Sep 20, 2010 Uncategorized
Turtle Island Quartet — 8 p.m. Sept. 29. From stages around the globe to the international airwaves, winner of the 2005 and 2007 Grammy for Classical Crossover, the Turtle Island Quartet is the most acclaimed ensemble of its kind. Their performance will celebrate the music of Jimi Hendrix and David Balakrishnan. Saint Mary’s College Soda Activity Center, 1928 St. Mary’s Road, Moraga. $5-$20. 925-631-4670
“This highly recommended addition to the [Turtle] discography proves that, after 25 years, this group still has the ability to dazzle the listener.”
Sep 17, 2010 Uncategorized
September 2010 • Issue 329 Page Thirteen
Turtle Island Quartet
Have You Ever Been…?
TISQ takes on a big challenge in transforming the
music of rock guitar legend Jimi Hendrix to the language
of a classical string quartet, yet succeeds with exhilarating
flair on the six Hendrix tunes (as well as seven more
tunes by TISQ founding violinist David Balakrishnan
and others). This disc follows their Grammy winning
2007 recording, A Love Supreme: The Legacy of John
TISQ is Balakrishnan (violin, baritone violin), cofounder
Mark Summer (cello), Mads Tolling (violin) and
newcomer Jeremy Kittel (violin). The origins of this
project trace back to two Hendrix concerts at the L.A.
Forum that Balakrishnan attended as a teenager in 1969
and 1970, which led him to practicing Henrdix guitar
licks on his violin.
Decades later, his interest in Hendrix was fortified by
a visit to the Woodstock Museum where he watched a
video of Hendrix’s performance.
The title work, a seamless four-piece suite of Hendrix
tunes including “Have You Ever Been (To Electric
Ladyland),” “House Burning Down,” “1983…A Merman
I Should Turn to Be,” and “Voodoo Child (Slight Return)”
opens the album. That piece segues into John McLaughlin’s
lively “To Bop Or Not To Be.”
While the troupe adroitly translates Hendrix’s music,
it’s really Balakrishnan’s four-movement composition,
“Tree of Life” that is the album centerpiece. Inspired by
Darwin’s Origin of the Species, it contains four pieces
(“Ashwattha,” “Lucy,” Monkey Business,” and Coelacanth”)
which reverently embrace Indian classical music,
bluegrass, swing, bebop, Afro-Cuban styles and more.
Vibraphonist Stefon Harris is featured on the catchy
TISQ’s interpretation of Hendrix’s bluesy “Gypsy Eyes.”
Summer skillfully performs Hendrix’s “Little Wing” as a
solo cello piece.
Other tunes include Billy Roberts’ ballad, “Hey Joe,”
and Bob Dylan’s “All Along the Watchtower” featuring
Mike Marshall on mandocello. Hendrix made the latter
tune popular in his 1968-recorded version.
This highly recommended addition to the TISQ discography
proves that, after 25 years, this group still has
the ability to dazzle the listener. Nancy Ann Lee
“The ensemble’s latest release, Have You Ever Been…?, opens an alternate universe for music lovers!”
Sep 17, 2010 Uncategorized
Published September 15th, 2010
Turtle Island – Not Your Usual String Quartet
By Lou Fancher
When David Balakrishnan brings his violin and the Turtle Island Quartet to Saint Mary’s College on September 29, Jimi Hendrix will tag along.
The Grammy-winning string quartet, known for its genre-defying mastery of everything from classical to bluegrass, swing to hip-hop, latin american music to jazz, and now, rock, easily defies description. Sometimes referred to as an “American string quartet,” Turtle Island is more like an “Everything string quartet.”
The ensemble’s latest release, Have You Ever Been…?, opens an alternate universe for music lovers: one where highly-trained classical artists, steeped in the improvisational traditions of jazz, embrace the genius of Hendrix.
Balakrishnan, in a wide-ranging interview, talks about his fellow quartet members, Turtle Island’s history, his own compositions, winning awards, and the undisputed king of electric guitar, Hendrix.
Listening to Hendrix as a teenager in the 1970′s inspired Balakrishnan to pick up a guitar himself. “Playing guitar taught me how to play the blues,” he says. “When I went back to the violin, I found you can play more percussive sounds on it too. It made me widen the performance practice of my instrument.”
Approximately forty years later, a Woodstock video of Hendrix’s brilliant 1969 performance triggered a long-buried yearning in Balakrishnan’s soul. “There’s always pressure to repeat yourself when you’ve been successful,” he says, about the period of time following the release of A Love Supreme, which won the group its second Grammy in 2008. “But I didn’t want to do that. So I listened to (Hendrix’s) Electric Ladyland without talking to anybody about it. I kept it under my hat – didn’t even tell the band – because I knew everyone would jump on the commercial idea of it.”
At the same time, Balakrishnan was developing his Tree of Life, a one-hour collaborative work involving scientists and artists and based on Darwin’s evolutionary theories. “I realized Hendrix and Tree of Life were my story. The connection lies in me, not in a marketing plan. It’s a fortuitous combination: the two ideas grew up with each other.”
And with that, a CD was born. “You could say I’ve been writing the same piece all my life,” Balakrishnan says, turning the conversation to process. “I limit myself to sounds through which I can draw lines of continuity.”
Sounding anything but limited, he continues: “I like a wide swath. Honestly, what I do, is just play my violin, then go write it down.” Moments later, he’s on a reverse curve, saying, “I understand the need for good architecture. There’s no reason for contemporary musicians to abandon the elements and principles of classical music.” He’s rather Beethovian in his compositional constructions: outlining the overall form, calculating the weight-bearing load on the listener’s ear, eliminating excess. It’s a far cry from the “play it and write” he first describes.
Testing the limits might be a Turtle Island signature. “This is the kind of music you choose by nature,” says Balakrishnan. “Some people do one thing all the way. Others, find a wide-range and go for connections between things.”
Mark Summer has been with Turtle Island from its debut 25 years ago. “He’s the premier crossover cellist on the planet,” Balakrishnan says. “He’s a cello, and a bass, and drums. He’s a one man rhythm section.”
Quartet member Mads Tolling appears to be an equally miraculous violinist. “Mads grew up listening to Keith Jarrett and Miles Davis. He has less of a fiddle style and more of the purity of the fine European players,” Balakrishnan says. “And Jeremy,” he says, referring to new member Jeremy Kittel, “he grew up in the alternative tradition. He’s special because he plays in an instinctive, grounded way.”
String quartets and “down to earth” don’t usually appear in the same sentence, let alone the same ensemble, but Turtle Island has never been usual. Their insatiable appetite for performing adds up to a blistering 50 performance gigs a year. Outreach is huge too, according to Balakrishnan. “It’s about sharing the craft with the community,” he says. While bemoaning YouTube for “creating a glut, where, instead of things happening and then disappearing, they stay and stay,” he applauds the online video-sharing site for its “immediate access.”
To young musicians, he offers advice. “It’s important you don’t close off possibilities for your instrument. Don’t run away from classical traditions, find your own style, and go deep.”
Like Beethoven’s endings, finishing an interview with Balakrishnan isn’t simple. He tosses out tantalizing, last-second comments, (“Half the importance of a string quartet is the composer, but people don’t know it-” and, “I like a honking Hendrix chord; it stretches a listener’s psyche,”) before admitting he’s late for lunch. It’s a conversation cut short, leaving plenty of food for thought.
Sep 10, 2010 Uncategorized
Jazz picks for the weekend:
Sunday: Turtle Island Quartet: Have You Ever Been…? The Grammy-winning classical crossover group — violinists David Balakrishnan and Mads Tolling, violist Jeremy Kittel, cellist Mark Summer — is also an improvising group, which allows them to play things the Guarneri and Juilliard quartets can’t: Coltrane’s “A Love Supreme,” for example, and Monk’s “Who Do You Think We Are?” Founding member Balakrishnan has been a Jimi Hendrix fan since his teens; the quartet’s just-released latest recording, “Have You Ever Been…?” (Telarc, 2010) has been a lifetime in the making. It includes a suite of pieces from “Electric Ladyland,” an original work by Balakrishnan inspired by Darwin’s “On the Origin of Species,” Bob Dylan’s “All Along the Watchtower” and other delights. Here’s a video introduction. The quartet gave a splendid performance at the Dakota last November; I hope we’re becoming a regular touring stop for them. One night, one set. 7 p.m. Sunday, Sept. 12, Dakota, 1010 Nicollet Mall ($30).
Pamela Espeland keeps a Twin Cities live jazz calendar, blogs about jazz at Bebopified and tweets about jazz on Twitter.
Sep 10, 2010 Uncategorized
Turtle Island Quartet
By Rick Mason Wednesday, September 8, 2010
Around the time they were tackling the monumental legacy of John Coltrane’s A Love Supreme in 2007, the Turtle Islanders dropped the String from its name. Although certainly not indicative of any change in the group’s classic acoustic chamber instrumentation, maybe it was meant to eliminate any suggestion that TIQ is in any way a standard string quartet. In fact, Turtle Island has been dazzlingly eclectic since its origins in the late ’80s, cross-pollinating virtuoso classical technique with jazz improvisation in a repertoire featuring vivid fusions of classical, bop, bluegrass, blues, Indian classical, and Latin, as well as more esoteric influences. On their new Have You Ever Been . . .? (Telarc) the quartet’s two violins, viola, and cello take on Jimi Hendrix, brilliantly capturing the intellectual and visceral wonder of his music and, even more impressively, finding sufficient connections to emulate the spirit and ingeniousness of his iconic guitar work. Most spectacular is Mark Summer’s solo cello version of “Little Wing” (complete with Hendrixian acrobatics on the strings), “Voodoo Child” (soaring psychedelics intact), and a scintillating “All Along the Watchtower.” Surrounded by the Hendrix tunes is violinist David Balakrishnan’s four movement suite “Tree of Life,” which was inspired by Charles Darwin and evolves through myriad genres adeptly linked like the branches’ organisms.
Sun., Sept. 12, 7 p.m., 2010
Sep 3, 2010 Uncategorized
String Quartet Does Hendrix
Turtle Island ‘s new album is a tribute to his genius
By JIM FUSILLI
As a teenager, David Balakrishnan saw Jimi Hendrix perform live. “I could feel the momentum of his genius shining through,” the violinist, composer and founder of Turtle Island Quartet said earlier this year at Skywalker Ranch here. “I went home and listened to ‘Electric Ladyland’ for three days straight.” Since then, Mr. Balakrishnan has sought to incorporate Hendrix’s works into his repertoire.
He’s found a way. His string quartet’s new album, “Have You Ever Been. . .” (Telarc), is a tribute to Hendrix as the group’s four musicians—Mark Summer on cello, Mads Tolling on violin and Jeremy Kittel on viola, in addition to Mr. Balakrishnan—reimagine eight songs associated with the guitarist, who died 40 years ago this month. The album, out last week, also includes Mr. Balakrishnan’s four-part “Tree of Life” suite, written in tribute to Charles Darwin, and a reading of guitarist John McLaughlin’s “To Bop or Not to Be.” By juxtaposing Hendrix’s works with those compositions, Mr. Balakrishnan is portraying the guitar legend as a kindred spirit to a modern-jazz giant and declaring Hendrix an evolutionary figure in the history of music for electric guitar.
With Hendrix, Mr. Balakrishnan said, “it’s not just about ‘Purple Haze’ and ‘The Star-Spangled Banner.’ He’s a true American genius, not only as a guitar player but as a composer.” During his lifetime, Hendrix released three studio albums in the U.S. that contained 35 original compositions. (The versions of the three albums issued in the U.K. included a few more.) Other compositions have emerged since his death.
There’s no brief way to describe the Turtle Island Quartet, which was formed in 1985 as the Turtle Island String Quartet. Classical music remains a part of their repertoire, though not more so than jazz: They’ve reimagined compositions by Dave Brubeck, Chick Corea, Miles Davis and Thelonious Monk, among others, and in 2007 released “A Love Supreme: The Legacy of John Coltrane.” On the new disc, vibraphonist Stefon Harris guests on Hendrix’s “Gypsy Eyes.”
The quartet first tackled Hendrix and “Gypsy Eyes” in 1994 on their “Who Do We Think We Are” album, but Hendrix’s influence has been with them since their first recording. On the group’s eponymous debut album, Mr. Balakrishnan opened his “Balopadem” suite with the same dominant chord that Hendrix used in his compositions to add tension and color to his blues—it’s featured in “Purple Haze,” for example. Musicians today refer to it as the “Hendrix chord.”
Listen to clips of songs from “Have You Ever Been. . .”
• House Burning Down
• Little Wing
• Have You Ever Been (to Electric Ladyland)?
“I’ve been accused of overusing the sharp ninth,” Mr. Balakrishnan said. The quartet was on a lunch break from a session in which they were working on “House Burning Down,” the second piece in the new disc’s opening “Electric Ladyland” suite. The discussion quickly turned to how the essence of Hendrix’s music could be captured.
Most rock musicians who want to honor Hendrix try to emulate the speed of his playing, his tonality, and his use of overtones and studio effects. But they stumble when they fail to acknowledge the breadth of his harmonic language or depth of musical knowledge. David Hidalgo of Los Lobos recently asked Hendrix bassist Billy Cox where Hendrix found the tricky figure he played in “Freedom.” “Beethoven,” Mr. Cox replied.
Hendrix presents a different sort of challenge for classically trained musicians. “I like the looseness of his music,” said Mr. Summer. “But are we supposed to rush and drag?”
The quartet gets to the heart of Hendrix’s writing and playing on “Have You Ever Been. . . ” On “Little Wing,” Mr. Summer, in a solo performance that’s part transcription and part interpretation, not only quotes Hendrix, who overdubbed several guitars on the original track, but also references the original bass and percussion parts. The quartet’s version of “Voodoo Child (Slight Return)” includes the waka-chucka sound Hendrix used to kick off the performance, and the violins play the arpeggios the guitarist tossed in while he sang the melody. Their “House Burning Down” begins as dramatically as the original—Mr. Balakrishnan gives it a bit of gypsy flair—and then swings more so than the original; Hendrix’s flashy ending to the song, full of feedback and studio trickery, is transformed as well.
“With Hendrix, it’s a feeling and rhythm,” Mr. Balakrishnan said. “He was not a nice player. He was an in-your-face player.” The quartet captures that assertiveness.
As with their earlier Coltrane project, the members of the Turtle Island Quartet faced the possibility of subordinating their individual personalities here in favor of the artist to whom they were paying tribute. “It has to reflect Hendrix,” Mr. Balakrishnan said. “But it has to be about us, too.”
As the sessions progressed, Mr. Summer saw the quartet achieve both ambitions.
“I’m not amazed we’re doing it,” the cellist said. “I’m amazed it’s working.”
—Mr. Fusilli is the Journal’s rock and pop music critic. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter: @wsjrock.
Sep 3, 2010 Uncategorized
September 3, 2010
Turtle Island Quartet (Telarc)
The Turtle Island Quartet — established 25 years ago in San Francisco by violinist-composer David Balakrishnan as a jazz string group with folk, rock and world influences — has retained its boundary-blurring energy despite an evolving membership. Following a 2007 set devoted to John Coltrane, the foursome showcases its takes on the visionary Jimi Hendrix. Some of these arrangements are strikingly soulful. “Hey Joe” has a mournful, deep-blues quality, reflecting the murder ballad’s lyrics. “Gyspy Eyes” features jazz star Stefon Harris adding his vibraphone to colorizing effect. These tracks might turn a rocker onto chamber music and a classical devotee onto Hendrix. The other beauty is Balakrishnan’s own suite “Tree of Life,” which blends raga, bluegrass, jazz and other genres into a beautiful mash-up.
— Bradley Bambarger
Sep 3, 2010 Uncategorized
Friday, 03 September 2010
Hendrix, Dylan, and Darwin: The Turtle Island Quartet Releases “Have You Ever Been…?”
Written by Andrea Canter, Contributing Editor
Friday, 03 September 2010
Have You Ever Been…?
My father would like the latest Turtle Island Quartet release, Have You Ever Been…? The Music of Jimi Hendrix and David Balakrishnan (Telarc). A longtime classical and opera buff, I am sure he never has listened to Jimi Hendrix or related music. But on hearing this recording, I believe he would assume he was listening to a 21st century string quartet. Which would be entirely accurate. Not having paid much attention (at the time) to 60s/70s rock music myself, if I had received this CD in a plain brown wrapper, I might have concluded it was one of Bill Frisell’s new string projects… minus Bill. Or more likely, I would have thought the Turtle Island Quartet had written some new music. And in part, that would be accurate, as one of the highlights of this recording is a four-part suite written by TIQ violinist and founder, David Balakrishnan. His cohorts here are founding member/cellist Mark Summer, violinist Mads Tolling, and violist Jeremy Kittel.
The eclectic nature of TIQ, and particularly the global influences of the new recording, are direct manifestations of Balakrishnan’s own multicultural background. “My father is from India, so I grew up hearing that music as a kid.” Already surrounded by the music of India, he also became a fan of Jimi Hendrix, then fusion, bebop and David Grisman, ultimately founding TIQ as “the way that I found to connect the dots.” No dot is omitted from this collection of TIQ arrangements of Hendrix-related covers and Balakrishnan’s own “Tree of Life” suite. And given the TIQ’s penchant for melding modern American music with traditions from other eras and other cultures, Have You Ever Been…? seems a natural evolution in their 25-year history as one of today’s the most innovative string ensembles.
A suite of four compositions from Hendrix’s 1968 Electric Ladyland opens the recording, starting with the title tune, “Have You Ever Been (to Electric Ladyland).” As throughout the recording, TIQ melds rock concepts to bluegrass harmonies, here as if a country dance, or perhaps a country trance. The quartet drifts into “House Burning Down” with a more defined rhythmic drive reminiscent of Don Cherry’s ‘Mopti.” “1983… A Merman I Should Turn to Be” has a more gentle flow. On “Voodoo Child (Slight Return),” the quartet’s elastic harmonies and edgy bottom lines indeed suggest some musical (albeit acoustic) voodoo, each string artist taking the lead in chasing the others over sonic barbed wire, into a cauldron of black magic.
Vibraphone master Stefon Harris lends an engaging layer of lyrical atmosphere to the TIQ’s arrangement of Hendrix’s “Gypsy Eyes” (also from Electric Ladyland). Strings and vibes move back and forth, as if a meeting of Aaron Copeland and Milt Jackson. This is some of the most intriguing work I’ve heard yet from Harris–rhythmic, alternately introspective and expansive. Cellist Mark Summer provides a scraping undertow while the higher strings pick up the gypsy’s twirling dance, a swinging counter to the more ethereal vibes.
Written by Billy Roberts, “Hey Joe” became a Hendrix staple. Opening with an exquisitely mournful line from Balakrishnan’s baritone violin, the quartet offers haunting harmonies; Summer provides what could easily pass for an upright bass pulse. It’s a very songful track suggesting slow-moving streams in a backcountry where tranquility is but a half note removed from despair.
Hendrix’s “Little Wing” is presented as a solo transformation from Mark Summer—transformation of Hendrix’s Fender Stratocaster to Summer’s cello. In the process, Summer conjures a full string section, a full rock band within his instrument, finding percussion, guitar, bass, and human voices within that box.
Placed on the CD between “Have You Ever Been…?” and Balakrishnan’s “Tree of Life” suite, John McLaughlin’s Hendrix-inspired “Bop or Not to Be” offers a transition from classic rock to what might be termed modern world music. The TIQ rendition of “Bop or Not to Be” is neither American bebop nor European classicism, at times suggestive of Middle Eastern folk traditions, at times conjuring a deconstruction of the roots of bluegrass. One minute you are invited to a neighborhood dance, the next moment you find yourself far from home in the company of vaguely familiar relatives.
The 150th anniversary of the publication of Origin of the Species and 200th anniversary of Charles Darwin’s birth, as well as his own affinity for Hendrix and world music traditions, inspired David Balacrishnan’s four-part “Tree of Life.” Like evolution itself, the suite covers music from all corners and all eras with surprising cohesion. Tracing the composer’s own evolution,
“Ashwattha” (the Indian “tree of life”) is a mini-suite of its own: The first segment conjures traditional eastern harmonies, flowing into a “New Dehli bluegrass”/21st century classical sound, then pausing as if for an ancient ritual chant broken by solo violin. Pizzacato cello supports a more symphonic segment, followed by a bridge of sorts that suggests tradition but this time more of an American spiritual that leads to a final, spirited barndance of strings. The gentle “Lucy” refers to the remains of the world’s second-oldest human, infusing a bit of swing and an Afro-Cuban vamp along the way as well as a beautifully executed, classically informed solo cello cadenza. (Would I have noticed the kinship with “All of Me” if not prompted by the liner note? Probably not.) “Monkey Business” sways with an angular humor, as if Monk had written for bluegrass band; strains of “Strangers in the Night” waft through the air. The last part, “Coelacanth” (named after the world’s oldest fish), suggests a dark East European melody with the elegance and power of a Bartok quartet.
Bob Dylan’s “All Along the Watchtower” (covered by Hendrix on Electric Ladyland), closes the recording, with Mike Marshall adding the mandocello. This large, long-necked cousin of the mandolin adds rich texture to the string ensemble, giving the bottom end depth and an acrobatic, earthy folkiness. It’s an upbeat, joyful track melding Americana, Latin and Middle Eastern esthetics, as much suggesting Larry Coryell’s recent “Bombay Jazz” as a backwards glance to Dylan and 60s folk-rock.
I would have had a very different view of late 60s and 70s music if the Turtle Island Quartet had been around then to offer translations such as those on Have You Ever Been…? And for those who were, and are, Hendrix devotees, perhaps you will have a very different view of modern classical and world music when you hear Hendrix (and Balakrishnan) through these vibrant strings.
Simply put folks, Turtle Island Quartet is not only making chamber music for the future but they are making it cool too.
Sep 1, 2010 Uncategorized
Turtle Island Quartet @ The Triple Door | 9/1 | Doors at 5:30PM, show starts at 7:30PM | $18 In Advance
Turtle Island Quartet is not Mozart or Beethoven’s chamber music but it’s likely both would be impressed by the group’s innovative approach to the centuries old genre. Since 1985, TIQ has been redefining chamber music one chamber hall at a time. Renowned for their clever arrangements of well-known modern pieces as well as original compositions and their venerable improvisations, Turtle Island Quartet has tackled yet another legendary artist; tonight TIQ will be performing select works from Jimi Hendrix’s Electric Ladyland album, along with other works inspired by Hendrix’s music.
Simply put folks, Turtle Island Quartet is not only making chamber music for the future but they are making it cool too.
Sep 1, 2010 Uncategorized
Turtle Island Quartet marks 25 years on the cutting edge of chamber jazz
By David Templeton, Strings Magazine, November 2010.
Wrapped in a jaggedly corrugated cocoon of wooden sound baffles, and surrounded by a forest of microphones and mountains of high-tech recording gear, members of the Turtle Island Quartet, bows in hand, are sitting in silent concentration, waiting for their signal to continue. From inside the sound booth at Skywalker Sound, in Marin County, California,the four musicians—violinists David Balakrishnan and Mads Tolling, violist Jeremy Kittel, and cellist Mark Summer—look so distant, so small, clustered together on the vast and yawning soundstage. In the booth, four-time Grammy-winning producer Thom Moore and veteran engineer Robert Friedrich are listening to the playback, chatting softly in musical tech-speak.
It’s almost the end of a very long, very important morning, and a sense of stressed-out celebration is in the air. People keep stepping in an out, asking how it’s going, eager to catch a whiff of history in the making. Summer’s mother has even stopped by to soak up the sensation, as she sits knitting in a chair by the window that overlooks the soundstage.
The Turtles (as they are sometimes known) are recording a brand-new piece by Balakrishnan, a four-movement string quartet titled “Tree of Life.” It will be featured on the ensemble’s much-anticipated 25th anniversary album, Have You Ever Been . . .? (Telarc), along with several reinterpretations of compositions by Jimi Hendrix (the CD title is derived from the title track of the late rock icon’s Electric Ladyland album).
“Okay guys,” murmurs Moore, speaking into his microphone. “That last one was just about perfect. But we’d like you to do it again, starting from the same place.
“When you’re ready.”
After a moment, out on the sound stage, the Turtles begin to play, a tight, controlled burst of cataclysmic jazz, with pinches of surging Middle Eastern phrases and a bit of everything else. After 25 years, that sound has become instantly recognizable. Though there are other jazz string quartets in the world, there is still nothing quite like the Turtle Island Quartet.
A quarter of a century ago, when Turtle Island was first conceived by Balakrishnan and Summer—along with original members Darol Anger and Laurie Moore—the notion of a string quartet playing jazz compositions was still revolutionary, and more than a little heretical in the chamber-music world. Conceived by Balakrishnan as a way to shake up conventional thoughts about string music and jazz, the original Turtle Island String Quartet was one of those ideas people needed to see and hear to believe.
The Turtle Island Quartet (they dropped the word “string” several years ago) is easily one of the best-known chamber ensembles in the world. They’ve won a pair of Grammy Awards (for 4 + Four in 2006, and for A Love Supreme: The Legacy of John Coltrane in 2008) and the foursome tours as hard as Bruce Springsteen or any other musical act. Though there have been several personnel changes over the years—paralleling huge shifts in the worlds of music distribution and sound production—there is one thing that hasn’t changed: the Turtles are still doing what they started out doing.
They are pushing forward the boundaries of musical evolution.
“Twenty-five years!” Balakrishnan says, as he and Summer lead the way from the gorgeous, vine-covered building that is Skywalker Sound, and out across the impossibly bucolic Skywalker Ranch. It’s lunchtime, and folks from all over George Lucas’ legendary film-and-sound tech complex are making their way to the casual four-star restaurant that passes as a cafeteria here. The “young guys,” as Kittel and Tolling appear to be known, are eating back at the studio, catching up on a few of their many side projects. “In these past 25 years,” Balakrishnan is saying, “there’s been a lot of water under the bridge, a lot of good times, and sure, a lot of changes. But there is a clear evolution of what we are, though I admit it wasn’t always clear as it was happening.”
“Oh, I think you always have an idea of where we are and where we’re going,” adds Summer, the only member to have been with the quartet the entire 25 years (Balakrishnan left the quartet for a few years in the 1990s). “Not that I don’t give myself some credit for what Turtle Island has become,” Summer jokes, “but the credit for conceptualizing a string quartet in which all of the members are fully versed in classical music and jazz improvisation—that was David’s genius.
“It’s pretty hard to have ideas that no one else has had, but that’s what David did.”
Seated at a table in the sunny cafeteria, sipping iced tea, Balakrishnan observes that the idea of Turtle Island wasn’t half as hard to conceive as explaining that idea to prospective members. “It’s always totally complicated,” he shrugs. “In the beginning, when I’d try to explain it, people just wouldn’t get it. But I’d written a whole body of work, and I’d recorded it all myself, playing all the parts—of course the cello parts were horribly undeveloped—but at one point, I decided to just play those pieces for people. I’d say, ‘Maybe if I can’t explain what I’m thinking, you can hear what I’m thinking,’ and they’d go, ‘Oh, wow. I get it!’ and then they’d get excited about it.”
In the early days, Summer and Balakrishnan suggest, there were plenty of musicians who assumed that playing jazz meant less rigor and structure than playing classical music. Summer admits he was one of those and was actually rather uncomfortable, at the start of Turtle Island, since he’d been so anxious to leave the classical tradition. But with the brand-new Turtle Island, parts of that tradition were suddenly calling him back in an uncomfortable way.
“I thought I’d escaped the misery and perfectionism of classical music,” he says. “Everybody comes up after concerts and says, ‘You all look like you’re having such a great time up there,’ and we are. But it is also hard. I didn’t escape anything. I’m still dealing with the same problems of intonation and all that. And then we add new, different problems—problems of rhythm, of playing with four people who all have different concepts of rhythm. You have all these . . . ‘issues!’”
“Issues,” Balakrishnan concurs. “Issues like, how do you make a quartet work well together, when all four of you have different ideas?”
Suddenly, Balakrishnan and Summer grow silent. For a few seconds, they look at each other across the table. Then they both burst into laughter.
“Well,” Balakrishnan begins, “what has occurred over time is that new players will blossom into their roles, and that what they bring with them becomes a big part of the group. That’s not always been easy for me to recognize, because I have very specific ideas. With Mark, let’s face it—the cello is not part of something I understand. So Mark really had an opening to establish how the cello would be featured in this quartet, and he found a way to bring in the rhythm section—on the cello—in a way that I could never have foreseen.
“I think that Turtle Island is part of what brought that out in him. I think Turtle Island is the catalyst that triggered that. And, as a composer, Turtle Island has had the same effect on me. The group has created a place where musicians can come, grow, and really find their voice.”
“With the young guys, it’s the same situation,” Summer suggests.
Though these two 50-something, longtime collaborators seem entirely relaxed and easygoing this afternoon, they are the first to confess that today is an especially high-pressure day. The long-awaited recording of Balakrishnan’s “Tree of Life” suite represents, for the Turtles, a major step in their own musical evolution. Fittingly enough, evolution is exactly what “Tree of Life” is about—Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution.
The piece grew out of a commission from the Association of Performing Arts Presenters, the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation, and the Creative Campus, which works to encourage the crossing of genres and disciplines within the university system, where a tendency to compartmentalize often stifles creativity. The idea behind the Creative Campus is to introduce artists and scientists, in an effort to break through traditional academic and scientific boundaries. Balakrishnan was given a grant to create a collaborative, cross-disciplinary art piece based on Darwin’s game-changing theory. Inspired by the idea of evolution, Balakrishnan set out to write music that would stretch his own abilities as far as possible, stylistically. Presented last year at the Lied Center in Kansas, the finished piece included the efforts of dancers, actors, poets, filmmakers—and the Turtle Island Quartet.
What the Turtles are recording at Skywalker is a four-movement distillation of the original hour-long work. The movements are titled “Aswatha,” an Indian word meaning, appropriately, “Tree of Life”; “Lucy,” named for the famous three-million-year-old human fossil discovered in 1974; “Monkey Business,” named for . . . monkeys; and “Coelacanth,” named for the oldest living species of fish.
“I’m really proud of what David has done with this piece, as a composer,” Summer says. “It utilizes his talents to the fullest, and then it totally demands the best of the rest of us. It totally kicks our butts. These movements are hard, but they’re so intriguing, and beautiful, and just so very well written.”
Employing folk, jazz, African rhythms, Indian, and Latin American musical elements, the piece is a perfect example of Turtle Island’s cross-genre ambitions. If Balakrishnan has accomplished what he set out to accomplish—and this morning’s recording session indicates that he has come awfully close—“Tree of Life” tells its story by weaving together all of those musical styles in a way that somehow transcends all of its elements. What Turtle Island is attempting with this project is to define a new compositional musical language.
“And it’s a language that, so far, only this group can speak,” Balakrishnan adds. “So yeah, I’d say that ‘Tree of Life’ represents a high point, a point of maturity for me and for this group, a group that has spent 25 years developing this way of working.
“Turtle Island is, we hope, a model of how string music will continue to evolve. If groups like us didn’t exist, you would still be looking at string quartets playing only Beethoven and Mozart and all that, or only playing modern classical music, which is great, too. But what about this way of making music that came out of America? Jazz and folk and all this great stuff?
“I would say that’s our place in musical history—we are at the edge of American musical evolution.”
A messenger approaches the table to let the two Turtles know that lunch is over. Time for just one more question. They’ve been talking a bit about the past. So what about the future of the Turtle Island Quartet? What can the world expect from the next 25 years?
Balakrishnan sighs, a long, contented—and slightly weary—sigh.
“The future? Well, we will continue to look for the kind of projects that allow us to do what we do,” he says. “But as much as we have been thinking about the past, with this anniversary upon us, and as much as we do look to the future, we are really just very much in the moment. That’s what makes the music work. We are jazz players. We are improvisers. We live in the moment, and the music happens in that moment.
“Truth is,” he laughs, “we don’t know a darn thing about what’s going to happen next!”
“I do, I know what’s going to happen next,” says Summer, pushing back his chair and standing up, as the afternoon light illuminates the table, making it appear to glow. “What’s going to happen next,” he says, smiling, “is we are going to go back and play our butts off.”