The New York-based string quartet Brooklyn Rider (violinists Johnny Gandelsman and Colin Jacobsen, violist Nicholas Cords and cellist Michael Nicolas) have been around for 15 years and released numerous albums featuring works by composers from all across the musical spectrum. They’ve worked with banjo player Bela Fleck, songwriter Gabriel Kahane, and Iranian composer/kamancheh player Kayhan Kalhor, and last year, they collaborated with saxophonist Joshua Redman, bassist Scott Colley, and drummer Satoshi Takeishi on Sun On Sand, an album of music by composer Patrick Zimmerli.
That album was a fascinating blend of jazz and modern composition that wound up impossible to categorize in any genre. The dense, almost frantic music had a breathtaking energy held together by white-knuckle discipline. Though it was fully scored, it retained an element of jazzy looseness, while still keeping all the elements in place and on time. Takeishi’s drumming spurred everyone on, and every once in a while he’d drop in a thunderous fill more rooted in orchestral percussive style than swing. It felt genuinely heroic at times. If you haven’t heard it, seek it out.
Brooklyn Rider‘s new album, Healing Modes, contrasts Ludwig van Beethoven‘s String Quartet No. 15 in A minor with specially commissioned compositions by Matana Roberts, Reena Esmail, Gabriela Lena Frank, Du Yun and Caroline Shaw. The new pieces alternate, more or less, with movements from the Beethoven piece; the sequence goes Roberts, one movement of Beethoven, Esmail, Frank, one movement of Beethoven, Yun, one movement of Beethoven, Shaw, two movements of Beethoven. All told, it’s a two-CD set, roughly 81 minutes of music.
The Matana Roberts composition, “borderlands…”, mixes theatrical elements — it begins with what sounds like thrown dice, and the members of the quartet stating the piece’s title and reading the dictionary definition of the word, their voices overlapping like parallel conversations at a gathering. The music creeps in slowly, like smoke drifting through a barbed-wire fence, but as it grows more agitated, the players begin shouting “We hold these truths…” without finishing the phrase. The transition from this ominous, dramatic introduction to the first movement of the Beethoven piece, which has a Romantic, almost dancing feel at times, creates an ominous undertone; it’s like the score to a movie about oblivious rich people gathering in a mansion for a party, unaware that death is coming for them.
Reena Esmail‘s “Zeher (Poison)” mixes long tones in Balkan and Chinese registers with jagged, staccato bursts of energy, as though the trance that has been created must be broken in the most savage and disruptive way possible, like trying to wake someone up from a drug overdose by slapping them in the face and dragging them around the room. That’s followed by Gabriela Lena Frank‘s “Kanto Kechua 2,” which finds a middle ground between the romanticism of Beethoven and the crawling existential terror of Penderecki.
Hearing the sections of the Beethoven quartet separated in this way allows you to consider them as discrete pieces, with their own qualities; there’s no need to think about how the movements relate to each other. Brooklyn Rider‘s performance of the second movement is very beautiful, the phrases rising and falling like waves, or like wind blowing through a field of grain and creating shifting patterns, but what’s most fascinating is the way the musicians’ involuntary sounds — rhythmic breathing, the small creaks as they shift in their chairs during silent passages — are preserved as well, becoming elements of the composition.
Du Yun‘s “i am my own achilles’ heel” is a drifting, ominous piece during which the cello at times seems to imitate the guttural male voice in Chinese opera, but at other times groans like creaking floorboards. The violins move in stealthy harmony like assassins creeping across a darkened room, punctuated by furtive inhalations from the players during pauses. This is the longest of the new pieces on the album, and it’s followed by the longest section of the Beethoven quartet, nearly 17 minutes, which begins in funereal slowness, the strings vibrating together at times in ways that sound almost like an accordion, or a harmonium. As it goes on, light seems to stream into the room; its aching slowness combined with the insistently swelling emotion of the melodic figures brings to mind Arvo Pärt‘s “Tabula Rasa.”
The final stretch of this extended program begins with Caroline Shaw‘s “Schisma,” a relentlessly pulsing piece that contrasts plucked passages with steadily flowing near-drones. The short fourth section of the Beethoven quartet is weird in any context — a two-minute burst of mock marching music that completely subverts the mood set by the long, slow passage that preceded it — but with the Shaw piece present, its inappropriateness is at least muted somewhat. The members of Brooklyn Rider zoom straight into the final section of the quartet, as though turning two passages into one. They don’t go big for the finale, though. The music doesn’t crescendo and then glance around in search of applause. Instead, it lands lightly, like a gymnast arcing and flipping skyward, off a balance beam.
Healing Modes is a fascinating program of music. I don’t know if it lives up to its title; a lot of the music is more startling and jarring than healing or soothing. But I don’t think I’ve ever heard an album where a classical piece is broken up in this way, and the juxtaposition of Beethoven — one of the three or four composers everybody knows — and pieces by five living artists is an exciting way to hear new music and to re-hear a piece that might otherwise be familiar enough to turn into audio wallpaper.