Mar 30, 2011 News
Turtle Island Quartet will showcase its unique musical style to Sac State audience on Wednesday
By Alex Grotewohl
Published: Wednesday, March 30, 2011
The Turtle Island Quartet was born of a vision. Take a traditional classical music genre and blend it with the works of some of the greatest artists of the 20th century. A quarter century of style-bending later, the group will perform at Sacramento State Wednesday night.
Mark Summer, who has played cello for the group since its inception, said no one else on the classical music scene has been able to do what Turtle Island has done. Founder and lead violinist David Balakrishnan set out to assemble musicians who were as familiar with jazz compositions as with the classical string quartet. The result is a mix of sounds some critics have called the future of classical music.
Summer said Turtle Island has more of a group-based style, as opposed to the more individualistic tendency of previous string quartets.
“It is a toe-tapping experience,” he said. “And that is a big difference between a traditional classical and Turtle Island concert.”
The group is currently touring in support of their newest album, a tribute to the work of Jimi Hendrix. Like so much else they do, Summer said, the idea for this newest work came to Balakrishnan as if through divine intervention while touring a museum at the site of the original Woodstock Festival.
“We were watching a film of Jimi (Hendrix) playing at Woodstock, and a light bulb just went off over (Balakrishnan.)”
Summer said the show Wednesday will feature a four-movement suite of Hendrix-inspired music mixed with original work by Balakrishnan. They will also play the jazz material for which they are so well known.
Whatever musical style an audience prefers, Summers insists they will be able to find something they like in Turtle Island.
“That is what we live for – bringing those groups together,” he said.
Alex Grotewohl can be reached at email@example.com
Mar 28, 2011 News
Jay Blakesberg -The Turtle Island Quartet brings its interpretations of Jimi Hendrix tunes to Sacramento State on Wednesday.
Roundup: Turtle Island Quartet at CSUS
Friday, Mar. 25, 2011
The Turtle Island Quartet takes a different approach to the music of Hendrix – the four-piece string quartet approach – when it performs at 7:30 p.m. Wednesday at Sac State.
The classical-jazz fusion trendsetters have a special affinity for Hendrix. The quartet’s latest release, “Have You Ever Been …?,” interprets Hendrix’s rock legacy into the classic string quartet form, opening with a four-song suite and closing with four more tunes (after an original “Tree of Life” interval).
Co-founders David Balakrishnan and Matt Summer have a keen appreciation of the guitarist’s musical prowess. “The whole idea was to showcase Hendrix as a composer,” Summer said in a recent telephone interview from his Marin home. The cello player arranged and performed Hendrix’s “Little Wing,” a highlight of the set.
“What wasn’t hard about it was (the fact that) I play electric guitar, so I knew what he was doing,” Summer said of his task of translating the tune from guitar to cello. “The sounds of an electric guitar are a little bit harsh to me, but I have this beautiful cello that I can play the notes on. When I went to work on ‘Little Wing,’ I was listening to Hendrix and his guitar and his voice and his drums, and I wanted a way to synthesize all that and to make it sound not classical but true to its style.
“The idea is to give the listening ear enough information,” he said. “With enough care and style, you can make it sound really right. It’s an intimate dance to get all the parts together.”
The idea for “Have You Ever Been …?” was violinist Balakrishnan’s and can be traced to two Hendrix concerts he attended as a teenager at the Los Angeles Forum in 1969 and ’70. Within days, he was playing the tunes on his violin.
“David’s more of a hard-rock guy, at least in terms of how he grew up, than I,” Summer said. “I’m more a Beatles, Michael Jackson pop guy.”
Summer taught himself to play drums and guitar but studied piano, then cello. “I kept them very separate,” he said. “Cello was always serious.”
Summer joined Balakrishnan to form the Turtle Island String Quartet in 1985. The original foursome also included violinist Darol Anger and violist Laurie Moore. Its current lineup includes Mads Tolling on violin and Jeremy Kittel on viola. The band officially dropped “String” from its name – in North America – with the 2007 release of “A Love Supreme: The Legacy of John Coltrane.”
“In the United States, a string quartet is sometimes a harder sale,” Summer said. “In Europe, our agent asked if we could keep the ‘String’ in. Our contemporaries – the Emerson Quartet, the Kronos Quartet – even if they had string in their name, they didn’t use it.”
Summer said he expects the group will “pretty much play the entire recording,” which means that in addition to the Hendrix tunes “Have You Ever Been (to Electric Ladyland),” “House Burning Down,” “1983 … a Merman I Should Turn To Be,” “Voodoo Child (Slight Return),” “Gypsy Eyes,” “Hey Joe,” “Little Wing” and “All Along the Watchtower,” the program will include John McLaughlin’s “To Bop or Not To Be” and Balakrishnan’s “Tree of Life,” a suite that integrates classical, soul and Indian music from the composer’s background.
“I’ve come to the place where it’s all just great music to me,” Summer said. “It’s beautiful and interesting and intricate. The complexity of sound that you get when you put four members of the violin family together … it’s … an experience.
“It’s one thing to listen to us, but to watch us, the physicality of what we do, it’s great theater. It’s an elegant, intricate dance.”
Turtle Island Quartet, 7:30 p.m. Wednesday. Capistrano Hall at California State University, Sacramento. $10-$25. (916) 278-4323.
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Mar 25, 2011 News
String quartet tip bows to Hendrix
By Mike Bell, Calgary Herald
March 25, 2011 4:02 AM
Turtle Island Quartet performs Saturday at the Banff Centre.
Classical gets experienced? Hooked on Hendrix?
Both descriptions seem apt but really only scratch the surface when it comes to the current work of Grammy-winning string ensemble, Turtle Island Quartet, who bring their reinterpretations of the songs of Jimi Hendrix to the Banff Centre Saturday.
In fact, Mark Summer, cellist and co-founder of the acclaimed California act, sees performing material such as Hey Joe and Gypsy Eyes in a more classical setting as a fitting tribute to someone whose work and artistry is as timeless as that done by the Bachs and Beethovens of their day.
“It’s kind of like having the best of both worlds -present Jimi Hendrix’s music but give it a real respectful forum, in this context,” says Summer. “And to highlight what a brilliant composer he was, and not just a performer.”
For 25 years now, Turtle Island has been making connections such as that, infusing other elements, such as rock, jazz, pop, blues and country into the sometimes staid and stuffy string quartet format.
Along the way, they’ve earned the praises of the classical world for furthering the music’s cause by broadening the scope and making it more accessible, while not dumbing it down or disrespecting it. It’s something that Summer and the rest of the foursome knows is a fine line to walk.
“We’re painfully aware of how this could become a parlour trick, having a string quartet cover all of the parts of a rhythm section or a rock band or something,” says the musician who was trained at the Cleveland Institute of Music, before serving three years in the Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra. “It’s fun that we figured it out, it’s fun that someone in a sound check can call out a tune that we all know and without an arrangement we can all do it . . .
“But we’re trying to present a program that we’d want to go see and after awhile all of these Turtle Island tricks become tiring if they’re not connected to a larger vision of compositional development . . . and just doing what string quartets do so well -these four voices playing together to create harmonies.”
The Hendrix project, which can also be heard on the group’s latest release Have You Ever Been. . . ?, came from fellow co-founder and violinist David Balakrishnan exposure to the late musician, having seen him perform two shows at the L.A. Forum in 1969 and 1970 -both of which made an lasting and indelible impression.
Perhaps that’s why Balakrishnan threw himself so thoroughly into the project, arranging classic Hendrix tracks -Have You Ever Been (To Electric Ladyland), House Burning Down, 1983. . . (I Merman I Should Turn to Be), and Voodoo Child (Slight Return) -into a four-part suite to open the album. For his part, Summer chose to tackle Little Wing, which he found a somewhat intimidating process.
“When I went to arrange Little Wing I was thinking about Jimi Hendrix as not so much a guitar virtuoso, which he was, but just as this musician who could really reach deep and touch your soul with this music. I was very intimidated to do it, because I think it’s a piece that means a lot to a lot of people,” he says. “So I went in, and I transcribed it and tried to figure out how I could inject my own personal vision of music on the cello into the piece. In fact, I kept going back and forth, and . . . my son, Michael, who’s 22, he heard me play it twice and the second time he said, ‘What happened to all of the cool stuff?’
“I had gone back to the transcription, because I was feeling like, ‘Well, people are going to get upset. I’ve got to really be true to this piece, it’s iconic.’ ”
Summer instead went back to the spirit of the song and the true sense of adventure inherent in Hendrix’s music. It’s that same sense of adventure the string quartet, itself, is quick to embrace, both in the repertoire it chooses, as well as the manner with which they perform it, as live events are even less button-down affairs, with the four members engaging with the audience almost as much as they do their instruments, in an effort to make the music infinitely more accessible. “Our way, the Turtle Island way,” Summer says, “is certainly to be user-friendly and to talk about what we’re doing and why.”
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Mar 13, 2011 Reviews
Toe-tapping jazz, funk and rock ‘n’ roll was not what a couple hundred teenagers expected to hear from a string quartet Friday.
Alyssa Lee, an eighth-grade L.J. Allmean Arts Academy student, expected her class would be listening to classical music on its field trip to see the Turtle Island Quartet at the Acadiana Center for the Arts.
“When I heard them I didn’t know it was strings, because of all the different types of techniques and sounds,” Alyssa, 13, said.
The quartet was made up of a cellist, violist and two violinists who fused classical and contemporary American music styles. It interpreted the sounds of other instruments — drums, bass guitar, guitar and piano — in its performance.
The Turtle Island Quartet is no stranger to Lafayette. The group, which has won two Grammy Awards, made its first appearance in the city at the 1988 Festival International de Louisiane.
“For a string quartet to win anything in the Grammys is great,” cellist Mark Summer said.
Quartet member David Balakrishnan described his violin and bow as beautiful Italian and French craftsmanship.
“Another way to look at this is it is just a hollow wooden box,” he said, looking at the violin then holding up the bow, “and this is just a stick.”
The quartet demonstrated classical music and launched into original arrangements of music by Bob Dylan, Charlie Parker and Jimmy Hendrix. Along the way they stopped to talk to students.
“People have been grooving out on these instruments for a very long time, and what we do is take those techniques and make them contemporary,” violist Jeremy Kittel said.
Students from Alleman, Broussard Middle and Lafayette High schools attended the performance. Some students called it “awesome.”
Coleen Hebert, a 17-year-old Lafayette High student, said the performance would keep her motivated as a violinist. Alleman sixth-grader Blair Williams was clearly enthusiastic.
“That’s the kind of music that I like,” the 12-year-old cellist said. “You can feel the groove.”
The performance for students was the first performance of the day for Turtle Island.
“We were really excited to bring in the kids,” Mary Morgan of Friends of Elmore, LLC, said. She is married to artist Elmore Morgan.
The quartet played a second concert presented by Friends of Elmore on Friday night. The concert benefited The Elmore Morgan, Jr. Visual Arts Endowment.
The Friends of Elmore was founded last year to fund raise for the endowment and increase its visibility, artist Herman Mhire said. Although the endowment has promoted visual arts, Mhire hoped the concert would increase interest. It might be the first of annual concerts.
Mar 4, 2011 Reviews
Unplugging the Hendrix Experience
By ALLAN KOZINN
Published: March 3, 2011
In 1969 David Balakrishnan, then a teenage violin student, attended a Jimi Hendrix concert in Los Angeles that led him to reconsider his approach to his instrument, and to music more broadly. He began learning some of Hendrix’s guitar solos on the violin, and he decided that his repertory should embrace both classical music and pop. As a composer he extended that philosophy to his own music.
Mr. Balakrishnan’s colleagues in the Turtle Island Quartet, founded in 1985, had similar experiences, though not necessarily by way of Hendrix. That explains the group’s quirky approach to programming. Until now it has drawn heavily on jazz; its transcription of the Coltrane classic “A Love Supreme” is one of its biggest successes. But on its latest recording, “Have You Ever Been…?” (on Telarc), the group veered toward rock, with a tribute to Hendrix featuring a handful of string-quartet arrangements of his songs.
Those arrangements were the heart of the quartet’s program at the Leonard Nimoy Thalia at Symphony Space on Wednesday evening. These were not merely note-for-note transcriptions. That would have been impossible, given the importance of Mitch Mitchell’s drumming on the original Jimi Hendrix Experience recordings, to say nothing of the textural complexities created by Hendrix’s wizardly use of feedback and other forms of distortion.
That said, the players came close in “All Along the Watchtower,” a Bob Dylan song that Hendrix made his own. Just about all the details are in place, and much of the original energy is too.
Mostly, though, the Turtle Island versions used Hendrix’s chord progressions, vocal melodies and signature guitar solos (often passed around the full ensemble) as jumping-off points for fantasies that inhabited the common ground between free jazz and classical modernism. And if the quartet wisely abandoned any hope of approximating the Experience’s drum sound, the cellist, Mark Summer, added rhythms of his own through techniques that combined pizzicato, slapping the neck of the cello with his hand, and tapping his foot. And in a freewheeling solo-cello arrangement of “Little Wing,” Mr. Summer had the spotlight to himself.
When these versions worked, they were not only fun but also offered an illuminating glimpse of the music’s possibilities beyond those Hendrix already explored. But often it seemed as if the flesh was willing (the notes were there) but the spirit was weak. In “1983… (A Merman I Should Turn to Be),” the players suggested the ghostly whine of Hendrix’s electronically manipulated original, but the magic remained out of reach.
That was also the case in “Voodoo Child (Slight Return),” though the group’s expansion on “Gypsy Eyes” had an allure of its own. Mr. Balakrishnan should, however, give the other violinist, Mads Tolling, a Hendrix history refresher. Mr. Tolling introduced “Gypsy Eyes” as a song Hendrix wrote for his post-Experience group, Band of Gypsys. Not so. It appeared on “Electric Ladyland,” the album from which most of the group’s Hendrix material was drawn.
The program also included the ensemble’s arrangements of pieces by John McLaughlin and Chick Corea, as well as a Coltrane tribute, “Model Trane,” and three of the four movements from Mr. Balakrishnan’s “Tree of Life,” a rhythmically inventive suite built partly around modal Indian melodies.