Brooklyn Rider: Healing Modes
at Black Mountain College Museum + Arts Center
120 College St. in Asheville, North Carolina
November 7, 2018
Beethoven String Quartet No. 15 and works by Tyondai Braxton, Caroline Shaw, Gabriela Lena Frank, Matana Roberts and Reena Esmail.
Review by Don Howland/OM (Sundays, 8-10 p.m.)
Brooklyn Rider‘s performance at the Black Mountain College Museum + Arts Center last week was about as fresh as classical music gets, and I am using the term in the Kurtis Blow sense. Each of the five short pieces that constituted the first half of the program was by a still-moist American, four of them women and four of them “non-white” in case you’re an NPR listener. All were commissioned by or on behalf of Brooklyn Rider; four were premiered this year, with two of them debuted just five days before. It can’t get fresher than that. Add to that the fact that the concert was held in BMCM+AC’s 2-month-old space at 120 College Street – a roomy exposed brick and white ductwork-ceiling joint that dwarfs the old facility without sacrificing vibe.
Brooklyn Rider, the string quartet arm of the Jacobsen brothers’ hep-classical empire (the other arm being The Knights chamber orchestra; they also work in Yo-Yo Ma’s Silk Road Ensemble) is cut from the fabric spun by the Kronos Quartet some forty years ago. Like the KQ, Brooklyn Rider take on far-flung works, play off-the-beaten-path venues and plunge into collaborations with non-classical performers (a September release finds them working with a Mexican jazz singer…). Like the KQ, they perform in upscale street clothes and pose for promo stills like they were a rock band. Like KQ, they create programs – this evening was called “Healing Modes.” They then mix that in with some masterworks from the standard repertoire, like the Beethoven piece on this evening’s program, and voila: hip classical.
Naturally, their webpage features an article that likens them to a rock band. That is a huge disservice to both Brooklyn Rider and to good rock bands. Brooklyn Rider in performance comes across as very lean and intent, as well as entirely honest. They do stand (with the seated cellist on a riser) while playing, which everyone should do (except for people who look better sitting down), but there are no facial contortions; instead, they approach the music with the almost insectoid concentration that might be millennials’ best – or only? – positive trait. They are so highly-skilled on their instruments that they can relax while concentrating. Their commitment to immediately contemporary works, like those that made up the first half of the program, is genuine; they know the composers. They seem, I have to say, like solid dudes; a friend who went to the quartet’s workshop at UNCA before the show confirmed this fact.
Tyondai Braxton is the son of Anthony Braxton, the jazz saxophonist whom I saw perform solo in NYC back in the late ’70s, and I won’t pretend I enjoyed it then; maybe I would now, but I won’t risk it. The title of the younger Braxton’s piece, the first on Brooklyn Rider’s evening’s docket was ArpRec 1, which suggests math but was a driving churner of a piece, something a punk or metal fan would like. (I’m good with punk and metal, at least the pure stuff.)
Caroline Shaw’s Schisma was next. If I may, a word or 200 about Caroline Shaw, the white one. She is not the sort of composer I gravitate towards; she is a fresh-faced American millennial. The fact that one of her main outlets is the Swingle Singers-esque Roomful of Teeth does not help, simply because, as a rule, I recoil at vocal ensemble music (apart from liturgical choral works by Europeans) and, as a rule, at millennials – biases you may not share. Nevertheless, I have not heard one piece she’s written for any sort of string ensemble that I have not wanted to hear again immediately upon its conclusion. Schisma, Shaw’s response to the Brooklyn Rider call for healing music, was no exception. Shaw has a gift for melody as great as any composer’s I’ve encountered, and that is saying something, because as a child of Lennon-McCartney and Holland-Dozier-Holland, melody is above all what I seek in music. At the same time, Shaw’s pieces are intricate and complex enough – including pointed dissonances – that they reward many, many listens. Many. I’m reminded of Big Boi’s proudly-stated love of Kate Bush’s music: Sometimes, stuff is so great it draws in fans from outside its orbit. It may be “pop” in historical context (I don’t agree), but it’s brilliant. If you or someone you know wanted to stick a toe in the ocean of “classical” music, I would recommend starting with a Shaw piece for string quartet. Listen to the Jasper String Quartet’s version of her Valencia on Sono Luminus or the piano piece Gustav LeGray on ACME’s Thrive on Routine album. I hope she is inclined to write some longer orchestral pieces – concertos or symphonies – at some point, but I also understand why most of the pieces I have recordings of are in the 5-10 minute range.
Here is a song Shaw wrote for Brooklyn Rider a couple years ago:
Sung by the great Swedish mezzo-soprano Anne Sophie Von Otter, it’s from a release on the Naive label that also features songs by other millennials as well as one by… Kate Bush (though not one I’d have chosen. Unfortunately, the disc also includes songs by Sting and Elvis Costello, which represents a deal-breaker for me, but maybe not you.)
So Schisma was just what I described above. I love to be drawn into and hypnotized by melodies that had never occurred to me, and that’s what I was.
I had been wondering, the day before the performance, where the name Brooklyn Rider came from. I thought perhaps it was an allusion to the Brooklyn Dodgers, a slang name denoting poor people dodging trolley cars in old Brooklyn (the one with poor people). Before the Gabriela Lena Frank piece, violist Nicholas Cords mentioned that the name in fact came from the Blaue Reiter movement in Germany and Austria before WWI and included a strong Eastern European element. It was mostly a movement of painters; I’m all about some Oskar Kokoschka. Frank, for her part, is of Lithuanian Jewish ancestry, aptly enough then, in addition to some Peruvian and Chinese. I’ve read that Bartok is one of her principal inspirations. Her piece Kantu Ketchua #2, rife with pizzicato and engaging melody, did not sound Peruvian, Chinese or Baltic-Jewish, nor did it ever lose my attention, but I jotted no notes and my memory of it now, days later, is foggy, as is my memory of everything.
The next piece on the bill, borderlands, by a woman I’d not heard of named Matana Roberts (African-American, if you’re keeping score) was my favorite piece of the five. Colin Jacobsen showed the audience of 200 or so the score as it appeared on his iPad – it looked like an etch-a-sketch by Henri Rousseau on excellent acid. I’m sure there are technical terms employed for describing Roberts’s construction of the piece, which was restlessly entertaining to me at least, but maybe not everyone would agree. The coolest parts for me were very sparse – plinks and plunks that somehow form an almost invisible web of melody, or at least a web on which you can project a melody, like dew. I would call it Pointillist maybe; it reminded me of a piece by a Japanese composer named Jo Kondo I’ve listened to a lot this year. Zenny. Meditative but restless, and very catchy in a 6th-dimensional way. It was magic, but it’s all a kind of magic to me. I just like to listen.
Reena Esmail is an Indian-American composer (more American than Indian, but reversing the hyphenization would be misleading), born in Chicago and now living in L.A. She melds European classical music with Indian classical music (which is an entirely different ballgame, given that – for starters – it is improvisational) in a non-hokey manner, if not as convincing as the way Sulkhan Tzintsades wove Georgian folk songs into his music or, for that matter, the way Bartok used Transylvanian and Romanian folk modes. I’m not sure if I’d heard her piece through my stereo I wouldn’t have thought it a little off (mainly because I distrust American millennial composers), but watching it live, it didn’t seem hokey at all. The long swooping melodies, immediately identifiable as subcontinental but skirting triteness, were carried by the cello and so came across as both grave and life-affirming in a resonant way.
If the first half of the program represents the future of classical music, then that’s something I don’t have to worry about. I dug all five pieces, from start to finish. While I may prefer an old-school setup (e.g. seated musicians, sheet music, black eveningwear), I have no issue whatsoever with Brooklyn Rider’s hipping up (if not hipsterizing) classical music for this point on the timeline. Realistically, “classical” music has to adapt to the times for the simple fact it always has. When it ceases to move, that means it’s dead. There are plenty of composers (like those on the evening’s bill) who are, despite being almost totally unknown, writing masterful works that expand ingeniously on previous ideas. And there is a battalion of brilliant young players (like Brooklyn Rider) to play those compositions. In other words, there are people changing the music. The meaningful change at this point needs to come in the way the music is presented, and the ways outfits like Brooklyn Rider/Knights and labels like ECM New Series and Sono Luminus are effecting change in that realm are entirely for the good as far as I’m concerned. In its weird beauty, modern-era “classical” – as well as true masterworks of yore like a Beethoven quartet or Bach fugue – is a strange and fascinating niche music in 2018. There are enough people to support it – simply because there are way too many people alive right now – if more people were exposed to it. I am confident it can remain a vibrant and viable niche for another couple of decades or until civilization ceases, whichever comes first, and Brooklyn Rider is doing worthwhile work that should be celebrated.
Evidence the Brooklyn Rider approach of mixing present and past works, for me at least, is that I stayed and even enjoyed Beethoven’s 15th String Quartet. I knew going in that it was a 42-minute, 5-movement work and so was kind of thinking I’d bolt at intermission. But I also knew from reading the on-line blurb that the third, deep-Adagio movement of this Beethoven quartet was the inspiration for the program’s theme of healing. I listened to that movement on YouTube two days before as homework, and the music is pervaded by a melancholic folksong beauty (with brief interruptions of powdered wig shenanigans) that sounds (maybe) prescient of modernism. It is very pretty for that time (1825) and context (Classical/Early Romantic period), whatever the case. So I decided to stay through the third movement and then was surprised to find the piece ending after what seemed like 25 minutes. I said to myself, “That’s Penn and Teller shit right there.”
So that was the evening. I wish I could say something more insightful about the five first-half pieces, but A) they were obviously all new to me and first impressions are often a lot different than impressions after several listens, B) I understand few technical terms beyond “pizzicato”, and C) my concentration was never broken to where I could jot notes. I’m not equipped to discuss the Beethoven piece. What I can say is it was really cool to hear contemporary music played live by accomplished musicians who owned their devotion to it with nonchalance and seriousness. I sincerely hope the Asheville program, or most of it at least, makes it onto a disc soon. I am guessing it will, since, again like the KQ, Brooklyn Rider is prolific.
Finally, to change the subject, it would be tough to overdo the praise for Black Mountain College Museum + Arts Center. Bringing in performers like Brooklyn Rider to a non-university city (sorry, UNCA) the size of Asheville at working-class-affordable ticket prices ($10 and $15) is insane. The museum’s new location, directly on Pack Square, was a pleasure to be in for two hours. The windows behind the performance provided a stern backdrop. On the walls flanking the performance was a Jacob Lawrence exhibit, and the vividly colored cut-outs and paintings were a fitting accompaniment to the music – the American works in the first half especially. You should see the Jacob Lawrence exhibit if you want something to do “of” an afternoon; it is up until January 12. The museum is always free/by donation, on top of that. It’s one of the only good things I can see resulting from the surge in the upscale demographic in Asheville the last ten years. (The Grail Moviehouse is another. I’m struggling for a third.)