The first time I listened to The Brooklyn Rider Almanac, I had no idea what was going on.
OK, that’s not entirely accurate. I knew who Brooklyn Rider was, and knew I liked the quartet’s last few releases, especially Seven Steps. And I knew the title of the album was “The Brooklyn Rider Almanac,” but that’s it. When I loaded the album on my iPod and went for a long run, I was stepping into a world free of context.
This doesn’t happen often. I usually end up reading about albums before I listen to them. If unfettered listening is like walking through fresh snow that just finished falling in your yard, the fact that I love reading about music almost as much as I love listening to it means that there’s usually a crowd of opinionated people eager to make snow angels before I do. It’s rare that I can dive in first.
It’s especially rewarding to be the trailblazer when instrumental music is involved. Lyrics and voices allow context to flood in — which language is being used, the emotions the singer conveys, the stories that are being told. But with a string quartet, you really do get to invent things as you listen, things like the composer’s nationality, their inspiration and goals for the piece. Even the form is up for grabs, if you didn’t check to see how many mp3s there were and which ones were grouped together.
I loved my freewheeling stroll through The Brooklyn Rider Almanac. Given the diversity in both style — everything from long, sentimental notes to choppy math-mindedness — and technique — clapping and even some vocals — it really felt like anything could happen. And it was all filtered through the quartet’s signature approach to production, which is both big and crisp, with enough reverb to make passages more momentous but enough energy to make the whole exercise feel immediate and personal. The album had already earned two thumbs up by the time I made it back to my house and learned how ironic that stroll had been.
As it turns out, each track is a commissioned piece, and each composer was asked to write with a “personally influential artistic figure active within the last 50 years” in mind. Here’s the full list of composers and influences:
1. Rubin Kodheli (b. 1977): Necessary Henry! (2012) Inspired by Henry Threadgill
2. Dana Lyn (b. 1974): Maintenance Music (2012) Inspired by Mierle Laderman Ukeles
3. Padma Newsome (b. 1961): Simpson’s Gap (2012) Inspired by Albert Namatjira
4. Daniel Cords (b. 1975): The Haring Escape (2012) Inspired by Keith Haring
5. Aoife O’Donovan (b. 1982): Show Me (2014) Inspired by William Faulkner
6. Vijay Iyer (b. 1971): Dig The Say (2012) Inspired by James Brown
7. Greg Saunier (b. 1969): Quartet, Parts One & Two (2012) Inspired by Christian Wolff
8. Ethan Iverson (b. 1973): Morris Dance (2012) Inspired by Mark Morris
9. Colin Jacobsen (b. 1978): Exit (2014) Shara Worden, vocals Inspired by David Byrne
10. Gonzalo Grau (b. 1972): Five-Legged Cat (2014) Inspired by Chick Corea
11. Christina Courtin (b. 1984): tralala (2012) Inspired by Igor Stravinsky
12. Glenn Kotche (b. 1970): Ping Pong Fumble Thaw (2014) Inspired by Jens Massel
13. Bill Frisell (b. 1951): John Steinbeck (2012) Inspired by John Steinbeck
The whole thing is a study in inspiration. In context. That gorgeous section near the beginning that reminded me of the American West? That was about an Aboriginal artist who painted Outback landscapes. Desert? Yes. America? Nope.
Hearing the story behind “Simpson’s Gap” reaffirmed two things I love about music. First, that notes and how they’re played can communicate specific ideas wordlessly. And second, that there’s green grass on both sides of the context divide — knowing, not knowing… there’s joy in both. I can’t wait to finish going track-by-track, learning about the composers and the people they had in mind when they worked on these pieces, matching first impressions with actual inspirations. This is going to be fun.
Hear a snippet from “Simpson’s Gap” below and buy The Brooklyn Rider Almanac here.