of DJ-producers contributes to other selections. Jennifer Lee, known as Tokimonsta, brings fractured beats and wispy vocal samples to “Remind U,” while Alfred Darlington, whose stage name is Daedelus, weaves futuristic, textural sounds in “Holding Breath.”
“It’s almost like a piano quintet except that [instead of quartet and piano] it’s an electronica artist,” says second violinist Domenic Salerni of the format. But for all its pop trappings—including a series of animated music videos—the album also features tracks like Anne Müller’s “Drifting Circles,” a shimmering nod to minimalism, and Squarepusher’s “Xetaka 1,” which Yee describes as “absurd, virtuosic, and Charles Wuorinen–esque.”
Attacca publicity photos underscore the recent direction, with the musicians sporting glammed-up attire, smoky eyes, and a stylized nonchalance—a departure from the tailored suits and full-length gowns of earlier shoots. “Like a good movie poster, you should sort of know what you’re getting into before you get to the main event,” explains Yee. “We’ve done a lot of thinking about—and I shudder to say these words—our brand. To have a buttoned-up, formal shot just didn’t feel like what people were going to experience when they got to the concert.”
But the electronica album is by no means a permanent shift: The next Attacca release for Sony Classical is a collection of music by Arvo Pärt, Philip Glass, and Renaissance composers, due out this fall.
The Attacca Quartet’s Juilliard Origins
Schroeder and Yee met in 2002, on the second day of their freshman year at Juilliard. “We immediately shared a love for chamber music and wanted to learn the Kodaly Duo and play piano trios,” Schroeder recalls. The next year they formed a quartet with second violinist So Jin Kim and violist Gillian Gallagher (both departed within a few years and their successors—violinist Keiko Tokunaga and violist Luke Fleming—have also moved on; violist Nathan Schram joined in 2015 and Salerni in 2020).
After winning prizes in several chamber-music competitions, the quartet pressed ahead as Juilliard’s Graduate Resident String Quartet from 2011 to 2013 and with a residency at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art for the 2014–15 season. A recording of Adams’ complete quartets caught the ear of many critics.
“They did certain repertoire unbelievably imaginatively,” says Juilliard Quartet violinist Ronald Copes. “When I first started hearing them, I’m not sure I would have identified the direction that they would take. But it was very gratifying to watch their particular sensibilities emerge as a voice, and also [as it was] refined to make much, much more sense.” Copes identifies a particular turning point in the group’s Haydn quartet cycle, presented at New York’s Holy Trinity church and in Waterloo, Ontario, from 2010 through 2016.
Yee conceived the Haydn project, dubbed “the 68,” after encountering the slow movement of the composer’s Op. 20, No. 3, on a recording by the Quatuor Mosaïques. “I was walking my dog down the street and just weeping,” Yee recalls of being overcome by the music’s beauty. “I immediately called the other three in the group. I was like, ‘What do you think? I know it’s crazy.’”
Haydn provided a natural proving ground. “Without ‘the 68,’ our Caroline Shaw would have been wildly different,” Yee says of Orange, the Attacca’s recording of Shaw’s music for string quartet, which won a Grammy for best chamber music/small ensemble performance in 2020. “We carved our sound out of Haydn. So if you listen with your ear on that, we use very little vibrato for Caroline. We also learned the skill of how to find humor, how to find joy.” (A follow-up recording of Shaw’s music is due out on Nonesuch in 2022.)
The Attacca’s Haydn can also be found, of all places, in Red Dead Redemption 2, an action-adventure video game released in 2018. In addition to recording several tracks, the musicians donned motion capture suits and modeled the gestures for an onscreen string quartet. “We all love video games so much,” says Schroeder, “but one of the toughest things was having a motion capture device on your bow to capture that movement. It was very tricky weight-wise.” (Yee has said that the studio, Rockstar Games, discovered the quartet after encountering their YouTube performance of John Williams’ Star Wars theme music.)
Advice on Playing More, Talking Less
Over time the Attacca has honed its rehearsal techniques so as to head off misunderstandings and bruised egos. When learning new scores, snap judgments are avoided. “Often times, six months before we have to play a piece, we’ll read it through twice,” says Schram. “We talk about it for a second. Then we come back to it a few months later and do that again. As we get closer, people start talking more as ideas become clearer, and usually from a larger scale to a smaller scale.”
Similarly, if they stumble over a difficult passage in rehearsal, the musicians may sing and gesticulate their parts together. “There’s something really intuitive about singing through a passage that frees you up,” notes Salerni. “And there’s this whole trope about how a string instrument is to remind the listener of the human voice; we should understand how the human voice works.”
The Attacca members have also nurtured the off-stage aspects of quartet work. When on tour, they’ll eat at least one meal together each day. Rehearsals are fueled by takeout meals or a bottle of wine. And the newest members seem to be finding their niches. “If you rock the boat too much you can throw everyone overboard,” Schram explains. “But if you do it in a strong and gentle way you can really change the tide of the group.” One of Schram’s contributions involves a forthcoming album featuring the Attacca and his wife, singer-songwriter Becca Stevens, for GroundUP Music.
How a Strings Quartet Is Similar to a Four-Way Marriage
The musicians’ lives have changed in other ways. In recent seasons, Yee has publicly identified as transgender, and uses the personal pronouns they and them. “It’s super-important to be visible,” Yee says. “I have a lot of queer kids who write to me all the time saying how important it is to see someone who is making music on a high level who represents them.”
Schroeder says that she is happy that the quartet can put forward its most authentic self. “It’s so important as an artist to be yourself in every sense of the word,” she says, drawing nods from the other members. “I’m sorry that it took a while to be able to do that in full but thank goodness it’s becoming a part of what we all do.”
Days after we spoke, Schroeder and her husband, Harlem Quartet cellist Felix Umansky, became parents when she gave birth to a daughter. “It’s going to be nuts,” she says, “but we’re very fortunate to have parents who are willing to fly in and help us out when we need them. The baby is going to experience a lot of awesome travel and a loving quartet family and, eventually, great food.”
Themes of chemistry and mutual respect resurface in our 90-minute conversation, a reminder of the old adage that quartets are a lot like four-way marriages. “In a weird way, hating each other is really romanticized in the string quartet,” says Yee. “People love the notion that you can hate someone and still make beautiful music. But as close as you are with people in your quartet, if you can’t sit down and have a good time with them, it’s not going to happen onstage. You can’t fake love and respect and that’s been really important to us. And I think it’s something that hopefully will ensure our longevity as an ensemble.”