By David Templeton | From the November-December 2023 issue of Strings Magazine
Whether playing a head-turning blend of classical and bluegrass, driving audiences wild with Edvard Grieg’s “In the Hall of the Mountain King” on strings, mandolin, and banjo; delivering a spoken-word recitation of Walt Whitman’s “O Captain! My Captain!” in the middle of an elegiac, folk-fueled fantasia; or improvising a score to a half-forgotten French animated film about galactic Oms and Traags; the remarkable string quartet Invoke has repeatedly proven one thing over its first 11 years: it simply cannot be contained by any one label.
Named as the Emerging Artists Quartet at Interlochen in 2014, and serving soon thereafter as the Young Professional String Quartet in Residence at the University of Texas at Austin from 2016–18, Invoke is impossible to define, in part because it continuously evolves. Invoke—made up of Karl Mitze (viola, mandolin, and vocals), Zach Matteson (violin and vocals), Nick Montopoli (violin, banjo, and vocals), and Geoff Manyin (cello and vocals)—has delighted audiences and defied expectations with every new album.
After nearly a dozen years of releasing its works independently, the ensemble’s latest—appropriately titled Evolve & Travel—is the group’s first release with the Virginia-based classical label Sono Luminus. In September, on a Labor Day holiday from rehearsals, the foursome sat down with me for a Zoom call from their separate homes in Austin.
How did this album come to be, and how did it end up as your first project with Sono Luminus?
Nick Montopoli: All of the songs we wrote for this were pandemic-era songs. We were at home. We had not a lot to do, because all of our shows were cancelled. We challenged ourselves to write new original music basically every month. When we got back together as a pod, we would livestream the new music. We didn’t know it at the time, but all of the music on this new album came from that period.
Zach Matteson: It’s long been a goalpost of ours to work with Sono Luminus. We’ve been doing the self-produced thing for a long time. Sono Luminus does a lot of really amazing classically based recordings, and I think we are all excited to introduce what we do, which has a classical connection but also branches off into something new, with our vocals and crossover approach.
Since these songs were written during the pandemic, how much of that experience is woven into them? Could you or would you have written these pieces this way had the pandemic not been happening?
Karl Mitze: I don’t think these songs are necessarily married to what the pandemic was, but it’s true that, with so much time on our hands, there was this floodgate opening—lots of ideas floating around that I’d been carrying with me since the before-times. Suddenly, I had time to work on them.
The title track, “Evolve and Travel,” for example, is a reflection of the travels the group has experienced together: how it feels to move from one place to another, learn and experience new things, and then return to places you’ve been before. I guess that is something that, during the pandemic, I was somewhat pining for. But all the experiences I was drawing on when composing that piece were experiences that I’d had prior to the pandemic.
Matteson: Since we’re a new quartet trying to make our way in the world, a lot of the songs we’d been playing a lot in 2016 and 2017, when we were first starting to get known a bit, are songs we needed to play over and over because that’s the repertoire we were known for. That’s what people wanted. And we were becoming too busy to write a lot of new material. So in some ways, the pandemic happening allowed those floodgates for Nick and Karl to open up. And it was like, this is so refreshing! After three years of playing the same repertoire every week, this is kind of great.
Montopoli: It definitely introduced a shift in priorities as well. We realized it was refreshing, musically, to have all of this new content, so now we are releasing this album, and we already have a whole album’s worth of new songs that are even more recent. We are already incorporating that new music into our sets. So that’s a new focus for us—making sure we maintain room in our lives and schedules to keep the creative gerbil-wheel running.
Aside from hearing it at your live shows, where and when might an audience hear that new material?
Mitze: We’re hoping to get into the studio soon—maybe by the end of the year—to record at least some of it. How long it takes to release it after that depends on a lot of things. But that’s a short-term goal, to start recording this year.
In the press material for this album, there is a statement: “Each song reflects Invoke’s growth as people, composers, and as friends with a rich history of shared creative experience and personal memories.” Following up on that, how does your friendship function in relation to your music?
Matteson: When we first started, we were at a music festival in Italy, and it was a very strange festival, so I’d say we all trauma-bonded through that experience. So, our friendship started there, and also because all four of us are interested in pushing boundaries and exploring new areas of our lives. We have a lot of shared interests beyond just the music part.
That allows us to rehearse and perform and then look forward to getting beers together afterward. During the lockdown, when we’d do monthly livestreams from Nick’s backyard, we’d do the performance but then all stick around and have a campfire. I feel like we are just good friends who happen to be performing together and not necessarily the other way around. But I do think our music reflects our friendship. The music Nick and Karl write for me feels very personal, like they really understand me, recognize what I can do, and cater to my strengths. And sometimes not. Because sometimes friends know when to push your comfort zones a bit.
Geoff Manyin: It’s definitely a chicken-or-the-egg thing. We started off being super close, and as things started really picking up, we had to start negotiating what it means to be in these relationships as friends and then as business partners. Each of those evolved as their own thing, and as we got older and more mature, we were able to navigate those waters. And now, it’s a lot more mixed together, in a really good way. We are now able to separate certain aspects of the business from our personal lives without completely losing those parts of our friendship that were the reason why we started in the first place. Eleven years in, we still get along really well, even if we do argue once in a while. An argument is not going to change whether or not I go rock climbing with Zach on Tuesday.
How does the new album differ stylistically and artistically from your previous releases?
Mitze: This is the first album of ours that we think of as a collection of songs. We’ve had “songs” on previous albums, or at least we’ve sung on other albums of ours, but mostly as a textural thing, an arrangement of some preexisting piece. We did a Stephen Foster song, “Hard Times,” on Furious Creek. And we sing on the title track of that album. But this is the first one that really feels like a “band album.” Obviously, “Evolve and Travel,” the track itself, is purely string quartet without vocals, and we have some other instrumentals and whatnot. But it really does feel like a band effort as opposed to our first two albums, which felt more like “string-quartet-plus,” where we had some auxiliary instruments, but we weren’t quite singing yet. It seems like a natural progression from those two to this one. Fantastic Planet is the outlier. It’s the “weird one.”
Let’s talk about that one for a moment. Fantastic Planet as an album is pretty out there but feels like an important piece in your progression toward grander, more cinematic compositions.
Mitze: That’s good because it really is a score to a movie. It’s our own re-scoring of Fantastic Planet, the 1970s animated film. It’s our own imagining of what that score might have sounded like if we had written it. It involves synths and crazy sounds, throat singing, Tuvan folk instruments, and all this unpredictable stuff.
Evolve & Travel has such a cinematic grandeur to it in places. Is it possible that, by experimenting with writing a soundtrack, you’ve naturally acquired new qualities and narrative depth in your compositional voice?
Matteson: The song “Burlywood,” I think, has a similar chordal progression to something we did on Fantastic Planet. That project came from us all watching the movie, pressing play on a recorder, and group-improvising for the whole movie. Then we took that and worked on it from there, developing themes for various characters and all that. And then we recorded it in our garage. There was a lot less individual-ness in it than usual, a crazy Invoke mind experiment.
Jumping ahead, through the pandemic and beyond, Evolve & Travel is more individual in a way. Karl has his own compositional style, and Nick has his, so maybe the through line that connects it all is the fact that we’re all editing and collaborating and contributing ideas in rehearsal and in performances. So maybe the work we did on Fantastic Planet, and some of the other movie scores we’ve done over the years, did influence Nick and Karl to the point where they are starting to write more and more in the voice of Invoke, the band.
We do have a specific sound, and I think Evolve & Travel captures it: a sound that is less influenced by other people and more truly ours. For me, this is a pinnacle moment, and Evolve & Travel is an album that is distinct and uniquely Invoke.
Mitze: I agree with that. This is our voice. This is the culmination of years of work in discovering ourselves and also the first of what could be many similarly thought out, similarly inspired works.
Manyin: We should probably mention that Evolve & Travel is the first recording where we feature my six-string cello. Some of the lines dip onto my low F string, which Karl made use of. The maker and I both live in Austin. His name is Trevor Davis, and he’s best known for double basses. We were able to bond over our love of the low tone, and over some whiskey or something one night, we dreamed up the idea of an acoustic six-string cello.
Which pieces on Evolve & Travel use the that cello?
Manyin: The title track was definitely recorded on the six-string, because it was written to go down that low. In live performance sometimes, if I’m playing the six-string, even if the piece was written for a four-string cello, I might occasionally dip down into the low F-string range—a slight edit I make in the moment to take advantage of that.
What’s next for Invoke, after you record and release the new music you’ve already written?
Matteson: We have plans to launch a kind of new-music project where we ask other composers to write for us as a string quartet, plus banjo plus mandolin plus singing. It’s called American Postcard, and the only prompt we have for composers is to take a time and place in history that is interesting to them and then write us a piece about it, using our unique instrumentation. We’re already sitting on seven amazing pieces by some extraordinary new composers. Who knows where that will lead?