David Balakrishnan | Mark Summer | Mateusz Smoczynski | Benjamin von Gutzeit


“It must have been like this when Beethoven was taking Vienna by  storm – the exhilaration of seeing the future of classical music unfold before your eyes and ears.”

– St. Louis Post-Dispatch

Its name derived from creation mythology found in Native American Folklore, the Turtle Island Quartet, since its inception in 1985, has been a singular force in the creation of bold, new trends in chamber music for strings. Winner of the 2006 and most recently, the 2008 Grammy Award for Best Classical Crossover Album, Turtle Island fuses the classical quartet esthetic with contemporary American musical styles, and by devising a performance practice that honors both, the state of the art has inevitably been redefined. Cellist nonpareil Yo-Yo Ma has proclaimed TIQ to be “a unified voice that truly breaks new ground – authentic and passionate – a reflection of some of the most creative music-making today.”

The Quartet’s birth was the result of violinist David Balakrishnan’s brainstorming explorations and compositional vision while completing his master’s degree program at Antioch University West. The journey has taken Turtle Island through forays into folk, bluegrass, swing, be-bop, funk, R&B, new age, rock, hip-hop, as well as music of Latin America and India …a repertoire consisting of hundreds of ingenious arrangements and originals. It has included over a dozen recordings on labels such as Windham Hill, Chandos, Koch and Telarc, soundtracks for major motion pictures, TV and radio credits such as the Today Show, All Things Considered, Prairie Home Companion, and Morning Edition, feature articles in People and Newsweek magazines, and collaborations with famed artists such as clarinetist Paquito D’Rivera, vibraphonist Stefon Harris, guitar legends such as Leo Kottke and the Assad brothers, The Manhattan Transfer, pianists Billy Taylor, Kenny Barron and Ramsey Lewis, the Ying Quartet and the Parsons Dance Company.

Another unique element of Turtle Island is their revival of venerable improvisational and compositional chamber traditions that have not been explored by string players for nearly 200 years. At the time of Haydn’s apocryphal creation of the string quartet form, musicians were more akin to today’s saxophonists and keyboard masters of the jazz and pop world, i.e., improvisers, composers, and arrangers. Each Turtle Island member is accomplished in these areas of expertise as well as having extensive conservatory training as instrumentalists.

One result of this dedication can be seen in Turtle Island’s phenomenal international appeal, particularly in Europe where chamber music remains a vital facet of life. What was once termed ‘alternative’ chamber music now firmly inhabits the mainstream. Turtle Island members refine their skills through the development of repertory by some of today’s cutting edge composers, through performances and recordings with major symphonic ensembles, and through a determined educational commitment. Turtle Island Quartet promises to be the string quartet for the next century.


David Balakrishnan, violin
David Balakrishnan (violin, baritone violin) graduated from UCLA with a B.A. in music composition and violin and earned a masters degree in music composition at Antioch University West.

The Turtle Island founder developed a revolutionary compositional style – based on the principle of stylistic integration applied to bowed string instruments – that has earned him two Grammy nominations (in the instrumental arrangement category, for his string quartet adaptations of Dizzy Gillespie’s “A Night In Tunisa,” and the jazz ballad “You’ve Changed,” featuring clarinetist Paquito D’Rivera) as well as numerous composing grants, both from private sources such as conductor Marin Alsop, who commissioned his piece for violin and orchestra, “Little Mouse Jumps,” as well as national service organizations such as the National Endowment for the Arts and Meet The Composer foundations. In 2005 he received a MTC/ASOL “Music Alive” three year extended residency with the Nashville Chamber Orchestra, for which he is composing six orchestral works.

The NCO also commissioned Balakrishnan’s composition “Darkness Dreaming,” which premiered in April 2004 with guitarists Sharon Isbin and John Jorgenson.  His piece, “Spider Dreams” (1992), has been widely performed and recorded throughout the world by a diverse array of musical organizations, including a live recording by Turtle Island with the Detroit Symphony conducted by Neeme Järvi on Chandos Records.

A 2002 commission awarded by a consortium of presenters headed by the Lied Center of Kansas City resulted in a string octet entitled “Mara’s Garden Of False Delights,” which is featured on Turtle Island’s Grammy winning Telarc release, “4+Four.” His most recent commission is again from the Lied Center, who received a Creative Campus grant from the Duke foundation, for which Balakrishnan is composing a full length work involving theatre, dance, poetry, video, and Turtle Island with the KU wind ensemble that is an artistic response to the social issues concerning the various theories of evolution, both scientific and cultural, entitled “The Tree Of Life.”


Mark Summer, cello
Mark Summer (cello) is a founding member of Turtle Island and is widely regarded, thanks not least to his phenomenal percussion and pizzicato techniques, as one of the outstanding cellists of our time.

A graduate of the Cleveland Institute of Music, and a recipient of their 2007 DIstinguished Alumnae award, Summer was a tenured member of the Winnipeg Symphony for three years, before leaving the orchestra to perform in several Canadian contemporary and Baroque ensembles, as well as his own group, The West-End String Band. Asked to perform at the Winnipeg Folk Festival in 1985, the group went on to record Summer’s original music for CBC Radio. That same year, Summer visited the Bay Area where he was invited by David Balakrishnan to help form the quartet.

He continued to touch base with his classical roots, performing with the Chamber Symphony of San Francisco, the Oakland Symphony, Oakland Ballet, and the contemporary music ensemble, Earplay. In the 23 years since embarking on an improvisational musical odyssey, Summer has continued to develop a unique and multi-timbered style, which incorporates virtuoso jazz soloing, distinctive bass lines, and extensive percussive techniques adapted from the guitar, bass and drums.

He has been the subject of feature articles in Strings and Bass Player magazines, and has published two pieces for solo cello, one of which, “Julie-O,” has been performed by cellists all over the world.  In addition to composing and performing with Turtle Island, Summer performed for several years

in a trio with clarinet virtuoso Paquito D’Rivera, participating in the trio’s 2005 Grammy-nominated recording The Jazz Chamber Trio. He has been recorded for numerous motion picture soundtracks and performed and appeared on albums with singers Linda Ronstadt, Toni Childs, guitarist Jeff Tamelier of Tower of Power, saxophonist Kirk Whalum, and guitarist Will Ackerman.  His more notable cello exploits include performing the Brahms Clarinet Trio in a sandstone grotto by the banks of the Colorado River in Moab, Utah, and a performance on Taos Mountain at 11,000 feet on a cello made of ice.


Mateusz Smoczynki, violin

Mateusz Smoczynski is a graduate of the Frederic Chopin Academy of Music in Warsaw, Poland. A student of Andrzej Gebski, he made his jazz debut in 1999 in Jazz Camping Kalatowki with the Jacek Namyslowski Quintet. Mateusz has collaborated with such renowned Polish musicians as Urszula Dudziak, Tomasz Stanko, Krzesimir Debski, Zbigniew Namyslowski and Jaroslaw Smietana. Together with Joachim Kuhn, Janusz Stefanski and Bronislaw Suchanek, he took part in the premiere of legendary jazz violinist Zbigniew Seifert’s Jazz Concerto for Violin, Symphony Orchestra and Rhythm section. Mateusz leads his own quintet with which he recorded his first CD “Inspirations”, dedicated to his two biggest music influences, John Coltrane and Zbigniew Seifert. After the success of his first album in 2007, Mateusz received the Minister of Culture and National Heritage Scholarship, and in June 2008 was awarded “Jazz Oscar” in the category “Music Lovers’ Hope of 2007″. In 2008, his second recording “Expressions” was released to popular acclaim. In 2009, Mateusz formed a band with his brother Jan on Hammond organ and the Russian drum star Alexander Zinger called “New Trio”. In 2010 they released their first CD “Simultaneous Abstractions” which was nominated for “Best Recording Debut of the Year” for a Fryderyki award (“the Polish Grammy”). That same year Mateusz co-founded the Atom String Quartet, the very first Polish jazz string quartet. They have recorded two CDs, “Fade In” and “Places”, and received first prize for the “Bielska Zadymka Jazzowa” Competition, the most important jazz competition in Poland. The Atom Quartet was also nominated in 2012 for a Fryderyki award. In 2011, Mateusz had the opportunity to play with pianist Richie Beirach, trumpeter Ack van Rooyen, bassist Glen Moore, and drummer Janusz Stefanski, performing at the “Zbigniew Seifert in Memoriam-Berlin” Festival.


Benjamin von Gutzeit, viola

Benjamin von Gutzeit (viola) was born into a musical family. One of his sisters recently became the principal cellist of the Berlin Radio Symphony Orchestra, and his father is the director of the Mozarteum in Salzburg, Austria. He began playing the viola at the age of 4, beginning on a very small violin that was outfitted with viola strings. Taught by his father until he turned 12, he then studied with Emile Cantor, the viola player of the Orpheus String Quartet. In 1992 and 1994 he won first prize in the final of the German youth Competition Jugend Musiziert; the 1994 win led to a concert tour in Japan performing in a string quartet at the age of 12. When he turned 15, he developed an interest in popular music as well and started to play the electric bass in jazz bands. In 1997, he studied for one year as a student at the Bruckner Conservatory in Linz. While attending the Gymnasium in Austria, In 2001 he began his jazz studies with Jazz violinist Andi Schreiber from Vienna, later moving to the Netherlands in 2004 to study jazz at the Conservatory of Amsterdam with Dutch saxophone icon Ferdinand Povel and guitarist Jesse van Ruller. While living in Holland, he took an active part in the Dutch jazz and improvised music scene and performed on numerous festivals such as the famed North Sea Jazz Festival. In 2010 he was awarded a full scholarship to attend the Manhattan School of Music, where he has pursued his Masters degree until the present. He has worked with teachers Phil Markowitz, Garry Dial and John Riley. Benjamin has performed and recorded with many great musicians including jazz violinist Mark Feldman, electronic music virtuoso Matthew Herbert, cellist Ernst Reijseger, composer and bandleader Martin Fondse and jazz saxophonist Dave Liebman.


Last updated – June 6, 2012