The versatile Brooklyn Rider String Quartet is one of a number of chamber groups seeking to take the classical tradition out of its well-worn ruts, give it a fresh perspective, infuse it with the new and emerging, and bring it to new audiences. Its latest endeavor in that regard is something seemingly counter-intuitive: recording Beethoven’s String Quartet in C-sharp minor, Op. 131. This makes Seven Steps, its latest album on In a Circle Records, something truly substantive and free for the most part of the gimmickry and low-quality “crossover” that mires too many contemporary classical recordings. The album also features a collective composition / improvisation by Brooklyn Rider called Seven Steps, as well as Together Into This Unknowable Night, a piece for string quartet and electronics by NYC-based composer Christopher Tignor.
What most fascinated me in the course of my listening was the recorded sound of Brooklyn Rider. The vast majority of modern string recordings have that digitally-polished, steely sound we are perhaps getting too accustomed too. Brooklyn Rider, on the other hand, sounds far more earthy and wooden. Sitting on the couch in front of my stereo, I get the feeling that I am sitting at the back of an old church with Brooklyn Rider at the other end. There’s a slight echo and ring to the sound rather than that studio-designed reverb. There is a deep resonance to Eric Jacobsen’s cello that I have not heard on any other string quartet recording. Each instrument in the quartet seems to resonate off of each other, heightening the impact of individual voices and ensemble blend at the same time. There is something a bit older and even antique to this sound that I found myself appreciating more and more with each listening. Seven Steps is also available on vinyl, which I’d venture to guess would even better bring out the warmth of its sound.
Now to the music itself: Seven Steps, Brooklyn Rider’s original work, I believe is the kind of thing contemporary ensembles need far more of. Described as “half-sketched, half-composed,” this piece moves through a series of ostinatos, some with melodies over top and some without out, with sound explorations sandwiched in between. Brooklyn Rider draws in elements from its experience in world music (particularly invoking Middle Eastern styles), minimalism, and the latest string techniques. It does so in the way any good rock band would: with collaboration at the core. Rhythm becomes the most basic element, and it is especially at moments of infectious grooves and bursting punctuations that the music is most enticing. I was particularly enthralled with the vaguely Middle Eastern-style melody at the beginning over a thumping plucked bassline in the cello and the austere motive in the cello that came after an exploration of vertical dissonances. The scratches and sonic clouds during the more “free” moments of the piece were interesting and never went on too long to become over-indulgent, and Brooklyn Rider’s collective prowess created structure within improvisation. My only criticisms are that I could use more in the way of developed melodies, and the more “composed” material could have been developed further or become the backdrop for improvisation. I hope to hear more experiments like this from Brooklyn Rider, and I hope other ensembles take a cue from this example.
Together Into This Unknowable Night presents an array of sound clouds that sit there while electronic effects jump in with percussive, rhythmic effects. Particularly with the resonance of Brooklyn Rider’s playing and recording process, these sound clouds have something of a modern-day Bruckner quality. The effect of one member of the ensemble stepping out with a two or three note melodic motive is all the more meaningful against this backdrop. As the piece moves on, hazy AM radio sounds are introduced and a somewhat typical minimalist-style groove goes into effect. Though the sounds Tignor draws out of the quartet at the beginning of this piece are intriguing and beautiful, the composition is a bit lacking in memorable substance. The electronics seem devoid of artistic purpose, and while the percussive effects they create at the beginning of the piece are a nice addition, I would have preferred actual percussion instruments to a computer.
Which brings me to the heart of this recording: Beethoven. Too often in the quest to make classical music more “accessible,” the approach is to ask “how is this relevant to today?,” and the result is to water down the art. Op. 131 remains infectious because the world today is still relevant to Beethoven, even if most people don’t know it. (Does that sound elitist? I hope so.) The quality of late Beethoven resides in its emotional search through life that draws out the depths of sadness, exuberance, and strivings in its music: something that is universal no matter what the era. Conservatory technique, while of course necessary, can ever quite capture this raw quality, and ultimately performers must make their own connections with the music.
Brooklyn Rider brings their own sound, influences, and interpretation to Op. 131, and the result is strikingly different than any other recording I’ve heard. The resonance the quartet achieves is particularly powerful at times, especially in those great cello moments, and the earthy tone quality of the quartet somehow seems more connected to the past. Brooklyn Rider brings a bit of minimalist style to its interpretation, with far less vibrato and a more even shape to melodic lines. For my tastes, I like my Beethoven full of contrast and with every motive dripping with emotion. That’s not to say Brooklyn Rider’s interpretation is lacking in emotion; just that it’s a bit more sparing and subdued. Regardless of my personal tastes, I’m glad to see a quartet unafraid to offer their own unique rendition of Op. 131, especially given the existence of too many recordings nowadays that are technically flawless but emotionally lacking. As such, Brooklyn Rider’s Seven Steps succeeds in adding something new and thought-provoking to the plethora of string quartet recordings, and their collective cohesion and interpretive boldness are not to be missed.