October 07. 2010
Turtle Island Quartet to play music of Hendrix, Coltrane
Turtle Island String Quartet photographed at the Marin Headlands in Marin County, CA April 22, 2010(C)Jay Blakesberg
Turtle Island Quartet will perform today at noon at Penn State Behrend’s McGarvey Commons in the Reed Union Building as part of the Logan Series. It’s free, open to the public, with parking available in Reed Union Building lot. For more about the quartet, visit the website turtleislandquartet.com.
Preview by John Chacona
‘Have You Ever Been …?” asks the title of the new CD by the Turtle Island Quartet. It’s a reference to a lyric from “Are You Experienced,” the first LP by the protean rock guitarist Jimi Hendrix.
The music of Hendrix dominates the CD, which may not surprise you until you consider that the Turtle Island Quartet is not composed of two guitars, bass, and drums, but rather of two violins, viola, and cello. That’s right, it’s the standard lineup of the classical string quartet.
But the Turtles — Mark Summer on cello, Jeremy Kittel on viola, and violinists Mads Tolling and David Balakrishnan — are a classical string quartet neither in name (the word “String” was dropped from the group’s name several years ago) nor in style.
All four players are classically trained, but unlike most concert string players, they all improvise. And the music they play is … well, it challenges the notion of genre to its foundation. Classical music is part of it, but so is jazz. The ensemble’s last CD was 2007’s “A Love Supreme: The Legacy of John Coltrane,” dedicated to the late saxophonist.
Like Coltrane, Hendrix completely redefined what was possible on his instrument during the last few years of the 1960s (Coltrane died in 1967, three years before the guitarist).
But Balakrishnan responds less to their undeniable technical virtuosity than to the intensity of feeling, the almost ecstatic aspiration, central to the work of both men.
As a young man growing up in Southern California, Balakrishnan saw Hendrix twice.
“I was 14, just old enough to convince my mom to let me go to the L.A. Forum by myself,” Balakrishnan told me by phone from Turtle Island’s tour stop in Texas. “It was so exciting on a level of physical ecstasy in the way that you can only be moved by if you are a teenager, and it created such a deep longing to do that. It hurt, in a way.”
The impression didn’t abate with time.
“A couple of years ago, we had a gig at Bethel, N.Y., where Woodstock was held, and we saw a film of Hendrix playing, and all of a sudden, I could see him at 27, and I could sense that there was something coming through him that was genius. He was head and shoulders above everybody — and there were great musicians then.”
The Turtle Island Quartet won Grammy Awards in 2006 and 2008 for best classical crossover album, but “crossover” is not a tern Balakrishnan endorses.
“I see it as a gradual and inevitable widening of the parameters of classical music. If you were alive in the time of Beethoven and you had a conservative aesthetic, you might not have identified what he did as ‘classical music.'”
But musicians as vital and curious as Turtle Island render labels beside the point. And for Balakrishnan, that is the point.
Have you ever been experienced? Well, the Turtle Island Quartet has.