Turtle Island Quartet: Classically-minded genre benders

Justin Jones

After weeks of anticipatory adulation, Turtle Island Quartet took to the chapel stage last Friday, Oc. 14. I was surprised to see music stands and amplifiers on stage as I had made a number of assumptions about what a group like TIQ did and what they stood for. I’d heard the group referred to as “jazz string quartet” so many times that I hadn’t anticipated how classically-minded they were as musicians.

After violinist David Balakrishnan’s first solo there was a short burst of applause from the back of the hall that quickly fell silent. After the next few solos the audience started to catch on, interjecting forced, awkward applause here and there, still seemingly unsure of which etiquette — jazz or classical — they were to abide by.

Then again, that may have been part of the point. TIQ is self-consciously styled as a “crossover” ensemble, actively integrating a diverse spectrum of musical idioms and styles. However, all this cross-genre fusing takes place within and is guided by a strictly defined notion of what a string quartet is and how it should sound.

As such, all the group’s ensemble playing was precise, expressive and sometimes disappointingly predictable. The obvious, classical cadences they insisted on appending to the ends of most of their pieces quickly grew tiring as did their refusal, with the exception of cellist Mark Summer, to play outside the normal timbral range of their instruments.

I had expected a concert devoted to Jimi Hendrix to be natural and overtly improvisatory and though the quartet did loosen up at times, there was something inauthentic about their organicism. The elaborate, unaccompanied solos that Balakrishnan and Jeremy Kittel improvised at the ends of a few of the pieces were broad and imaginative but they read more like cadenzas than spontaneous, Hendrix-style odysseys.

The quartet’s first Hendrix number, “All Along the Watchtower,” stressed Balakrishnan’s notion of Hendrix as a “lyrical,” emotional composer. And though I tend to agree with him that Hendrix isn’t all about being loud or heavy, TIQ’s intricate arrangements tended to obscure the more straightforward aspects of the songs.

The chapel’s lengthy reverb time didn’t help with clarity, nor did it provide much intimacy for the ensemble’s sound. This was particularly evident on some of the jazz pieces the quartet performed. Cellist Mark Summer’s driving percussive rhythms and graceful bass lines usually cut through but the interesting accompaniments provided by Kittel and Mads Tolling sometimes got drowned out.

Interestingly, the most enjoyable part of the concert was the quartet’s performance of Balakrishnan’s “Tree of Life,” a series of pieces informed by Jimi Hendrix and Darwin’s theory of evolution. The piece developed organically, comfortably and seemed to encompass much of what the earlier pieces had hinted at and then backed away from.

There was free “integration” of a variety of musical traditions, with Balakrishnan’s background in Indian music taking on a prominent role. Though there seemed to be less emphasis on improvisation, the quartet’s playing seemed more natural and spontaneous than it had on earlier less score-oriented numbers.

These players are all excellent improvisers, however, and it was in their solo playing that each player’s individual background emerged. Balakrishnan’s compositional mentality, Summer’s percussive, expansive palette; Kittel’s bright fiddle-oriented playing and Tolling’s darker jazzy lines all made striking appearances.

But these individualities sometimes felt masked by the fixedness of their sound as a “string quartet.” The need to reconcile the idiosyncrasies of jazz, rock, and the long, cumbersome history of the string quartet and classical music in general is a unique challenge to a group like this — one that Coltrane, Gillespie and Hendrix never had to contend with — and they deserve ample praise for taking it on.

Yet, to call Turtle Island Quartet “the future of classical music,” as some critics have, seems like a rather shortsighted prognosis. It not only assumes that all the music worth writing has already been written, but that it’s possible to completely remove music from its original context without a loss of meaning or purpose.

I think the TIQ appreciates such difficulties and react to them in ways that set them apart from most “crossover” artists. At the same time, I think they’d agree with me when I say that the type of music they make is simply not sustainable enough to be upheld as a harbinger for all of 21st century music.