Brooklyn Rider: The four elements of a radical democracy

The name was a statement of intent. Eighteen years ago four young Brooklynites named their string quartet Brooklyn Rider, nodding to the eclecticism of Wassily Kandinsky’s pre-World War I Blue Rider artistic movement. Since then they’ve not only given exceptional performances from the 300-year-old quartet repertoire, but they’ve commissioned many new works and collaborated with major artists from inside and well outside the classical tradition.

Brooklyn Rider: Johnny Gandelsman, Michael Nicolas, Colin Jacobsen and Nicholas Cords. Photos: Marco Giannavola.

“Part of our mission has always been to try to find meaningful connection between that tradition and the [musical] world as a larger whole,” says violinist Colin Jacobsen. A common thread across their 20 albums has been “finding a framework for pieces that can speak to each other”. Often this involves taking quartets, whether by Debussy, Beethoven or Shostakovich, and recontextualising them by juxtaposing them with interrelated newly commissioned works.

Their Healing Modes album, for instance, centres on Beethoven’s Quartet No.15 in A minor, penned when he was desperately unwell. “Since it’s a five-movement work,” Jacobsen explains, “we asked five composers to write on the theme of healing and music, and they took it in very different directions. Some took it in a very societal direction, some were more about a personal illness and healing.” The result is like hearing the Beethoven anew.

Jacobsen recalls opera director Peter Sellars calling string quartets emblems of “radical democracy” – something the group now tempers. “In the first 10 years we made practically every decision collaboratively,” he says, “and it turns out that’s exhausting. Another form of democracy is passing the torch, and letting different people take the lead for different projects, and for different aspects of what it means to be in a quartet.”

In this spirit, Jacobsen and Johnny Gandelsman swap the first and second violin roles, the quartet completed by violist Nicholas Cords and cellist Michael Nicolas (the latter the only “new” member in 18 years). Jacobsen paraphrases a Cords observation that if you’re even thinking of joining a string quartet, you should already have a 95% aesthetic overlap with the other members. “That last 5%,” says Jacobsen, “is where all the work happens, and it’s certainly not easy work, but I think we enjoy that.”

Brooklyn Rider. Photos supplied.

Their quartet’s stellar career has included being chosen by Philip Glass to record all his string quartets. “That was foundational,” says Jacobsen. “Philip Glass’s quartets are a bit of a Rosetta Stone for how to play in a quartet. They really focus you on the essentials of blend, sound production and texture.”

Central to their first Australian tour is The Four Elements, which partly references the alchemy of a quartet sounding as one, and partly the primary elements of earth, air, fire, water, addressed via what Jacobsen describes as a “call to attention around climate”. Among the composers they commissioned are Californian Akshaya Tucker, writing on fire in the context of her state’s recent spate of wildfires. Dan Truman’s take on earth reflects his love of folk music and alternative tunings, resulting in a piece that Jacobsen describes as “an abstracted piece of folk music from the future”.

Beyond four new commissions, other works related to the elements fill out the program. Jacobsen wrote an earth-themed work “through the lens of an homage to Ruth Crawford Seeger, a great early-modernist composer from America, who eventually of course married Charles Seeger, the father of [pioneering folksinger] Pete Seeger. She was a fearsome, amazing modernist composer, and then became an ethnomusicologist, and never brought those worlds together, the way Bartok did.” Jacobsen’s work imagines what might have happened if she had. Shostakovich’s String Quartet No.8 is also included, aligned with fire, because, Jacobsen says, “he wrote it in Dresden in three days when he was there after World War II, seeing the results of the firebombing.”

The group’s diverse collaborators have ranged from Irish folk fiddler Martin Hayes to jazz saxophonist Joshua Redman, banjo virtuoso Bela Fleck, Persian kamancheh player Kayhan Kalhor, Swedish mezzo-soprano Anne Sofie von Otter and Mexican jazz singer Magos Herrera. “The nice thing about four individuals with different interests,” says Jacobsen, “is that over time some of those dream collaborations can happen.”

Brooklyn Rider: Sydney Opera House, March 3.