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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