Brooklyn Rider: Lucid Flight Brooklyn Rider on Record

Sidebar: Brooklyn Rider on Record

The Brooklyn Rider Almanac
Mercury Classics B0021593-02 (CD). 2014. Nicholas Cords, Johnny Gandelsman, exec. prods.; Jesse Lewis, prod., eng.; Jesse Brayman, eng.; Kevin Germain, Tyler Hammann, Max Ross, asst. engs. DDD? TT: 78:33
Performance *****
Sonics ****½

Spontaneous Symbols
In the Circle ICR008 (CD). 2017. Nicholas Cords, Johnny Gandelsman, prods.; Ryan Streber, eng.; Hansdale Hsu, asst. eng. DAD? TT: 75:36
Performance ****½
Sonics ****½

In this, their 12th year of existence, it's probably more accurate to call Brooklyn Rider a new-music ensemble than a string quartet. They are fearless explorers with a voracious appetite for new music, and their most recent recordings reveal much of what they're capable of.


For The Brooklyn Rider Almanac, the quartet commissioned pieces from a variety of youngish composers, asking each to take his or her inspiration from another artist in any realm of creativity. The 13-track collection opens with Necessary Henry!, Albanian cellist Rubin Kodheli's tribute to jazz saxophonist Henry Threadgill. Inspired by Threadgill's "Necessary Illusion," Kodheli's piece relies on the cello playing a steady rhythm, better described as a groove, that manages to sound like a lot of rhythmically vital Threadgill jazz numbers for reeds as well as a piece for four stringed instruments. I think it's fair to say that many stuffier string quartets wouldn't have had the stones or interpretative thirst to attempt something like this, let alone succeed.

Maintenance Music, by Dana Lyn, directly inspired by the "Maintenance Art Manifesto 1969!" of New York–based activist Mierle Laderman Ukeles, is another in the broad and long-lived canon of musical compositions riggered by New York City and stretching from "Coney Island Baby" and Rhapsody in Blue to Alicia Keys's "Empire State of Mind." The sounds of the city, from clattering subway trains to car horns to the hustle and bustle of sidewalks, are gloriously reproduced by just four instruments.

Igor Stravinsky's ballet The Firebird inspired the light, jaunty Tralala, whose composer, American singer-songwriter Christina Courtin, playfully calls it "A simpler Stravinsky . . . for children?" Aoife O'Donovan is a Massachusetts-born singer-songwriter, guitarist, and pianist known for her forays into left-of-center bluegrass and folk noir. She began her career in the Wayfaring Strangers, now plays with Crooked Still and Sometymes Why, and used William Faulkner's immortal The Sound and the Fury as inspiration for her plaintive Show Me. Other pieces on Almanac were inspired by dancer and choreographer Mark Morris, David Byrne of the Talking Heads, and novelist John Steinbeck.

The Almanac's most surprising and effective pairing of composition and performance is jazz pianist Vijay Iyer's "Dig the Say," inspired by none other than the hardest-working man in show business, the late and very great James Brown. In a liner note, Iyer says of Brown, "His vocals were electrifying, his lyrics pointedly political, his dance moves revolutionary, his sense of style larger than his life, his cultural impact immeasurably huge." Iyer's composition is bright, dramatic, and, yes—here comes that phrase again—full of monster grooves. It's a fun piece that's not entirely knowable using mere words—or even after several hearings. No string quartet has never had so much fun. Whip-smart, impeccably played, beautifully recorded, Almanac is a high-quality lesson in the nearly endless possibilities of the string quartet in the 21st century.


On Spontaneous Symbols, Brooklyn Rider gets back to its first love: playing new classical music, much of it written for them. The title comes from a quote by photographer Minor White that reads, in part: "When a photograph functions as an equivalent we can say that at that moment, and for that person, the photograph acts as a symbol or plays the role of a metaphor for something that is beyond the subject photographed."

Here, the "something that is beyond" is a series of fairly new pieces, some played in concert by Brooklyn Rider but never recorded by the quartet before. The heart of the album's eight tracks lies in the closing track, the 20-minute-long Sequence for Minor White, by Kyle Sanna, who writes in a liner note that he's impressed by White's ability "to capture a sense of spirit and the spiritual in his work." Sanna used—"invented," says Nicholas Cords—a number of special playing techniques, such as blowing into a violin's sound hole and bowing the side of the instrument, for a percussive effect. The blowing had me taking off my Bowers & Wilkins headphones and checking to make sure a pot on the stove wasn't boiling over. Over this creative addition, the strings hover and flit like so many insects in humid darkness.

Composed for Brooklyn Rider, Sequence for Minor White was intended to be included on Almanac. The group discussed recording one of its nine movements for that project, but put it aside until they had enough room on a record for the entire work. It varies from pulsing lines for cello under equally pulsing violin and viola parts, all very reminiscent of many forms of electronic music, to quieter, more introspective moments in which a single plucked or bowed violin stabs out atonal melodies.

Evan Ziporyn, the accomplished and versatile American post-minimalist composer who founded the new-music ensemble Bang on a Can All-Stars, has written music for large wind ensembles, symphony orchestras, and Balinese gamelan. He's also an accomplished player of saxophones, bass clarinet, mbira, and a host of Balinese instruments. His three-movement Qi, its title the Chinese word for life force, moves from the tight, tense first movement, Lucid Flight, to the sprightly, electronics-assisted Garden and, finally, Transport, in which Ziporyn tests the "intense intimacy" he so admires about Brooklyn Rider in his liner note by writing swirling, colliding melodic lines calling for loud/soft dynamics and insistent, at times dynamically physical rhythms. Premiered by Brooklyn Rider in 2013, Qi is minimalism for those who don't know what it is, or who hate the very idea.

According to its composer, Colin Jacobsen, BTT was conceived as a celebration of the "incredible creative ferment and experimentation of the 1970s/80s downtown New York scene," some of whose participants he lists as "Meredith Monk, Steve Reich, the New York Dolls and the Velvet Underground." Also including flavors inspired by John Cage and J.S. Bach, BTT is a buzzing piece that refuses to alight for long and contains liberal use of pizzicato. The 20-minute work, originally used in a collaborative performance by Brooklyn Rider and Twyla Tharp, later evolved into a series of short movements, bursts of agitated strings that retain much of the rhythmic vitality and sense of excitement and constant motion that that must have been part of the original.

In terms of sound quality, Spontaneous Symbols has a clarity and purity of tone and timbre that are admirable, considering the often quick tempos, and the constant blending of solo instruments and fuller passages played by all the members of quartet.

Never less than interesting, often thrilling, with wide-ranging musical tastes, a keen taste for breaking barriers, and cherishing the power of discovery, Brooklyn Rider is a group of marvelous instrumentalists and bold musical explorers who provide promise and ambition for the future of the string quartet.—Robert Baird

dalethorn's picture

I sampled several of their albums (surprising to see no other comments here), and find their music to have not only a good variety, but such tasteful playing that I could listen for hours. This is unusual for me - my tastes are very narrow in almost any genre, but well-served here since these guys stay pretty close to the melody (from what I've heard so far), rather than wander into the more far-out experimentation that other groups do with similar music.