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Turtle Island Quartet: Bending Musical Lines


When you listen to the Turtle Island String Quartet, you're listening to the same mix of instruments that string quartets have used in classical music for more than two centuries--two violins, a viola and a cello. But the group does something very different with those instruments. NPR's Fred Child has this profile.

FRED CHILD reporting:

David Balakrishnan is a violinist and composer. The Turtle Island Quartet was born from a brainstorm Balakrishnan had in 1985.

Mr. DAVID BALAKRISHNAN (Turtle Island String Quartet): The kind of string quartet I had imagined in my mind were all the players were essentially of the same background that I was, which was a bit unusual in that I'm classically trained but very early on I was attracted to playing other styles, first rock 'n' roll like every good high-school kid wanted to, and then later on, jazz and then folk music.

CHILD: Balakrishnan found a kindred spirit in cellist Mark Summer.

Mr. MARK SUMMER (Turtle Island String Quarter): I like to say I'm in recovery from classical music.

CHILD: Summer spent three relatively unhappy years playing in a Canadian orchestra. Then he got an invitation from David Balakrishnan.

Mr. SUMMER: He said, `I've got this idea to do a jazz string quartet,' and I looked at him, like, `Are you nuts?' And he said, `No, I have all the music written and everything ready to go,' and so I moved from Winnipeg back to California where I'm from and we sat down and we played. Actually what we played was "Stolen Moments," an Oliver Nelson arrangement that David had done, and it just clicked.

(Soundbite of "Stolen Moments")

CHILD: "Stolen Moments" became part of the first recording by the Turtle Island Quartet in 1987. They've carried that same free-thinking spirit through 18 years and 10 albums. Violinist Evan Price arranged another Oliver Nelson tune for the quartet. It's called "Yearnin'."

(Soundbite of "Yearnin'")

CHILD: The same tune appears in an expanded arrangement on their new CD "4 + 4." The Turtle Island Quartet teams up with a more traditionally classical Ying Quartet. It can be tough enough hammering out working dynamics with four players who know each other well. Trying to work as an octet, cellist Mark Summer says, was a bit of a crapshoot.

Mr. SUMMER: We got our instruments out and we really didn't know what was going to happen. And what we found very quickly was that we had a lot in common, and the thing that we noticed was they talk about in Buddhism about the student coming with an empty cup so that you can actually get something in there. They came with that sense, with an empty cup of, `Show us, teach us,' and with classical players, it's not always like that.

(Soundbite of "Yearnin'")

CHILD: Violinist and arranger Evan Price found that doubling the band changed the character of the sound.

Mr. EVAN PRICE (Turtle Island String Quartet): We started considering the octet as sort of like a string big band. Then I knew exactly how I wanted to write for it because I thought, `Well, I've always wanted to write for big band, or I hear big band in my head.' So I just take those sounds and translate them to the violin and just think as a player.

(Soundbite of "Yearnin'")

CHILD: The Turtle Island Quartet plays quite a few jazz standards, but the members of the quartet are always writing new music for the group as well, and Evan Price says given the skills of his band mates, composing usually doesn't mean working out every last detail ahead of time.

Mr. PRICE: It's an interesting voyage of discovery for each of us who writes for the group because it's not just a matter of, `Is this note exactly what you want?' but, `Hey, would you mind if I played this other note here? Would you mind if I--you know, instead of the four-bar part that you wrote me, can I improvise something else. I have an idea, you know?'

(Soundbite of "Yearnin'")

CHILD: Given their close collaborative style, violinist David Balakrishnan says the Turtle Island Quartet doesn't make a habit of asking other composers to write for them.

Mr. BALAKRISHNAN: We very rarely play pieces by other composers because they tend to want to write their "string quartet," quote, unquote, which means they want it to be played more the way they think string players play and they don't really get that we play more and more like a band.

CHILD: A rare exception to that rule came when Cuban jazz composer and performer Paquito D'Rivera brought the group an arrangement of his tune "Wapango."

Mr. BALAKRISHNAN: So we said, `OK. Well, we'll look at this piece.' And it is, it's a beautiful piece. It starts off with this very orchestral part, very perfectly written for strings, but then on the original recording we notice that his band comes in afterwards, just cooking, you know? And that wasn't there.

CHILD: Here's what Balakrishnan heard in D'Rivera's own recording.

(Soundbite of "Wapango")

CHILD: The Turtle Island Quartet doesn't have drums and electric base, but they certainly know how to improvise.

(Soundbite of "Wapango")

CHILD: The newest member of the quartet is violist Mads Tolling. He's 24 years old, originally from Denmark. Two years ago, Tolling was finishing up his studies in violin at the Berklee College of Music in Boston.

Mr. MADS TOLLING (Turtle Island String Quartet): David called in the Turtle Island String Quartet--called and said, `Are you interested in auditioning for the group?' and I said, `Sure.' So I had about 10 days to learn the viola before the first rehearsal.

CHILD: Not the viola part, the viola itself. Tolling had played violin until then, but he quickly got up to speed. Combining the two streams of classical music and jazz is not a new idea, and as if to demonstrate that, the two quartets include on their CD this arrangement of the "Creation of the World," music written in 1923 by French classical composer Darius Milhaud, who was inspired by jazz and blues, a musical middle ground for this meeting between the more classical Ying Quartet and a more eclectic Turtle Island String Quartet. Fred Child, NPR News, Washington.

INSKEEP: This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep.

(Soundbite of "Creation of the World") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Fred Child
Fred Child is a commentator for NPR and the host of American Public Media's Performance Today.