We are the first human beings in history to have so much of man’s culture and previous experience available for our study, and being free enough of the weight of traditional cultures to seek out a larger identity; the first members of a civilized society since the Neolithic to wish to look clearly into the eyes of the wild and see our self-hood, our family, there.
—Gary Snyder “Four Changes” Turtle Island, 1975
Thirty-five years ago, four American string players formed a quartet with the express purpose of melding the wide range of music performed in North America, both past and present. To honor the significant lineage of these musical traditions and the profound relationship between them, the quartet borrowed an “old/new name for the continent, based on many creation myths of the people who have been here for millennia.” “Turtle Island” is the origin story shared by many First Nation people of the Eastern Woodlands, where it is said that the entire continent of North America was built from soil placed on the back of a great Turtle. This myth has inspired a unifying bond between many tribes.
Since its inception, the Turtle Island Quartet has undergone many transformations. Just in the last year, they have begun transitioning from an ensemble that features a hybrid of arranged standards and new repertoire, such as the group’s recent Bird’s Eye View, to an original music ensemble. To commemorate their new identity, the quartet, resident composer and violinist David Balakrishnan with violinist Gabriel Terracciano, violist Benjamin von Gutzeit and cellist Naseem Alatrash, has taken on an ambitious, multi-composer commission. Island Prayers will celebrate the range of influences within the rich cultural spectrum of the continent “Turtle Island.” The group has identified four (4) venerable and accomplished composers with varying life experiences and musical foundations:
1. Six-time GRAMMY®-award winner and double Oscar® Nominee Terence Blanchard is a genre-defining voice with a gargantuan range of work. Unlike any artist before him, Blanchard has graced the very top of every list with fans and critics alike– film scores with Spike Lee, Regina King, George Lucas and Kasi Lemmons; having his operas featured at the Metropolitan Opera, Washington National, Chicago Lyric and Opera Theater of Saint Louis and his jazz projects with legends like Herbie Hancock, Art Blakey and Wayne Shorter– there is no parallel to Terence Oliver Blanchard.
2. MacArthur Genius Fellow, Singer and Banjo player Rhiannon Giddens draws her influence from her education and virtuosity in western classical music and from studying foundational traditions such as the Griot of Mali to inform her raw execution of bluegrass and other American roots music from Tidewater and Appalachia. Giddens is the current artistic director of the Silk Road Ensemble and is penning her first opera through a commission from the Spoleto Festival.
3. New Music USA Composer-in-Residence and Joyce Award Winner Jerod Impichchaachaaha’ Tate is no stranger to composing for major ensembles— Impichchaachaaha has written for San Francisco Symphony and Chorus, ETHEL, National Symphony and Dallas Symphony, just to name a few. Impichchaachaaha is also a citizen of the Chickasaw Nation; their stomp dances implore the shaking of turtle shells among many traditions involving the turtle & Turtle Island.
4. GRAMMY®-award winning Turtle Island Quartet founder, composer in residence and violinist David Balakrishnan has been preparing for this project his entire life. Beginning in his early career when he formed this world-famous quartet to now, Balakrishnan’s eclectic compositions and arrangements have defined an entire genre of chamber music.
Each composer will be creating ten to fifteen minute works for the quartet. This evening-length commission will premiere in Fall of 2022 and will feature the range of styles that this quartet alone is designed to interpret and perform. In addition to the quartet’s unique combination of jazz, American roots and new music, these works will also include some indigenous and folkloric styles that the quartet will be approaching for the first time.