By William Robin
Hearing three-quarters of Brooklyn Rider is just as good as hearing four-quarters of plenty of other string quartets. Though missing their violinist Johnny Gandelsman—who was playing what was apparently an astounding recital in New York—the members of Brooklyn Rider swept through campus this week as part of their UNC residency, and spent time on Tuesday discussing an intriguing new project: the Brooklyn Rider Almanac. The quartet’s almanac is based on an earlier model: the Blue Rider Almanac, a 1912 compendium organized by a Munich-based collective of artists, which included paintings by Kandinsky and Marc and scores by Schoenberg and Webern alongside folk and children’s art, and even woodcuts.
The new Almanac invites a wide-ranging group of artists to reflect on their current inspirations. A variety of musicians, from Vijay Iyer to Padma Newsome to Greg Saunier (of the band Deerhoof), were invited to write new works for the quartet based on particularly important inspirations for their artistic lives. The great jazz pianist Ethan Iverson will write a piece inspired by choreographer Mark Morris; Bill Frisell will base his music on John Steinbeck. The idea was to look outside the establishment of classical composers to musicians who may not have written for string quartet before, and try to include an eclectic array of compositional voices and their muses. “Whose music really inspires us?” violist Nicholas Cords asked. The answers are fascinating – Vijay Iyer, the mathematical genius pianist and composer of last year’s sensational Carolina Performing Arts commission Radhe Radhe, has written a twitchy, jagged quartet that draws on the grooves of early James Brown. Christian Courtin composed a startlingly Stravinsky-esque quartet, full of the stately, Baroque affectation of Pulcinella.
The UNC audience heard not just an absorbing conversation between the quartet and English professor Heidi Kim, but also a live performance; the Brooklyn Rider trio began by performing a punchy, propulsive movement from violinist Colin Jacobsen’s suite “Acilles.” Audio clips from Courtin and Iyer’s pieces were also played.
What will the Almanac be? In 1912, it was a hub of artistic innovation that connected the newly-forged abstraction of Kandinsky to the newly-composed atonality of Schoenberg. In 2014, it will be a website, perhaps of equal ambition. There will be the commissioned works alongside art, video, and writing inspired by the project and wholly curated by Brooklyn Rider.
“This is where we want to be as a quartet,” Cords said. By bringing in musicians like Saunier, Brooklyn Rider hopes the Almanac will reach out to fans of indie-rock who haven’t yet discovered string quartets. And the quartet will be reaching out to the UNC community as well: they have issued the Brooklyn Rider Almanac Challenge, open to any students at UNC. If you write, make videos, make music, or any other creative endeavor, you can compete to contribute content for the Alamanc. For more information about the Challenge, click here. I personally can’t wait to see how the project develops, and am particularly excited for their concert at Memorial Hall next April.