Turning the Prism: A Review and Interview with the Danish String Quartet

Since making their ECM New Series debut with a program of works by Thomas Adès, Per Nørgård, and Hans Abrahamsen, the young musicians known collectively as the Danish String Quartet have secured a most suitable recording home in the label’s ever-growing annals. Having explored unfamiliar territory as intimately as breathing, they now approach familiar repertoire as distantly as foreign travel. This is, perhaps, something of the meaning behind their PRISM series, which pairs Ludwig van Beethoven’s late quartets with music of Johann Sebastian Bach and, between them, a modern work that ties the two together. When I caught up with the quartet via email, violist Asbjørn Nørgaard had the following to say about the title of this personal traversal:

“Just as a prism breaks light into different colors, we pass a linear beam of light from Bach to Beethoven. The original beam—in this case, Bach—already contains all the colors and directions of the future. In our interpretation, the late Beethoven quartets, typically considered a point of arrival, function as a prism, a pathway into something else. This puts all of the music into a very unusual perspective: Bach is the oldest, but already contains the future. Beethoven isn’t the end of a road. And the modern pieces are created from the oldest mold imaginable.”

I asked Nørgaard to expand on how Beethoven and Bach came to be the frame around these roving images:

“A while ago we found ourselves slightly bored with much of the classical programming (including our own). Too much randomness, too little connection. If art museums were curated like classical concerts used to be, no one would bother going. Then back in 2012 we had a collective ‘aha’ moment when Simon Rattle and the Berlin Philharmonic performed in Copenhagen. They started out with Ligeti’s Atmosphères and continued with Wagner’s Prelude to Lohengrin. By connecting these masterworks, he created a completely new framing but with elegance and highest respect. A small trick, but a brilliant way to serve this great old wine in a beautiful new glass. This idea made it into our five-album PRISM project. The specific connection to Bach came after reading Beethoven: The Music and the Life, in which Lewis Lockwood shows a connection between Bach’s The Well-Tempered Clavier late Beethoven.”

Such tandem dynamics of parallelism and interweaving, of distance and proximity, are particularly evident in the first of the series.

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PRISM I (ECM New Series 2561)

Rune Tonsgaard Sørensen violin
Frederik Øland violin
Asbjørn Nørgaard viola
Fredrik Schøyen Sjölin violoncello
Recorded November 2016, Reitstadel Neumarkt
Engineer: Markus Heiland
Produced by Manfred Eicher
Release date: September 21, 2018

Bach’s Fugue in E-flat major from Book II of The Well-Tempered Clavier, as arranged by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, is the opening bookend of this installment, and by suggestion of its resonance sets the parameters, pours the concrete, and delineates the land for purposes of construction. And what a mighty structure we find built on this foundation in the String Quartet No. 15 in E-flat minor of Dmitri Shostakovich. A haunting piece in six movements, its opening Elegy, at 13 minutes in length, takes clear inspiration from Beethoven, and with it starts on a journey through some of mortality’s darkest channels, as Shostakovich crafts the quartet’s existence as a body of organs.

The Serenade that follows has rarely sounded so tactile, and finds itself rendered as a dance of understated capture. The DSQ seems to feel so much about what Shostakovich meant to convey, and by that communication flips details inside out. The sonorities of the Nocturne are of especially brilliant subtlety. Muted strings unmute the soul. After a harrowing Funeral March, they conclude with a dynamic Epilogue, whispering a farewell in E-flat minor before its major counterpart is leaked by Beethoven’s String Quartet No. 12 in E-flat major.

In his liner note for the album, Nørgaard describes their first encounter with the late string quartets of Ludwig van Beethoven as a humbling experience. What they first approached with academic flair they quickly found to be brimming with possibility and meaning. To them, Beethoven’s Opus 127 in particular felt “as if it had fallen down from outer space onto our music stands, disconnected from music history and tradition.” It begins with huge swaths of chord fabric, unfurled before instruments sharp as a blade yet not seeking to cut. It renders introverted textures in an extroverted language. The lengthy Adagio is its centerpiece, a 16-minute chain of hymnal variations for which the quartet plays, put so precisely by Paul Griffiths in his booklet essay, as “four hearts differently beating, but at the same rate.” A pall of shadows and softest light given fresh nutrients by this performance. The following Scherzo flies off the bows of the quartet with especial providence, while the Finale speaks in a similar language of planes and caesuras, achieving transcendence in the final stretch.

“When you spend so much time with a certain repertoire, you naturally end up having a very intimate relationship with it. On top of that I think we all enjoy digging into the music we play and finding all the little details that are just below the surface. We are just the lucky vessels that get to convey fantastic music. If you pick the good things out there, you don’t need to push all kinds of intent into it. It’s fine on its own as long as you do it justice in the way you play it. That being said, we never intentionally try to play in a very ‘intimate’ way. Maybe what sounds ‘intimate’ is actually our respect for the music.”

I wonder, then, how he might distinguish this album from their first two programs and, similarly, what binds it:

“Our two initial albums on ECM were ‘standalones.’ Everything is connected in the PRISM series, however. It’s a wonderful feeling doing projects like this. It teaches you so much as a musician. We tend to think that masterpieces are ‘otherworldly’ when in fact they were the result of a bunch of human beings inspiring and learning from each other. Like us. They were just exceptionally good at it! What stays the same is the stable ECM sound that we have come to expect. We truly enjoy working with people who are so passionate about what they do. It clearly reflects in the top-notch albums that come out of ECM and inspires us to do better.”

Listeners can be assured of placing this and the second volume squarely within that top-notch category.

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PRISM II (ECM New Series 2562)

Rune Tonsgaard Sørensen violin
Frederik Øland violin
Asbjørn Nørgaard viola
Fredrik Schøyen Sjölin violoncello
Recorded May 2017, Reitstadel Neumarkt
Engineer: Markus Heiland
Produced by Manfred Eicher
Release date: September 13, 2019

Bach’s Fugue in B minor from Book I of The Well-Tempered Clavier, in an arrangement by Emanuel Aloys Förster, thus ushers us into the project’s continuation in the manner of an old friend, welcoming with an open door and an open heart. Moving with tenderness and spiritual comportment, it touches a window of reflection into unknown futures, tracing patterns of suspension and transcendence.

Following this is Alfred Schnittke’s String Quartet No. 3, a 1983 composition in which ghosts of antiquity are astir. The opening Andante’s sirens move with grace and finality, even as they activate seeds that will one day grow into life. The contrast between stretches of quietude and heaves of mourning are transfixing. The middle movement’s self-refractive allusions are brilliantly examined, rendering Shostakovich-leaning textures and palpable flavors. The final movement, marked Pesante, returns to that keening quality of the first, treating every sonorous shift as a veil to be dyed and worn as a screen through which to view a monochromatic world. It ends off-center, waiting for something to speak. For me, the Kronos Quartet’s version of this harrowing masterwork on Winter Was Hard has long been my reference recording of choice, and I can say with heartfelt assurance that its throne must now be rebuilt for two.

In light of this darkness, Beethoven’s epical String Quartet No. 13 in B-flat major turns night into dawn. The opening stretch of landscape resolves into a jagged dance of joy. Its adjoining Presto even injects a bit of humor into the proceedings.

The three subsequent movements are like paintings in sound, each portraying the same scene from a different angle. The DSQ opts for the quartet’s original version, including the monumental Große Fuge (op. 133) as the finale. After a declamatory overture, it morphs into some of Beethoven’s most boisterous writing for the genre. A superb account in every way.

Holding both programs together as one, it’s easy to ascribe a visual quality to their emerging narrative. First violinist Rune Tonsgaard Sørensen agrees:

“Schnittke and Shostakovich do create very strong images—to me more so than Beethoven and Bach. I guess that the beauty of music is that every single listener and performer can have different images in mind when hearing/performing it: it’s a very open art form in that regard. Of course as a quartet, we strive to project one common story when performing a piece. Often it’s easier to think in images rather than being too concrete—loud, soft, fast, slow—when studying a piece of music.”

And perhaps we can ascribe a cinematic aesthetic by the hand of producer Manfred Eicher, whose touch so often turns sound into physical action. Says second violinist Frederik Øland:

“It’s always lovely to work with Manfred. His presence exudes great authority, and we always feel very committed when he’s around. His overwhelming passion for recording, plus 50 years of experience in the business, gives you a totally unique and very personal touch on the records that I find rare in today’s music industry. I would argue that he is old school, yet innovative. Timeless, in fact.”

The album’s engineering, every bit as beautiful as the playing, confirms an underlying dedication to recorded art. Øland again:

“Luckily, we have great people working ‘behind the scenes’ on our recordings. I’ve often thought that the producer and engineer’s names should be on the front of the cover, just as much as the musicians. We always start with adjusting the sound, so that everyone is happy and can relate to what they actually hear, but from there much of editing and engineering is left out of our hands. It’s really a matter of trust, but with that said, I think our sound is very well taken care of.”

And listeners can feel confident walking into these beams of light knowing they, too, will be very well taken care of.

Duo Gazzana: Ravel/Franck/Ligeti/Messiaen (ECM New Series 2556)

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Duo Gazzana
Ravel/Franck/Ligeti/Messiaen

Natascia Gazzana violin
Raffaella Gazzana piano
Recorded March 2017, Auditorio Stelio Molo RSI, Lugano
Engineer: Markus Heiland
Produced by Manfred Eicher
Release date: April 20, 2018

For their third ECM New Series recital, violinist Natascia Gazzana and pianist Raffaella Gazzana deepen their conversation as soulful interpreters, if not also as interpreters of souls. Presenting four composers of spatial disparity yet creative overlap, they engage music that requires listening, respect, and emotional integrity. I recently asked them via email to talk about the new album, and how it differs from previous recitals.

“It takes us a long time to put together meaningful and organic programs, either for a recording or for public concerts. Usually in our recitals we span the gamut from established pieces of the classical repertoire to contemporary and less commonly performed pieces—or even totally unknown ones, such as György Ligeti’s Duo in this program. Our previous recordings were mostly focused on repertoire from the 20th up to the 21st century. On this album we went a bit further back in time, as we do in live performances.”

The Ligeti Duo is a brief yet narratively rich piece that receives its premiere recording here. Each character of this newly recovered folktale recalls the joys of childhood in exquisite detail, it searches for dialogue but instead discovers a soliloquy split into its component parts. And why, one wonders, did a piece by such an established modern composer get buried for so long?

“We have always loved Ligeti’s music and were wondering how it could be that he had not written any piece for violin and piano, a combination attempted by all composers. Only after looking through his catalogue attentively did we discover the Duo. Written in 1946, when he was only 23 years old, it was dedicated to György Kurtág and languished in a drawer. Most likely it was performed only for an inner circle of friends.”

The Gazzanas expended much effort to secure the rights to record the Duo, and the score, they note, has yet to be published. Heard alongside the 1932 Thème et variations of Olivier Messiaen that follows, it inhales shadow as Messiaen exhales sunshine. The Thème et variations is a wedding gift to the composer’s first wife, violinist Claire Delbos, and as such glows with adoration. The piano stretches a canvas for the violin, whose brushwork ranges from ponderous to effervescent.

While these two youthful compositions comprise the program’s second half, the first begins with Maurice Ravel’s Sonata posthume. Although composed in 1897, when Ravel was 22, his first chamber work wouldn’t see the light of day until 1975. Its combination of robustness and delicacy is masterfully recreated here. The initial violin line skitters through underbrush, its movements captured by the piano and rolled into a ball of spirited wonder. Fantastical elements omnipresent in Ravel’s later works are foreshadowed, but sway in and out of frame with the lilt of a windblown branch. Like water taking different forms, some moments drip through open fingers, while others evaporating as if from a distant lake, and still others polish to a reflective sheen. When playing such music, say the Gazzanas, “we concentrate on the sound quality and not getting distracted away from the structure of the work. We would think mainly in terms of sound story more than a visual narrative.” In that respect, sound structures are apparent even when silence is in order.

Because Ravel modeled his Sonata posthume on César Franck’s Sonate for piano and violin in A major, it makes for a natural inclusion. The Franck sonata was, in fact, the album’s seed:

“It is a real masterpiece and has a highly structured, cyclical form. Too often, when talking about French music, you may hear it spoken of in terms of delicate and refined sounds, nuances, and colors. Franck gave an impetus to the so-called French School and this sonata represents a cutting edge in composition that significantly influenced many subsequent composers.”

Originally written for Eugène Ysaÿe, it eschews showiness to spotlight the evocative abilities of its performers, who in this instance regard romanticism with a studied gaze. The second movement is a rolling tide of memory made flesh by the touch of these humane performers, while the third bridges a synapse of utter enchantment. As the profoundest example of communication between the Gazzana sisters, it is rich with unspoken language and metaphysical translations. The final movement walks a high tightrope in the violin, scaling down rocky terrain into an immaculately pruned path.

In combination, these selections offer a cumulative effect of consideration:

“Every piece included on the album represents our present vision. We enjoy immensely the fact that everything we have performed over many years has always sounded fresh to our ears. Every time we approach a work, we look for some new details or aspects to bring out. We are perfectly aware that we still have so much to learn and that every state of mind or stage in life can provide new impulse to our performances.”

Aiding in that process are producer Manfred Eicher and engineer Markus Heiland. Their contributions reveal hidden shades of meaning:

“Every stage of the recording process is important in bringing out the best sound quality possible. Manfred and Heiland were particularly attentive to microphone placement, and even before that to the placing of instruments in the studio. A lot of time was dedicated to finding out how to listen to each other, so as to balance the instruments’ levels. We went back and forth to the control room, listening to the results until we were satisfied with the purity of the sound. The final editing, the choice of the order of the compositions on the album, as well as the pauses between a piece and another also contributed to a lengthy creation process.”

By its end, forged together as a seamless story, the album beckons us like an open book, anticipating with great joy the experiences that await us.

Of Sound Faith: An Interview with Violinist and Educator Ruth Tumpalan

Sing unto him a new song; play skilfully with a loud noise.
For the word of the LORD is right; and all his works are done in truth.
Psalm 33:3-4

Born and raised in Manila, Philippines, violinist Ruth Tumpalan is a dedicated musician and educator. She is currently a faculty member at the Lindeblad School of Music, where her pedagogical zeal has earned her a place of distinction in the hearts of students. She has studied with such renowned classical artists as violinist Christoph Poppen and pianist Gilles Vonsattel, and has performed with a range of others across genres, from Jaime Laredo to Michael Bublé. Most recently, she won first place in the American Protégé International Piano and Strings Composition, and as a result of that honor was a featured soloist at Carnegie’s Weill Recital Hall in New York City. Her focus on cultural diversity is paramount and drives her to constantly improve her technique in all areas.

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Yet behind the glamour of performing on some of the world’s most hallowed stages, Tumpalan has found special fulfillment as part of the music ministry at Heritage Baptist Church in Manhattan. Her love of God and music have been intertwined since childhood, and manifest with especial depth in her work with the church’s choir as part of a vibrant ministry.

I recently sat down with Tumpalan via Skype to discuss the role of faith in her personal and professional life, asking first about her musical foundations.

“My father is a pastor, so we were all homeschooled, but when I was 10 he enrolled me and my siblings in an extension program at the University of the Philippines to study music. Two weeks later, I was playing in a Christian wedding officiated by my father. Since then, I’ve always played in church, both as a violinist and choir pianist.”

At the age of 12, Tumpalan got the chance to visit the United States with her father while he was touring churches. Upon returning home, she immersed herself in recordings and live performances, all the while cultivating a desire to pursue music as a profession. She went on to earn her Bachelor of Music degree at the University of the Philippines, with a focus on violin, graduating cum laude in 2009.

“After college, I played with the Philippine Philharmonic Orchestra, but after five years decided I wanted to develop myself even further through study. I had been praying since high school for an opportunity to study abroad, ideally in the U.S., in pursuit of new perspectives and higher standards. In 2014, God led me to a full scholarship to earn a Master’s degree at the University of Massachusetts.”

Tumpalan doesn’t take such blessings lightly and has always seen her gifts as God-given. While at UMass, however, she found herself at an impasse.

“There I was, halfway through my two-year program, contemplating what the Lord’s real will was for me. Did he want me to go back to the Philippines or did he have something bigger in store? It was a long journey, filled with prayer. But God provided, one step at a time, lining me up with a job before I even finished my degree. Although music had originally led me here to the U.S., I know in hindsight that it was actually God’s provision all along, working through all the little things to get me where I am now.”

Although Tumpalan’s husband was in Hong Kong at the time, he also earned a scholarship to study percussion at UMass, bringing them closer under an unseen but ever-felt guiding hand. They were further led to Heritage Baptist Church, where Tumpalan became immediately involved in the music ministry.

“Playing at Heritage is my priority. My job is important, but I like the need of going to church and being with brethren. It also enhances my career, leading me with strength through daily life and its many decisions. When I don’t go to church, even for just a week, I feel that my well-being is lowered.”

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(Tumpalan performs at Heritage Baptist Church)

And what, I asked, of her experience playing at Carnegie?

“I never thought I would get to play there as a soloist. I’d played there before with the Philippine Philharmonic, and thought that was going to be a once-in-a-lifetime experience. But then, last year, I was working with an excellent pianist named Jongsun Lee, who suggested we try out for the competition. With my full studio schedule, it wasn’t easy to manage practice time and teaching, but my teaching actually helped me to prepare. Certain things my own teachers had taught me before suddenly made sense. I never expected to get first place, but God made it possible.”

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For that performance, she chose Henryk Wieniawski’s formidable Scherzo Tarantelle Op. 16, a work brimming with the very excitement that stokes her appreciation for music as a means of communication.

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“The best feedback I’ve ever gotten as a musician is being told that I moved someone to tears. In that respect, in my playing I aim to be more of an inspiration, to connect with people at a level beyond words.”

This approach is integral to Tumpalan’s teaching, which builds upon the renowned methods of Shinichi Suzuki.

“I always make sure to explain to parents that the Suzuki method was designed to create better human beings through music, and that the most important things to learn from the experience are discipline, empathy, and cooperation. These are more than musical skills; they’re life skills. Without them, playing well and achieving success in music mean nothing. Whenever someone makes a mistake in my group classes, no one is allowed to point. They must respect themselves, first and foremost.”

As for the future, Tumpalan sees herself becoming even more involved in the church, and has been considering putting together a book of Christian music arranged for various instruments. Whatever may come, her faith will only continue to grow.

Praise ye the LORD. Praise God in his sanctuary:
praise him in the firmament of his power.

Praise him for his mighty acts:
praise him according to his excellent greatness.

Praise him with the sound of the trumpet:
praise him with the psaltery and harp.

Praise him with the timbrel and dance:
praise him with stringed instruments and organs.

Praise him upon the loud cymbals:
praise him upon the high sounding cymbals.

Let every thing that hath breath praise the LORD.
Praise ye the LORD.

Psalm 150

Parks/Street/Hart: Find The Way (ECM 2489)

Find The Way

Find The Way

Aaron Parks piano
Ben Street double bass
Billy Hart drums
Recorded October 2015, Studios La Buissonne, Pernes-les-Fontaines
Engineers: Gérard de Haro and Nicolas Baillard
Produced by Manfred Eicher
Release date: April 21, 2017

The first time that Melquíades’ tribe arrived, selling glass balls for headaches, everyone was surprised that they had been able to find that village lost in the drowsiness of the swamp, and the gypsies confessed that they had found their way by the song of the birds.
–Gabriel García Márquez, One Hundred Years of Solitude

After making his lauded ECM debut with Arborescence, Aaron Parks returns with his first album for the label as bandleader. Featuring an enviable dyad of bassist Ben Street and drummer Billy Hart, Parks’s outfit is melodious enough on paper before PLAY is even pressed. I caught up with the pianist and composer via phone to ask about his experiences making Find The Way with producer Manfred Eicher:

“By the time Manfred and I began discussions, I had been working with this trio for a number of years already, and mentioned it to him as a band of special energy. Later on, as it turned out, we had a six-day tour in the UK. I had it in mind to capture the band in the studio right after the tour, and he was into the idea.”

Special energy comes across as an understatement when the different generations represented in each player align as if by genetic suggestion. Track 5, “The Storyteller,” is an emblematic summation in this regard, for like an oral storyteller Parks focuses on the integrity of plot arc without privileging any word over another. This dynamic is as conscious as it is inevitable, given the simpatico atmosphere in which the trio operates:

“At our best, we felt like one organism. You can hear that especially later in the album’s sequence. Being in that environment, hearing it back in the studio, makes you play differently, as does having Manfred there listening. I went into that session with the idea of radical surrender. With the trio in general, I’ve got my compositions, but Ben and Billy create a context for me to let go of them and explore together.”

Although “Adrift” was recorded second, upon hearing it Eicher immediately knew it would be the first track of the record. So it goes when a trusted pair of ears notices things of which sometimes not even creators themselves are aware…

“We were really sequencing it on the fly as we went along. There’s an interesting architecture, intended or not, in the sequence. The tunes at the end are solidified, while “Adrift” feels tumultuous to me, as if we might not make it out alive. We’re all coming from different angles at once, circling the beat by virtue of a common gravitational pull. And in general, there’s a feeling throughout the record of gradually achieving solid form.”

Parks Trio
(Photo credit: Bart Babinski)

As it stands, the set’s opener lands us softly into its seascape, folding wings made not of feathers but vinyl, beating hard against the sun in defiance of Icarus’s folly. Across the spectrum of “Song For Sashou” (a bossa nova for a dear friend), “Unravel” (a connective introspection), and “First Glance,” we encounter laid-back yet fully rendered images in which Parks gets every last molecule of pigment out of his sonic paintbrush. Gentle on the ears yet even gentler on the heart, his solos read like love letters, balancing prosody and poetry while avoiding the temptation to self-edit as he writes. He lets everything go, giving more than taking, his chords swept like a pond’s surface beneath willow branches.

The title of “Hold Music” is something of a misnomer. Sounding nothing like the vapid pedantry one usually encounters in a maze populated by customer representatives, it delineates an emotional pause for reflection that keeps us steady while the world rushes by on its own path to self-destruction. Hart’s depth-soundings here reveal the piece’s original conception as a “miniature drum concerto.” Park goes on:

“I used the same 15-chord sequence in an old tune called ‘Chronos,’ which appears on James Farm [Nonesuch, 2011]. Something about those chords takes me to outer space every time, so I decided to revisit them here. I think of the title in terms of creating a space to hold this music. Also, in this song you’re waiting for something that never really happens.”

Throughout Find The Way, transitions are never oversold. “Alice,” taking inspiration from the selfsame Coltrane, is a syncopated wonder, marking differences not only within its borders but also between them and surrounding territories. Over shifting tectonic plates, it works its way into a bluesy froth, spreading across shoreline like butter over toast until it melts: a memory to be savored. The equally evocative “Melquíades,” named for a character in Gabriel García Márquez’s masterwork, reads fantasy into every note. The album finishes with the title track, the only not by Parks. Written instead by Ian Bernard and first sung by Rosemary Clooney on 1963’s Love, it closes the door in bliss.

“The tune has always stood out to me for its beauty and oddness: asymmetrical form, 7-bar A sections, playing with minor and major tonalities in unexpected ways. And the lyrics are so sad and strange. I’d known I wanted to cover it for a long time. And it felt so natural with this band. Billy’s performance on this one is just astonishing to me.”

But so should it all astonish, for the album’s banner of coexistence is something we can all uphold. In its shadow, we enter a natural order of things, where everything is a balance of safety and unpredictability. And because ECM has always thrived in such soil, there could be no better home for this music to have taken root.

Michel Benita Ethics: River Silver (ECM 2483)

River Silver

Michel Benita Ethics
River Silver

Michel Benita double bass
Matthieu Michel flugelhorn
Mieko Miyazaki koto
Eivind Aarset guitar, electronics
Philippe Garcia drums
Recorded April 2015, Auditorio Stelio Molo RSI, Lugano
Engineer: Stefano Amerio
Produced by Manfred Eicher
Release date: January 15, 2016

On River Silver, Paris-based bassist Michel Benita makes his ECM leader debut with the borderless Ethics ensemble. Joined by Swiss flugelhorn player Matthieu Michel, koto player Mieko Miyazaki, Norwegian guitarist Eivind Aarset (with whom he plays in Andy Sheppard’s quartet), and French drummer Philippe Garcia, Benita architects a veritable museum of mostly original creations. Even before a single note is heard, as Benita tells me in a recent email interview, the very name of the project is resonant in a way that caught the attention of producer Manfred Eicher:

“The world needs more ethics: understanding, empathy, and sharing. That’s how I hear this word. And the idea of sharing between different cultures is very important for me. Hence, our lineup. The band functions collectively, without ego. ECM, too, represents a certain kind of musical ethics. The band was almost made for the label, though not consciously, and I was very happy when Manfred recognized our familial relationship upon hearing the first album.”

In contrast to said first album, released in 2009 as Ethics on Outhere Records, for which Benita worked more laboriously in the post-production phase to craft a decidedly studio-oriented sound, River Silver followed ECM’s usual three-day regimen in Lugano’s Auditorio Stelio Molo RSI, under the watchful ear of engineer Stefanio Amerio. Because the album was recorded without overdubs, Benita found himself approaching it differently from its predecessor:

“I had rehearsed mostly with Eivind in his home in Norway, to get the forms and sound directions right. But Manfred made his own very interesting suggestions and very soon in the process, as always with him, he developed an idea of sequencing. His overall conception is pretty much summed up by the expression ‘Less is more,’ both in the playing and exposition of a theme.One thing I learned from him this time (as when working with Andy Sheppard) is that you can record any band live, even with loud guitar amps, all together in the same room, and without wearing headphones. That’s a big relief and gives you a lot of freedom and concentration.”

Sure enough, the relationship between freedom and concentration is evident throughout River Silver as its philosophical and compositional foundation. And while the instrumentation is atypical for welcoming the koto’s plucked soul into a jazz context, the decision feels inevitable when in service of such intuitive music, honed over five years of collaboration.

“The whole Ethics project was actually born following my encounter with Mieko. I first saw her play with guitarist Nguyên Lê and I was very impressed with her charisma on stage and her sound, which blended perfectly into jazz-oriented music. So we met a few times and decided to start rehearsing tunes that I wrote along the way. Each rehearsal gave me new ideas, as I was starting to hear what could work best with my bass. Then, while listening back to our duo recordings, I thought of the other musicians whose textures would become part of this quintet.”

The set’s opener, “Back From The Moon” (a title lifted from a Joni Mitchell lyric) lays down a carpet so tessellated that it’s impossible to disagree with Benita’s democratic self-characterization. It’s easy to trace individual threads—from the rhythm section’s relaxed traction to the thematic unity of flugelhorn and koto, and Aarset’s reflections echoing through them all—but each feels as much supportive of the other four as the other way around. Miyazaki’s koto, for example, is a natural force in this configuration, not so much weaving as acting the loom for the others’ lyrical shuttles. Her evolution from single notes to resplendent strums reveals a narrative patience that would be absent without the band working as a whole. Despite this scope of vision, the music’s genesis emerged in relatively intimate quarters:

“I locked myself up for 10 days, alone in a friend’s apartment in Paris, where I wrote and demoed all the music with my bass, a guitar, and keyboards. This was a very nice experience. ‘River Silver’ is an illustration of the Seine, visible outside my window every day during the writing process. On some evenings, it really did look like silver. I like the abstract and organic collective improvisation of that tune.”

In the wake of this progressive introduction, the title track floats into urban slumber, and speaks even more deeply to the inwardness of what we encounter therein. “I See Altitudes” relegates the koto to a more backgrounded role and finds Michel soaring over Benita’s cartographic wanderings, while Aarset writes across the sky in starlit script. Furthering the metaphor, “Off The Coast” launches its intimate fleet into uncharted waters, wielding its navigational instruments with archival purpose. Aarset’s comet tails are the visual language of this introspective theme, held together by the ether of Miyazaki’s arpeggios and Garcia’s cymbals.

“Toonari” is the most cinematic of the tracks, yet leaves us in suspended animation, prepared to be “Snowed In” by a tender memory. For good measure, Benita welcomes three tunes not composed by him. Where both “Yeavering,” by Northumbrian folk musician Kathryn Tickell, and “Lykken,” a ballad by Norwegian songwriter Eyvind Alnæs (1872-1932), are swaths of lushest monochrome, Miyazaki’s “Hacihi Gatsu” (a misprint of “Hachi Gatsu,” Japanese for “August”) draws from a greener palette.

Ethics is a dream group in the truest sense, because everything it plays is of a dream. As such, it reflects Benita’s increasingly open approach to space and making music within it. All the more appropriate that he should have found a new home in ECM territory. On that note, even as I post this review Benita is in the studio again with Michel, Garcia, and new Flemish recruit Jozef Dumoulin on Fender Rhodes. Our hearts are open and waiting.

No Time to Waste: Conversations with Bassists Christian McBride and Edgar Meyer

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For the inaugural Cornell Concert Series performance of 2017, Grammy-winning bassists Christian McBride and Edgar Meyer took to the stage at Bailey Hall on February 3. Although both musicians helm their respective vessels in nominally different streams, together they have created something as fresh as their foundations are solid. Where McBride is something of a musical chameleon, rooted in the backyard of the blues yet stretching his branches over into every willing neighbor’s property, Meyer has turned his classical wheelhouse into a kaleidoscope of interpretive possibilities. I had the opportunity to speak with both bassists — first to Mr. McBride on the phone, followed by Mr. Meyer via e-mail — as an overture to what promises to be an engaging night from this rare combination of instruments.

Tyran Grillo: One of my all-time favorites from your discography is Live at Tonic. I’m curious to know your personal feelings regarding that performance, because for me it’s such a solid compendium of who you are as an artist and of the different streams you bring together in your performance.

Christian McBride: That record was recorded in 2005, and by that point [saxophonist] Ron Blake, [keyboardist] Geoffrey Keezer and [drummer] Terreon Gully had been in my working group for six years. Consistency was always a struggle in terms of gigs and recordings, mostly because at that time I was touring also with Pat Metheny’s trio, which made it hard to get any momentum going. But I really loved that band. I considered it a hybrid. Everyone gets involved in false sentiments of genre, and everybody in that band listened to all sorts of music. Yes, our hearts and skills were in jazz, but the way we played it had been informed by pop, soul, classical, avant-garde, electronic, you name it. You can’t possibly be a professional creative musician and not be touched by various styles of music. Even those who make a conscious decision to do one thing—which is fine because you should do what moves you — like more kinds of music than one would give them credit for. You might not guess you could have an in-depth conversation with Wynton Marsalis about Earth, Wind & Fire, but you could.

TG: One thing I like about that recording is the third disc, which is nothing but jams. What does the jam mean to you?

CM: One of my current responsibilities is being the artistic advisor for jazz programming at NJPAC [New Jersey Performing Arts Center] in Newark, where I’m hoping to create something called “The American Jam,” for which my goal is to get musicians spanning all kinds of so-called genres up on stage to jam for an hour. Get a group of musicians from jazz, rock, country and gospel together, and there’s all one thing we know collectively, and that’s the blues. I’m hoping to make this thing happen at some point, because music seems to be the one fail-safe way to bring different cultures together. When you see the polarization and intense disagreements between parties, music is that one thing that keeps us on the same page and allows us to have a conversation. Music exposes the lies and propagandas that bombard us on a daily basis and brings out our honesty and rawest passions. In that respect, music is a truth serum.

TG: I’ve always enjoyed your arco playing. Were you inspired by anyone else’s use of the bow or was it just an extension of your training on the instrument that you decided to incorporate later on?

CM: I started using the bow out of necessity. One of my first steady gigs while attending Julliard was at a club called Augie’s. Every night, the third set would turn into a jam session. There was always a long line of saxophonists, trumpeters, guitarists, pianists, and drummers and maybe two bassists, who would usually go home. So there I was, playing the same song on stage for 40 minutes. One night we were playing an old [Rodgers and Hart] standard called “Lover.” The bandleader was Jesse Davis, who liked to play it way up-tempo. My muscles were already cramping up and my callouses getting soft, and there was Jesse looking at me for a bass solo. I couldn’t even feel my hands at this point. I took it as a challenge, but playing it pizzicato would’ve been too fast, so I pulled out my bow. Not only did it work, but Jesse seemed rather impressed, so I kept it in the playbook. That gig solidified my commitment to always using the bow, even in jazz settings.

TG: Can you talk about your relationship with Edgar Meyer and how you two came to play together?

CM: The first time I heard Edgar was in the early 1990s, shortly after I met the great Ray Brown, who was one of my greatest mentors and like a second father to me. Ray asked if I knew of Edgar Meyer, so he showed me this video he did with Edgar and fellow bassist Victor Wooten. From that point on, I became a huge fan of Edgar and started following his career, in awe of his creativity and skill. Jump to 2000, and speaking of Victor Wooten again, I went to Victor’s bass camp in Tennessee, where Edgar was a surprise guest. It was so great just meet the guy and hang with him, and we ended up jamming together. As all artists do, we shared the obligatory “Hey, we should work together one day” line, but as much as I admired him, I knew that if I wanted to do some duets with him, I had to be at the top of my game. It’s like, if you’re going to fight Floyd Mayweather, you’d better get training. In 2007, we decided to do a duet concert at the Aspen Music Festival. It was so wonderful that we decided to figure out how to keep it going, and finally started going on tour last year. Standing on stage next to Edgar is, on the one hand, depressing. I wish I could do what he does. But it’s also inspiring, because it makes me believe in what I cando and do it well.

McBride’s obvious respect for Meyer is echoed by the latter’s own for the former. True to form, and in artful contrast with McBride’s penchant for storytelling, Meyer speaks concisely and with rigor, although each of these respective tendencies is the yin to the other’s yang.

TG: Having performed with other bassists such as Victor Wooten, what distinguishes your work with Christian McBride, and how has it enriched your own playing?

Edgar Meyer: Most of what I did with Victor was to perform on a television program with him and Ray Brown around 25 years ago, which was of course a wonderful experience. Playing with another bass player is rare for me. I prefer to collaborate with complementary instruments. However, playing with Christian is an experience too rewarding to pass up. He is my favorite bass player and I enjoy hearing him up close and feeling what his flow and reactions are like. I can listen to the replay of a show and directly compare how we do things and try to imitate the things that I cannot do as well as he does. He also makes everyone with him better, so why wouldn’tyou want to play with him? Never turn down a breath mint.

TG: As one who crosses boundaries, working with a variety of musicians, do you see any need for identifying with particular genres, or is music more of a holistic experience for you?

EM: I do not have a clear answer to that question. I think the reality is complex. Studying a particular branch of music in depth should hopefully broaden horizons, not narrow them. A simplistic answer is that one should accurately observe what makes different music similar and what makes it different. I personally lean toward developing a unified voice that can be credible across a fairly wide stylistic range instead of multiple voices for different situations. It is helpful to try to figure underlying principles in different kinds of music instead of following rules of tradition.

TG: What is something you know now as an artist that you didn’t, say, 20 years ago?

EM: That we are here for a brief time. There is no time to waste.

Seeing how smoothly these two masters converse when they’re not even in the same room, one can only imagine how well their voices will mesh when they delight their audience this Friday.

Click here to read my review of the concert.

(See this article as it originally appeared in The Cornell Daily Sun by clicking here.)

In the Comfort Zone: A Conversation with Tabla Virtuoso Zakir Hussain

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(Photo credit: Jim McGuire)

As I call up Zakir Hussain on the phone for this interview, I call up also memories of my childhood. I was raised in a small town in Marin County, California, where it so happens the mother of a childhood friend studied traditional Kathak dance with Zakir’s wife, Antonia Minnecola. I distinctly remember those performances, and can’t help but laugh at myself now for being too young then to recognize the greatness to which I grew up in such close proximity. Thirty years and seemingly infinite more of musical exposure later, here I sit transcribing my conversation with the world’s leading virtuoso of the tabla. When I tell him about our distant connection, he says to me, “What a small world this has suddenly become,” and the strange twists of life that completed this circle feel all the more inevitable to me as I offer my first question.

Tyran Grillo: Thinking back on your many projects reminds me of how many so-called “crossovers” you have done. Then again, I’ve always felt that Indian classical music is already hybrid by definition. In light of this, how do you feel that you have evolved as you continue to work with musicians from traditions and cultural backgrounds other than your own?

Zakir Hussain: Indian music, at least when I was growing up in India, was undergoing a great transition. Up until India gained its independence in 1947, most musicians were under the employ of Maharajas, so they rarely performed for lay audiences. Once those princely states were demolished and India became a democracy, court musicians had to fend for themselves. Young musicians back then, Ravi Shankar and my father among them, were trying to figure out how to tailor their art for the stage. At the same time, because of the British influence, Western music was everywhere in India. My generation grew up with symphonies and string quartets, but also the Beatles and the Rolling Stones, even as we were helping to create music for a fledgling Indian film industry, now famous as Bollywood. All those Indian musicians who had studied Western classical instruments were absorbed into the film industry, and we all became integrated into a mutant, hybrid orchestra, performing music that was a hodgepodge of influences.

And so, when I first came to the United States in my late teens and heard the musicians here, it felt like a natural progression. I was also fortunate because my father used to bring me records from his travels, so by then I had heard the likes of Duke Ellington, Miles Davis, Yusef Lateef, Charles Lloyd, Jefferson Airplane and the Grateful Dead. All of this was an extension of where I was in India, and it made for a seamless transition when starting to play with people here. Luckily, by then there was major interest among American musicians — in particular John Coltrane, Mickey Hart and John McLaughlin — to learn Indian music. I was meeting all these people who already understood what I did, and it was easy for them to walk me across the rift into a system I was familiar with. Whatever hesitancy I had in being able to contribute disappeared, because these people knew who I was and where I was coming from.

TG: How would you characterize yourself as a listener?

ZH: Listening is one thing that most drummers do. It doesn’t matter whether you are in Indian music, jazz or classical. Drummers are supposed to know all the standards, all the breaks, so that they can interact at a moment’s notice. Indian tabla players are no different. We need to know the music to be better accompanists. So we are listeners. On tour, I’m constantly listening to the masters. When I was playing with Ravi Shankar, I would listen to his most recent albums, familiarizing myself with his temperament, his musicality and his improvising depth, to see what I could contribute when I got on stage. It was a form of respect, a way of letting him know that I was aware of what he’d done and that I was ready to give whatever he wanted.

TG: On the topic of collaboration, how did you come to work with sitar player Niladri Kumar?

ZH: Niladri Kumar is one of many young masters of Indian music today who I am hoping to promote globally. My reason for this is twofold. First, people should not get caught up in idea that Indian music begins and ends with Ravi Shankar. Even at the time when he became internationally famous, there were other sitar players who were just as great and highly revered in India, but who people outside of India never heard about. Now, I may be considered the tabla player of the day, but I can honestly name at least 15 tabla players who are just as good as, if not better than, I am. But people don’t know that, because they hear a marquee name and say, “Oh, that’s the guy to go see. Forget about the rest.” Nowadays young musicians, even as they are listening to and playing Indian music, have their computers in front of them, able to access any master of any musical tradition, so they grow up with a more universal sensibility of music. It’s amazing to see them treating Indian music as more than a single entity, but rather as part of an ever-growing hard drive through which they access software of all other musical kinds and marry them in ways that at their age I was nowhere near doing. Which brings me to my second reason for wanting to play with them: to get their fresh take on what global music is all about and use my own experience to interact with them, all while learning something more in the process. And, of course, being around younger musicians stokes the fire under me and gets me going more. I used to play with Niladri’s father. And once Niladri came into his own as a musician, I decided to bring him to America, where I hope he will get the attention he deserves for his efforts.

TG: How would you characterize the mass effect of Indian classical music in the 21st century?

ZH: The only way to be able to learn about any music or musicians is through listening. And when you do that, you’re not only listening to their music but also finding out about their cultures and ways of life. I find that young people have developed a deep respect for all art forms, and by extension for those cultures. They also understand that the Third World is anything but, and that its people are anything but clueless as to where they belong. I see immense respect for what India has to offer and its ability to be a great cultural contributor to this world, and all because today’s younger generation has accepted it as such.

TG: Is there any core advice you would give to anyone who wants to start learning the tabla, or any instrument for that matter?

ZH: What I tell people is: try to experience the music a little bit, and if it actually excites you and makes you happy, then it has the potential to turn into a lifelong relationship. And it is a relationship. Every musical instrument has a spirit, and that spirit has to accept you. It’s like in the film Avatar, when the Na’vi bond their hair to a horse or bird. That animal has to accept you as a friend before you can ride it. Only then can you fly the way you imagine yourself to. That’s what music is all about. My own relationship with the tabla is such that we are both friends and lovers. We are together on this journey and every time I grow and find new shades in my musical expression, I find that the tabla is right there saying, “Okay, let’s try this.”

TG: What is your greatest hope or expectation for listeners who come to hear you play?

ZH: I feel comfortable with the audiences of the world, because they know more now than they did 30 years ago. Being able to Google musicians and see them on YouTube means that audiences are no longer arriving without a clue as to what we are all about. It’s almost like meeting friends you have never officially seen before. In that sense, I’m very open and easy with audiences. I don’t have to sit there and talk for 10 minutes about what we are going to do. I believe honestly in the music conveying its own intent. Natural flow is very important to me. I just get on stage and announce what we’re going to play as a matter of routine, and the audiences respond accordingly, and with respect.

(See this article as it originally appeared in The Cornell Daily Sun here.)

Matt Borghi & Michael Teager: Illuminating through Shadow

While feeding your eyes, why not feed your ears:

Guitarist Matt Borghi and saxophonist Michael Teager turn gasses into solids. Their process, however, goes beyond chemistry and physics, drawing as they do from a less definable well that some might call inspiration, others spirit, and still others ether. Separately, they have broadened their cartographies across continents. As a duo, they form their own by tender volcanism.

I spoke via e-mail with the musicians, both of whom were grateful in sharing their time and wisdom to illuminate the drift they have manifested. When I asked them to describe their relationship, Borghi likened it to a “combined meditation,” by which two become one through their non-traditional overlap. Teager, for his part, sees what they’re doing as a “contemplative improvised music,” forged not through a simple meeting of instruments but a more rhizomatic, orchestral sensibility.

While on paper their credits imply rock or jazz lineages, with respect to their instruments Borghi and Teager rest in a world apart. Despite a self-professed love/hate relationship with the guitar, Borghi manages to distill magic from its strings through an array of digital effects, but also, more importantly, an unrestricted approach. “That’s why I like improvisation so much,” he says. “It’s a constant exploration. Sometimes you find gold, sometimes you don’t, but each time you start there’s the possibility of hitting something that’s musically profound.” Teager, having more experience as an improviser, has overcome the challenge of owning his reeds, saying, “As a saxophonist in a stylistic continuum, I’m on my own island when it comes to our music. The name I get most often is Jan Garbarek, and while I do like Garbarek’s playing (particularly with Keith Jarrett), I don’t have a deep knowledge of his catalogue. (He’s my ECM blind spot, partially intentionally.) I try not to listen to other ‘ambient’ saxophonists too much. There are so few of us, and the last thing I want is to subconsciously encroach on another’s territory.”

If anything may be compared, it’s Teager’s likeminded patience for notecraft. To be sure, he has found a beautiful comfort in Borghi’s elastic netting, one in which he more often reacts than dictates in a real-time space that privileges atmospheric over egotistic expression. It’s a dynamic evinced in the 2013 album Convocation. Though an unscripted narrative, it develops from the title reverie to a slow-motion ballad (“Discern Descent”) with inchoate coherence. “Nebula Divide,” on the other hand, operates on a more cosmic scale, changing from monochrome to color and back again along an epic flight path. Such titles, among them also “Constant Apex,” help visualize the music’s ethos in all its asymptotic blush.

Convocation

For me, the most evocative drop takes shape in “Precipice.” Borghi wrenches an organic pulse from his guitar, like a light signaling a lone wayfarer from far off, while Teager echoes its promise of shelter in a darkening sky. I can’t help, if from the title alone, be reminded of a performance I once experienced of Japanese butoh dancer Min Tanaka, who barely moved a few inches from a wall over the course of an hour, as if standing on a cliff in contemplation of suicide. Though not so morbid, here the feeling is one of suspension, embraced by the grandeur of creation.

If my association suggests anything, it’s that these sounds welcome any interpretations listeners might bring to the table. The same is reflected in the artists of influence lurking in the background. Just as Borghi cites Claude Debussy, Pink Floyd, and Harold Budd as vital touchpoints in his growth, Teager’s range from Dave Liebman and Charles Lloyd to Richard Wagner and Smashing Pumpkins. And while you may not necessarily detect any of these on the surface, an emotional affinity lances them all.

So it is with 2014’s Shades of Bending Light, wherein mixtures born of experimentation yield integral new structures. “Joyce’s Fanfare” begins at dawn, flowing with the tide between binary chords, while Teager builds his wingspan one feather at a time. A similar approach—spreading the seeds and listening to them grow—blossoms through all that follows.

Shades of Bending Light

Whether in the desolation of “Daisy Chain” or the rhythmic fantasy of “Weird Minor,” or even the farewell energy of “Blue Sky Fades,” an environmental residue stays behind to remind us of what transpired. The album is, further, an enmeshment of contradictions. Teager lights up layers of gray and mist in “Watch Over” with virtuosic runs, even as Borghi tempers his searching with diffuse endpoints. And in “Nightdrive,” which feels like an orphaned folktale hitchhiking along a runway of solitude, one may feel a bodily connection taking place. Even the album’s title track, which despite being its longest feels like its most ephemeral, is as intimate as it is boundless.

The merging of these polar forces hints at their ultimate unity, as made even clearer in 2014’s Awaken the Electric Air. Played as a late-night (4-5am) radio broadcast for WXPN in Philadelphia, it references some Convocation material with lucidity and openness of heart. Ever the transient traveler, Teager’s saxophone pulls the very horizon like a blanket before slumber, his modal sopranism in “Bed of Ash / Coda” being especially moving.

Awaken the Electric Air

The album’s live setting gives the now-familiar motif of “Nebula Divide” (paired with “Somnolence”) and, like the title track, feels sacred by sheer virtue of audibility. Lit by heightened awareness, the paths before listeners remain visible even when the final torch is extinguished, as its smoke continues to guide us by the wrists into dimensions beyond.