Speaking the language

Sometimes, the best way of upholding tradition is to break with it. Trusting in this age-old wisdom, Brooklyn Rider have participated in the destruction of culture in a bid of keeping it fresh. As part of their mission, the four-piece have recorded radically explorative repertoire, performed at a unconventional locations (including independent record stores and the US Open Tennis Tournament), re-conceptualised the string quartet as an open format compatible with the challenges of the new millennium and effectively blurred the border between performer and composer. Looking back is not an option: As Nick Cords, violist of Brooklyn Rider points out in this interview, there is desperately "little occasion to celebrate the past". And yet, the band have managed to not just engage in the pursuit of progress for progress's sake, but to translate the excitement, vivacity and power of this music to audiences craving for something equally unique and personal. Their love for the masterworks of the genre has led Brooklyn Rider to tightrope-walking, period-bridging programs, where classical, folk and world music join hands, the old can seem visionary and the new familiar. Whereas their previous full-length Seven Steps juxtaposed Beethoven's legendary late String Quartet No 14 with contemporary material, their latest effort A Walking Fire is an all-20th-and-21st-century-century affair, from the sweeping gypsy passion of Ljova's "Culai" to Béla Bartók's Second String Quartet. To some, the accessible nature of some of these pieces may appear to go against the modernist quest for relentless, audience-confronting, bridges-burning change. To the members of Brooklyn Rider, meanwhile, the only way of fulfilling that demand is to regard it as yet another tradition to be crushed.

When did you start playing your instrument, and what or who were your early passions and influences?

I started playing around the age of six, in part motivated by my two older brothers. Early on, I made a link between playing the violin (I switched to viola about a decade after beginning on the violin) and skateboarding; another passion. To me, they both represented a serious discipline that required a daily monastic dedication. I loved the feeling of incremental improvement and the magic of self-discovery. And in both pursuits, the quality of finding one's individual voice was inherent in every level of the work. Fortunately, the violist in me persevered. 

How would you describe the relationship with your instrument?

It is an extremely important relationship to me- I need to check in every single day in order to feel normal! It's tempting to think of the instrument as a constant, around which life moves at a million miles per hour, but the instrument itself is in a state of constant change. It ages and it has mood swings, just like any of us. There is another special dimension to the instrument; it was made for me by the great Brooklyn luthier Samuel Zygmuntowicz, probably the most celebrated living maker. My viola was the result of many discussions, and I was also present for the various stages of its construction. So, I have this weird combination of feeling that the viola is both a finely crafted tool that does my bidding and at the same time, a living organism who's needs have to be served. 

What do you personally consider to be incisive moments in your artistic work and/or career?

Hard to say- I am almost exclusively focused on what is next. I find it more enjoyable to be looking forward, and have little occasion to celebrate the past. I do remember with fondness the early days of Brooklyn Rider. We existed in a number of states before calling ourselves a quartet. The whole period felt like a mobile musical laboratory, without any professional pressures weighing down on us. I have to say that working in The Silk Road Ensemble has been a 15 year journey of incisive moments for me personally, full of friendship and inspiring musical encounters. Lastly, I always look to my teaching life as really significant- I love teaching (currently at Stony Brook University), and I also find that it profoundly fuels my creative life. 

What are currently your main artistic challenges, including questions of technique relating to your instrument? In how much does this technique allow you to bring out the essence of a piece with more clarity?

We struggle for a lifetime to find a way to do what we need to do in as relaxed and efficient a manner as possible. Sometimes this can be a losing battle with the stress of travel and the weight of concertizing, but I do think actively about it every day. If we can interact naturally with our instrument, we allow more of the music to come forward and we increase our communication with the audience. A relaxed state allows mind, body and spirit to come together; a necessary prerequisite for great artistry. All of this is especially a challenge on the viola, as it is a larger and heavier instrument to hold under the chin than the violin. So much of the tonal production on the viola comes as the result of knowing how to use body weight and balance- virtually nothing comes from force.  

What do you start with when working on a new piece?

It depends, but I like to start with narrative. If I have a sense of what a piece is trying to express, all of the details make more sense. This can be a challenge with a brand new piece of music, almost counter-intuitive, but even if my initial notion is incorrect, it nevertheless helps me to get to the next level. I prefer this to looking at a piece as a mountain of impenetrable and indecipherable details. 

There's a wide range of nuances between trying to stick as closely to the score as possible and the kind of freedom Glenn Gould would indulge in. How do you balance your personal emotions/ideas and the intentions of the composer in your interpretations?

Sticking as closely as possible to the score is a wonderful thing to keep in mind, but the reality is that it really doesn't get you very far. To get to the point where music converses, conveys relevance, and communicates emotions, a performer must transcend notation and engage the imagination. Music is definitely a language, and accurate notation is an important part of that, but very few composers that I know feel that absolutely everything can be conveyed by notation, save a couple of notorious 20th century figures. Notation is a shorthand, and it starts getting complicated when we think about what that notation means to different generations. We all bring some kind of baggage to it, so staying blindly true to notation is especially dangerous. But we are starting to get into philosophical territory here... 

Do you feel it important that an audience is able to deduct the processes and ideas behind a work purely on the basis of the music? If so, how do you make them transparent? Do you, in general, feel that, as part of your work, music needs to be explained or should it retain its “inexplicable nature”?

I don't feel that music should ever need to be fully explained, this would be a foolhardy task, but I see no problem with opening thought and imagination windows for people. This can be done very simply with an anecdote or sharing a personal feeling - and I think it can open up the audience's perception of the work, both directly and indirectly. There is an art to this, and I feel like it is a powerful tool in the performers belt. I also fully believe that music can stand on its own completely, though I think discussion and sharing has perhaps forever been a part of the chamber music tradition. Only in more modern times have we made it into a museum experience. 

In how much, do you feel, are creative decisions shaped by cultural differences – and in how much, vice versa, is the perception of music influenced by cultural differences?

In both cases, I really do think that we need to talk on an individual by individual basis. It is true that we can talk about general cultural norms, such as the audience response in New York City versus Singapore, but creative decisions and the way they are received are guided by a larger and very personal force. We all create and process from what we know, but the greatest performances and aesthetic experiences seem to transcend cultural perspective in my opinion. 

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