by Emily Cary
When the Turtle Island Quartet plays, all the preconceived notions about string instruments are abolished and listeners are transported to an uncharted dimension.
Two years after a jaw-dropping concert illustrating their “string theory,” the virtuoso musicians return to George Mason University Center for the Arts with original pieces inspired by jazz musicians and even a scientist.
Their guests, the outstanding jazz pianist Cyrus Chestnut and Mike Marshall, the world-renowned player of mandolin, guitar and violin, will join them in arrangements of holiday favorites incorporating jazz improvisation with classical styles and an infusion of bluegrass, funk, Latin American and classical Indian music.
Winner of the 2006 and 2008 Grammy Awards for best classical crossover album, the quartet is composed of founding members violinist David Balakrishnan and cellist Mark Summer and alternative string whiz kids, the remarkable Danish jazz violinist Mads Tolling and their latest member, violist Jeremy Kittel, the U.S. National Scottish fiddle champion.
IF YOU GO
The Turtle Island Quartet, with guests Cyrus Chestnut and Mike Marshall
» Where: George Mason University Center for the Arts
» When: 8 p.m. Saturday
» Info: $22 to $44; 888-945-2468 cfa.gmu.edu
Each member is a breathtaking solo artist as evidenced by prolonged standing ovations at their concert in Phoenix last week. Their own solos within a number are so deftly improvised that the entire composition is seamless. The quartet’s deep repertoire means that each concert is unique, its selections announced by the personable members as the spirit dictates.
Twenty-five years after Balakrishnan and Summer began raising eyebrows and gathering fans with their musical audacity, they have opened the door to young string players everywhere who are eager to dig into the deep recesses of creativity to discover what most teachers cannot convey. The quartet’s latest album continues their mission to vault traditional boundaries and break new ground. “Have You Ever Been …?” is a salute to Jimi Hendrix’s “Electric Ladyland” paired with Balakrishnan’s bow to Darwin’s theory of evolution.
“Jimi Hendrix’s ‘Electric Ladyland’ is like holy music to me,” Balakrishnan said. “I sat with it for days until I started hearing that he composed like me, layering over dubbings like you’d write for a string quartet. I chose a suite of four pieces from the work that have specific meaning to me. As a kid playing the violin, I kept thinking we were a million miles away.”
To move even further beyond the norm, Balakrishnan undertook a commission from the Lied Center of Kansas City to acknowledge the 150th anniversary of “The Origin of the Species” and the 200th anniversary of the birth of its author, Charles Darwin. The “Tree of Life” project addressed the scientific, political and cultural aspects of the theory of evolution through music, dance, video and spoken word components. It nudged boundaries all the more because it was performed at Kansas University in a state where controversy about evolution continues to prevail.
Balakrishnan named the first of the four movements “Ashwattha” after the Indian Tree of life and the second, “Lucy,” for the second oldest human found. The third movement, “Monkey Business,” is followed by “Coelacanth,” inspired by the world’s oldest fish discovered during the past century. He depicted them through Indian classical music, Eastern European folk music, blues, jazz, bluegrass, swing, bebop, Afro-Cuban and funk.
Everything the quartet plays uses unique techniques each member has developed. Summer switches his cello into a string bass with the tap of a foot pedal. It is often the rhythm section with a drum sound made by striking with his hands or a walking bass sound with flat fingers. Tolling gives a backbeat on his violin using the bow as a stick, while Kittel employs his shuffle bow to provide a grid of rhythm as heard in Celtic and Appalachian styles to make a groove and a rhythmic bounce.
“Jeremy came along at a time when the doors we beat down were wide open,” Balakrishnan said. “The alternate string style is a new thing that Marc O’Connor and others made possible in fiddle camps to reach the youngsters coming up. Consequently, there’s a cohesion in everything we do that comes from deep inside.”