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Interview: Brooklyn Rider

Michael Nicolas, cellist of string quartet Brooklyn Rider, spoke with us about the quartet's concert at Oregon Bach Festival and the exceptional commissions on their Healing Modes project due for release later this year.

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What are you looking forward to with your program at the Oregon Bach Festival? 

We are really excited to be coming to Eugene, and to celebrate the great master, the one who started it all. Unfortunately we’re not playing any Bach on our program, but you can’t play a classical music program without the shadow of Bach looming over it.

Where did the idea for Healing Modes come from? Did it start with the “Heiliger Dankgesang” of Beethoven’s Op. 132?

This was a dream quartet piece that we have always wanted to tackle for many years now and were just looking for the right vehicle. We do not like to play in a vacuum; we like to make as many connections as we can. So we came up with this idea of healing in music, based around of course that 3rd movement, the Heiliger Dankgesang. Beethoven wrote it after a bout with illness and there is a section in it called “with new force.” To us it’s a depiction of a return to strength after recovering from an illness, but we also think in Beethoven’s case it’s not only just a physical manifestation of his return to strength but also a return of his creative powers, which resulted in a very fertile, creative time for Beethoven near the end of his life. 

So we thought, either metaphorically or physically in the real world, what does healing mean in music? The fact that Beethoven chose to write the Heiliger Dankgesang in the Greek Lydian ancient church mode, there’s a connection back to very old times. They say that the Lydian mode has certain healing properties in it as well. We ran with this idea. We wanted to not just play old music but to bring it into the present day, which is what we like to do with all of our programs. So we thought, there are five movements in the Beethoven quartet, let’s commission five composers to write short pieces on the idea of healing. And so we did, and we didn’t give them much more of a prompt than that. We didn’t say they had to reference something in the Beethoven or anything like that. If they wanted to of course they could, but it was just thoughts, ruminations, and reflections on the idea of healing in music. And so we got five very diverse, very different reflections, or confrontations which range from the deeply personal to more societal, to philosophical.

You are currently recording these pieces. Can you tell us the planned release date and which composers were commissioned?

We are looking at a fall release, maybe September or October. The five composers are Caroline Shaw, Gabriela Lena Frank, Reena Esmail, Du Yun, and Matana Roberts. 

Is there a significance in having an all-female composer roster?

There were composers that seemed right for this project and a couple composers that we had never worked with before but wanted to, so those names were put forward and we realized they happen to be all female but we didn’t set out intentionally to find five female composers, it was just during our brainstorming sessions these names kept coming up. We’ve had relationships with Caroline Shaw and Gabriela Lena Frank, and I went to school with Reena back in the day. Du Yun is actually a close colleague of mine because we both are members of another contemporary music ensemble, so there are personal relationships there. With Matana we were listening to her albums and going “this is just amazing, it would be so cool to work with her,” so we asked her as fans. 

Tell us a bit about each commissioned piece.

Caroline Shaw’s piece is called Schisma, it was actually the first piece we received. We have worked with her extensively and played many of her quartets, so we knew she’d be a great known quantity very early on. She thought first about Beethoven, using him as a starting point. She described the structure of the 3rd movement in that there are three chorales with two interspersed “new strength” sections, which she described as a sort of “nest-like structure.” She has program notes on it that are way more eloquent than I’m going to put it, but to me it’s mind-blowing how many connections are made. The Lydian mode is of course an ancient Greek mode, "schisma" is an ancient Greek concept for a nest and safe-haven where you can heal, away from the greater ailments of the world. She references the Syrian refugee crisis, where a lot of migrants are finding refuge in the Greek isles, so there’s that societal dimension to it as well. It’s a beautiful, poetic piece.

Gabriela Lena Frank’s piece is called Kanto Kechua #2. This was more of a personal reflection on healing. A few years back she was diagnosed with an autoimmune disorder and paradoxically it didn’t result in any sort of creative slump but actually the opposite. She wrote a book, she wrote a lot of poetry, she went out in nature, and it was a time of creative fertility for her. When we presented this idea of healing in music she thought back to that time in her life and took some fragments and melodies that she had composed, revisited them and came up with this piece, which is why it is a sequel. It’s very dance-like in nature, and in fact it was premiered at the Vail International Dance Festival with choreography by Claudia Schreier and two dancers from Ballet Hispanico. We liken it to the 2nd movement which is the dance movement of the Beethoven. We didn’t set out this way, but once we got all five of the pieces we thought, do they correspond to different movements of the Beethoven in some way? If they do, Gabriela’s piece would be the dance movement. 

Reena Esmail’s piece is called Zeher, which is Sanskrit for poison. This is also a personal reflection on healing from an illness she had where she did experience writers block and an existential crisis, and she had to push through it in order to heal herself. There is a very clear narrative structure with conflict going on between instruments and then it ends with an epilogue of calm and the poison leaving the body. Very, very beautiful piece. Reena is a very accomplished classical composer but she’s also a very accomplished Hindustani singer. She incorporated a lot of ragas and Hindustani melodies in this piece that are very difficult to notate, so when she delivered the piece she also delivered an audio file of her singing the melodies, in order to convey how to make it sound. That’s part of the reason we love working with living composers, it would be amazing to be able to talk to Beethoven and get an oral account of how he wants his pieces to go. There’s a famous marking, not just in the Heiliger Dankgesang but also in the Op. 130 Cavatina and the Op. 110 Piano Sonata, this strange marking of tied notes but it’s the same note, there’s no reason for them to be tied. It could just be a half-note but it’s a quarter note tied to two eighth notes. Why did he do that? It’s perplexed chamber musicians probably since Beethoven’s death. To be able to just ask him, “what does this mean, what does it sound like? Are you supposed to rearticulate?”

Is it just a mistake?

[Jokingly] Beethoven does not make mistakes! But no it’s very clear in his manuscript, that is what he wrote so it is something that is different, so for the question of how to bring that out it would be amazing to be able to talk to him. With living composers we can record audio files and send those along or go back and forth.

With Matana for example we had a Skype session. She was in Europe and we were in a rehearsal studio with a screen set up, and we worked through her piece like that. Her piece is notated with non-traditional notation, it’s a graphic score. It’s actually quite beautiful to look at, it’s almost a piece of visual art that definitely conveys its sonic power. Her piece is maybe the most confrontational in terms of what healing is in music. She is dealing with a societal ailment, specifically the U.S.-Mexico border crisis. And her piece is embedded with a lot of codes and games. Because it’s a graphic score and largely improvised, there’s a different route we can take through the piece each time. It involves some randomness, there is dice rolling for each of us in order to generate musical chance. It is a different piece each time we perform it, but it is always a powerful journey. Within the score the generative material has a little bit of Beethoven in her note choices, which is interesting. But also there are numbers and dates that correspond with historical conflicts between the U.S. and Mexico, and there are words that are intoned, verbalizations that create a sort of sound-tapestry alongside the playing that we do. We hum a little bit and there are a lot of extended techniques as well. It’s a very powerful piece when done live, and people always react very strongly to it.

The last piece is by Du Yun, called i am my own achilles heel, a form that will never shape. She’s dealing with both personal and societal issues. She’s a native of China and she feels in China the topic of mental illness is sort of a social taboo. She wants to confront that with this piece. She specifically references a syndrome called “Alice in Wonderland Syndrome,” which is a neurological disease where your perception of reality is warped. For example if you look at parts of your body they might appear to be really large or small. Or you might see something moving where it’s really not. The way Johnny describes it is, “you’re on mushrooms.” So that sort of informs the sound world that we delve into in her piece, it’s very trippy. There are also a lot of Asian elements in it, for example, the Mongolian horsehead fiddle, there are certain sections where we try to emulate that unique sound. There are also some extended techniques, very atmospheric. This is one of the pieces that I love playing each time we play it, it’s a real journey into Wonderland.

You joined the quartet in 2016. What was it like for you to step into an already renowned group and how did that connection come about?

I’d been living in New York and playing a lot in New York. I didn’t know everyone in the group before but I had performed with Nick Cords, the violist, at a music festival a few years back. And we all know each other from the New York music scene. Colin Jacobsen and I overlapped at Juilliard. I think what put me on their radar was that we were all playing the same types of music, playing with the same people, and our musical philosophies were aligned. So it was a natural, “let’s ask Michael if he wants to start reading with us.” It’s a slow process, but you read together, you play some music together, and then you decide if it’s a good fit. It’s a very informal audition, it’s not like they said “calling all cellists, send in your resume and application form.” It’s been a great ride since then. They’re amazing, sensitive and probing musicians. Not only is it fun to go on tour with them but they’re also great human beings and very nice, which is almost just as important as being like-minded musically. I can’t believe it’s already been three years.

Brooklyn Rider is known for being genre-defying which is really great part of your intensity. Why do you think this is important? Why do you approach working this way?

I think we leave making a value judgment to other people. We like what we like and we seek greatness wherever we can find it. If you try to box yourself in that’s already placing a limitation on yourself, and I think we’re looking for the opposite: more freedom and more expression and more connections. It’s not just a philosophy, it’s also mercenary. We get better by playing with other musicians in other genres and other styles. When we play a genre that’s not traditional classical music or contemporary classical music, we always make sure that we’re with a guide from that tradition. We’re trying not to engage in cultural tourism, we really want to make a connection, and the people that we work with are usually also trying to stretch their genres into a different direction as well. We’re not actually in each other’s spheres, but we’re both stretching into a separate sphere, hopefully creating something totally brand new or at least a different perspective that hasn’t been heard before.

What’s next for the quartet? How far ahead do you plan, do you know what you’ll be doing this time next year?

Next season we’ll be touring [Healing Modes] with the recording. We’ve already planted seeds for future projects but we also have a project from last year that’s continuing, one of our collaborations with a guide exploring the Latin American songbook. We released an album last September called “Dreamers” with Magos Herrera, the Mexican singer. It features songs from Spain and Latin America between the 30s and 70s, from totalitarian regimes. Our thesis is that even in the face of oppression and stifling of creative energy, actually creativity does shine through and beauty transcends all. 

I love that album, it’s brilliant.

Thank you. We’ll be touring that a little next year. Also we engage in educational initiatives. We do residencies at different colleges and universities and work with students in mentorship programs or masterclass settings. That is a big part of our careers. There are other future projects that I can’t say quite yet because they haven’t been announced, just exploratory committees, coming up with possible repertoire and approaching composers with commissioning ideas and hopes.

And what about for you personally, how do you balance your own career with the quartet? Do you have to sometimes sacrifice one for the other?

Well like I said, when we do collaborations with other musicians it makes us better, so it’s the same thing when we go off and do our own individual projects. We take what we learned there and bring that back. We’re not just influencing each other but we’re bringing in outside influences into our group when we get back together. We all have very diverse careers. Colin is a composer and the co-artistic director of an orchestra called The Knights. Nick is a full-time professor at New England Conservatory and co-artistic director of the Silk Road Ensemble. Johnny and Colin also play in that. And Johnny runs a record label (In A Circle) and is active as a producer. Myself, I play in a contemporary music group called ICE, International Contemporary Ensemble. I also work a lot with improv musicians in downtown New York with John Zorn and his circle of musicians as well.

I think we’ve always wanted this freedom to not have Brooklyn Rider be a full-time quartet, although we do designate times of the year where it’s going to be quartet-time.

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