The string quartet Brooklyn Rider finished off a residency at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill with a highly eclectic and well-attended concert in Memorial Hall. Celebrating their tenth anniversary, this multi-faceted ensemble has had a creatively fulfilling association with both Carolina Performing Arts and the music department at UNC. During this most recent stay, the quartet expanded their outreach to include the medical school and UNC Hospitals; according to violinist Colin Jacobsen, this resulted in some fascinating conversations and encounters at the intersection of music and medicine.

Although I always thought that Brooklyn Rider(s) would be a great name for a sports team, these four conventionally-trained musicians named their quartet for the pre-World War I Blue Rider German Expressionist Art Movement, founded by Wassily Kandinsky. By naming themselves after an artist at the dawn of abstract painting, Brooklyn Rider appeared to telescope their belief that their quartet would have no pre-determined borders and that all kinds of music would be welcomed and championed. They have been wildly successful and have attracted generations of listeners who otherwise might never have thought twice about attending a string quartet concert.

Brooklyn Rider is Johnny Gandelsman and Colin Jacobsen, violins (they swap first and second violin parts), violist Nicholas Cords, and cellist Eric Jacobsen (Colin’s brother). Despite being hailed as “Indie Rock” string quartet equivalents, “high powered,” and garnering other such non-traditional accolades, they most often perform as a traditional quartet with no amplification, special effects, or electronic manipulation of any kind – just four guys playing their bare instruments while standing up (as does the Emerson Quartet).   

Nearly the entire lineup of this concert consisted of works from their latest CD, The Brooklyn Rider Almanac. This recording is a fascinating project, not only because all of the compositions were commissioned by Brooklyn Rider but also because each work represents the composers’ influences, inspirations, or muses. It might be another composer or musician, the natural world, or another type of artist. The result is an interesting assemblage of new works (the oldest composer was born in 1951) that reveal some surprising windows into the creative process.

Casually dressed and positioned nearly at the front of the stage, Brooklyn Rider is far removed from the austere, non-talking (some might even say haughty) traditional string quartets. It is probably unimaginable that even ten years ago you’d see the words “string quartet” and “James Brown” in the same sentence. But thanks to celebrated jazz pianist Vijay Iyer (b.1971), that is exactly what we have in his composition Dig The Say. Iyer is a big fan of the late soul singer/icon, especially his seemingly simple but enormously intricate rhythmic “grooves” that were the backbone of nearly all his songs. This is a major four-movement work that is noteworthy for what it both does – and what it does not do. It does not paraphrase any of Brown’s songs. You won’t hear any references to “I Feel Good” or “Papa’s Got a Brand New Bag,” but the energy and feel are all there. It was played with great abandon and as authentically funky as Juilliard-trained string players can get. Mercifully, no one attempted to mimic Brown’s dance moves!  

The next work was an example of geographic landscapes having a huge effect on a visual artist which is then transformed into a musical vision. The Central Desert of Australia is a forbidding and desolate landscape with a series of what can best be described as mini Grand Canyons. Artist Albert Namatjira painted water colors of this region, and composer Padma Newsome wrote the work Gaps and Gorges as a musical depiction, a sort of desert La Mer. The section ”Simpson’s Gap” was played and, as might have been expected, it is stark, airy and lonely.

Brooklyn Rider plays as if they are in someone’s home or a small club, and they are quite generous (almost to a fault) in their remarks about the music they are playing, including the genesis of the works and their relationships to the composer. They perform with a serious commitment and belief in each work but create an environment that includes the audience and never condescends to musical snobbery that sometimes emanates from musicians of their unquestionable skill and breadth.

The next three works showed the wide range of influences as we had a choreographer, an author, and a jazz musician providing the sparks for the composers to set pen to manuscript paper. Morris Dance, inspired by master choreographer Mark Morris, has a quasi-incestuous bent to it. Composer Ethan Iverson was music director of the Mark Morris Dance Group when two of the dancers eventually married the two violinists of Brooklyn Rider. This is an homage à trois to Mark and the “future wives of the violin section of Brooklyn Rider” club.

John Steinbeck – August 12, a lovely, lyrical hats-off to that great American writer, is the work of celebrated jazz guitarist Bill Frisell. Also inspired by the heavenly landscape of Big Sur, California, this piece is reminiscent of Frisell’s playing style: tasteful, not flashy, wistful, and welcoming. The first half ended with Gonzalo Grau’s Five-Legged Cat, inspired and perhaps easily confused with an actual composition by Chick Corea.

Curiously, violist Cords gave a lengthy and impassioned introduction during the first half for the second half opener: the world premiere of untouched by John Luther Adams. Not to be confused with the composer John Adams (or the second U.S. president), John Luther Adams spent many years living in Alaska, and that strongly influenced the feel of his music. According to Cords, untouched is, in part, Adams’ reflection of what the northern lights might sound like. Oh, one other thing: the name comes from the fact that all four instruments never play a fingered note; i.e., the entire piece is open strings and harmonics. This is a quietly virtuosic piece that effectively creates an otherworldly feel. My impression was that after drawing me in and exhausting all the possibilities inherent in a “no touching the fingerboard” rule, it simply overstayed its welcome at nearly fifteen minutes long.

The best was saved for last with Necessary Henry! by Rubin Kodheli, inspired by Henry Threadgill, a composer/saxophonist/flutist who defies categorization. This was the piece that seemed to display all the justified hype about Brooklyn Rider: incredible fierce energy, rhythmic precision at super speeds and complexity, and a buoyant spirit that is infectious.