Last week turned out to be a cover song celebration, with one post about a monster collection of repurposed Bob Dylan tunes and another about Punch Brothers’ out-of-this-world takes on Radiohead. And while I didn’t really set out to double down on the covers, I couldn’t be happier that theme emerged, because it got me thinking differently about Brooklyn Rider, a string quartet that has just released a new recording entitled Seven Steps.
Before going any further, I am obligated by the International Code of Music Blogging Ethics to point out that classical music is usually “not my cup of tea.” But it’s not “not my cup of tea” in the same way that, say, olives are “not my cup of tea.” Olives I hate with a passion. The word “tapenade” is an iron-clad deal-breaker when scanning the menu at fancy restaurants. Classical music, on the other hand, is something that I have a great deal of interest in learning about, but I have a long way to go, both in terms of appreciation and understanding.
So how did Brooklyn Rider manage to make connection with their 2011 effort, Brooklyn Rider Plays Philip Glass? I think Glass’ minimalist style deserves some of the credit. As with any learning endeavor, repetition is helpful, and the repetitive structures in Glass’ music engage without feeling overwhelming, despite the fact that a great deal of complexity is hidden within those patterns. But I think the lion’s share of the credit belongs to the group’s 4 musicians, who themselves are refreshingly relatable.
Sure, they’re relatively young, and that doesn’t hurt their relatability. But there’s a lot more going on here than their ages. One way they bridge the accessibility gap is by being, well… accessible. I’ve been following violinist Johnny Gandelsman on Twitter for a while now, and he engages listeners on daily basis, offering thanks for their kind words and sharing the type of links and Internet miscellanea that gives you an window into who a person really is (his affinity for the NBA falls in line with mine, to cite one example). The group as a whole seems to be truly interested in reaching out to listeners, and not just the ones who already know what Beethoven’s String Quartet No. 14 in C# minor sounds like. Stopping by Bob Boilen’s desk in the NPR Music offices for a Tiny Desk Concert helped me connect names with real human faces and, judging by the New York Times write-up of last year’s Halloween performance at Zankel Hall in New York City, which featured featured zombie references, a kidnapping, a gorilla playing cello and a bow from a costumed Beethoven, it sounds like they put on one hell of a live show.
Strangely enough, reading about that fake-Beethoven helped me uncover one reason I’ve had trouble connecting with classical in the past. When I tune into NPR in the middle of the day, I tend to jump to the conclusion that I’m listening to group of musicians performing something someone else wrote, and that that “someone else” has been dead for like 200 years. That disconnect between a piece of music and the person who wrote it definitely bothers me in other, more familiar contexts. Finding out that a pop musician didn’t write his or her music always changes my impression of that person, and the change is usually negative.* While I know deep down that applying this same system of judgement to classical is more than a little apples-to-oranges-y, and that there are brilliant pieces of music written hundreds of years ago that deserve to be performed for human ears for as long as humans are on this planet, AND that NPR probably plays plenty of 20th and 21st century classical written by non-dead people, it’s been a hard habit to shake. And having a guy dressed as Beethoven in the balcony can’t exactly change the fact that the real guy died in 1827, but it does call attention to the fact that 4 people with instruments and some sheet music can bring a part of the German composer’s magnificently wired brain back to life, if only for the length of time it takes to play one of his works (OK, so maybe the zombies helped with this epiphany as well). I love this thought. It feels nothing short of magical.
That feeling of resurrection has kept on rolling thanks to Seven Steps. Exploring Beethoven’s 131st work has been educational, moving and wildly enjoyable, all at the same time. I hesitate to speak to the recording too directly, given that my observations would be even more sophomoric than the rest of this post, but I will say that the fifth movement gave me the best musical kick in the nuts I’ve had in a long, long time, and I highly recommend you give it a shot (you may want to wear one of these). But Beethoven isn’t the only dude with a writing credit on Seven Steps, as the recording kicks off with a performance of the deliciously dark and stormy title piece, a Brooklyn Rider original, followed by a piece called Together Into This Unknowable Night, which features a mood-setting guest appearance by composer Christopher Tignor. These first two compositions set up Beethoven’s piece beautifully, and they go a long way toward helping someone like me, who is looking to shed that knee-jerk NPR reaction about authorship, to see just how alive this art form really is. And for that, I owe Brooklyn Rider a huge debt of gratitude.
Brooklyn Rider — Philip Glass String Quartet No. 3 (Mishima)
*I was going to link to a picture of Norah Jones here, but it seemed mean. That said, the fact that she didn’t write “Don’t Know Why” has always bugged me. Don’t know why.