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This article was prepared by Elaine Strauss for the May 18, 2005
issue of U.S. 1 Newspaper. All rights reserved.
Fascinating Rhythm: A Quartet with ‘Voices’
‘Not until Turtle Island String Quartet was there a string quartet who
would improvise over chord changes and really be a band," says Mark
Summer, the group’s cellist. "David (Balakrishnan, one of two
violinists in the quartet) had the vision of having like-minded
maverick string players who could improvise. We’re supplying all the
parts of the rhythm section, imitating bass, guitar, and piano. That
sets us apart from other groups trying to do jazz on classical
Founded in 1985 in the San Francisco Bay Area, the Turtle Island
String Quartet (TISQ) uses its conventionally organized forces of two
violins, viola, and cello to explore the links between jazz and
classical music. Members of the quartet are violinists Balakrishnan
and Evan Price, violist Mads Tolling, and cellist Summer. CAPPS
(Community Arts Partnership at the Peddie School), the wide-ranging
Peddie School-based presenters of cultural events, concludes its
Signature Saturdays series with a performance by TISQ on Saturday, May
21, in Mount-Burke Theater.
Interviewed by telephone from his base in the San Francisco Bay Area,
Summer, a founding member of the ensemble, stresses the American focus
of the group. The name "Turtle Island," he explains comes from a
native American creation myth. "It’s an intriguing way to talk about a
group with an American outlook, rather than a European outlook," he
says. "The music that we play comes from all over the world and
coalesced in the United States."
"I give Dave Balakrishnan credit for the concept," Summer says,
referring to the violinist who invited him to join Turtle Island at
its inception. The germ for the quartet developed as Balakrishnan
wrote a four-movement string quartet for his master’s thesis at
Antioch University West in 1983. Relying on the technology available
at the time, along with his skills as a violinist, Balakrishnan made a
recording of the piece. He used what Summer called "a big old
reel-to-reel tape recorder" and recorded separate tracks for each of
the parts using his violin. "He mimicked the cello by tuning his
violin an octave lower and using special strings from Germany that
made a wheezy old man sound," Summer says. "Sometimes we use the setup
in concert now."
Percussion and advanced pizzicato techniques join conventional string
playing in the TISQ. "I use the cello as a piccolo bass, a melody
instrument," Summer says. "And I hit the fingerboard and use it as a
drum. It makes a wood block sound. Evan hits the body of his violin
and gets a good bongo sound." Summer developed the percussion and
pizzicato techniques himself. "They come from the music," he says.
Summer is attentive to whether the music he plays "grooves," as he
calls it, using a jazz analogy. "Swing is a way of talking about
eighth notes played unevenly," he says. "’Groove’ is the dominant
"It ain’t groovin’, baby," he goes on, mimicking disappointment. "You
could use that same term for classical music to mean ‘We’re not on the
same page,’ ‘We’re not having the same concept,’ ‘We’re not thinking
the same way.’"
Says Summer: "The most obvious difference between classical and jazz
is the rhythm. In classical you emphasize beats one and three. In jazz
and fiddle music, you emphasize the back beat, beats two and four. In
rock and roll the backbeat is important. TV and movies use lots of
music with backbeats. The ‘Bugs Bunny’ soundtrack uses just about
every kind of American music."
Still, there remains the question of turning to a string quartet,
rather than some other combination of classical instruments for the
music TISQ likes to play. "It’s the same reason for us as for Haydn,"
Summer says. "A string quartet has four voices that sound great
together. They sound great when they’re playing Beethoven, and great
when they’re playing Miles Davis. Instrumentally, the string quartet
is analogous to the four human voices used in standard classical music
– soprano, alto, tenor, and bass. We used to play Bach chorales as a
way of warming up."
Summer was born in Encino, in California’s San Fernando Valley, in
1958. His father, a teacher of French, Spanish, history, and English
as a second language in the Los Angeles school system, loved classical
music. "He was the one who pushed me to become a classical cellist,"
Summer says. His mother, a publisher of medical journals, still lives
in Encino, and is fond of concerts, plays, and ballet.
Summer remembers his father’s musical heritage. "He played music on
the phonograph: Mahler, [Orff’s] ‘Carmina Burana,’ and Shostakovich.
He also played [the Beatles’] ‘Sergeant Pepper.’ I think of him
reading Time magazine and absorbing all the cultural influences
In retrospect, Summer bristles at the musical diet his father offered.
"Jeez, Dad," he says, "Why didn’t you play me Britten’s ‘Young
Person’s Guide to the Orchestra,’ or Brahms ‘Haydn Variations,’ or
Mozart symphonies. I didn’t like the music my father played. I had to
struggle to get over that. It was a stretch for me to want to play a
Bruckner symphony in an orchestra."
After graduating from the Cleveland Institute of Music in 1981 Summer
spent three years in the Winnipeg Symphony playing repertory for which
he had little affection. "I quit the orchestra," he says. "I was
terribly stressed out. The guy next door, a guitarist, kept coming
over and asking if I wanted to play with him. I didn’t know how to
play jazz on cello. We started with swing music. It was easy to
improvise and we immediately started performing. We played at the
Winnipeg Blue Note the same day. It had lights on stage and a sound
system. The sound system matters with cello. The cello makes a lot of
sound, but it’s not really a loud instrument.
"We added drums and a bass harmonica for the Winnipeg Folk Festival,
and called the group the West-End String Band," Summer remembers. "I
moved away after a year, and the combo died."
In addition to playing in TISQ Summer joins with clarinetist Paquito
D’Rivera and pianist Alon Yavni to form the Paquito D’Rivera trio. The
three performed the Brahms clarinet trio at Utah’s Moab Music Festival
D’Rivera’s sinuous clarinet can be heard in Dizzy Gillespie’s "A Night
in Tunisia" on the TISQ disc "Danzon." Consisting primarily of
arrangements from jazz and the classics, the CD on the Koch label is
alive with Latin rhythms and percussive sounds. Typically ignoring
stylistic boundaries, one track on the album interweaves Jobim’s "The
Girl from Ipanema" with Tchaikovsky’s "Pathetique Symphony" as
arranged by Summers.
TISQ joins the classical Ying Quartet, now in residence at Rochester’s
Eastman School of Music, on the recently-released Telarc album "4 +
Four." The Yings are siblings Timothy and Janet (violins), Philip
(viola), and David (cello). The collaboration of the two quartets grew
out of a casual conversation between Philip Yang and TISQ’s
Balakrishnan at Chamber Music America, where both sit on the board.
Concerned about making chamber music more accessible and less
forbidding, the two decided to combine forces for concerts and
recordings. "The collaboration creates a little string orchestra,"
Summer says. "You can get textures and harmonies difficult to obtain
with only four players."
Says Philip Ying: "What I love about the project is that this is music
for our time in the truest sense of the word, and it starts to blur
all the boundaries."
In its own way, Peddie’s CAPPS, founded in 2001, has also been
blurring musical boundaries. CAPPS has settled into offering three
subscription series: a four-concert Friday evening jazz series, a
four-concert Saturday evening series featuring prominent musicians
with international careers, and a three-concert Sunday afternoon pops
series. Among the blenders of styles CAPPS has tapped for 2005-’06 are
Sergio and Odair Assad, the Brazilian-born guitar duo who perform
without regard to musical boundaries, and classically-trained
Christopher O’Riley, who peppers his conventional programming with
transcriptions of the rock group Radiohead.
Programming for the public at the preparatory school, which has been
going on since 1989, takes advantage of the 500-seat Mount-Burke
theater on campus. Performers often make themselves available for
conversations with the audience or workshops with students.
The arts are a prominent part of the program at the 525-student
private school. The Peddie Chorus has over 100 members; the orchestra
consists of close to 80. There are four instrumental and four vocal
ensembles. More than 150 students participate in Peddie’s visual arts
program, and a similar number take advantage of the theater program.
Summer camps for theater and the visual arts, open to the public, make
Peddie a year-round artistic presence in the community.
Most comprehensively, the CAPPS subscription concert series bring
together town and gown. Sitting in a common space, youngsters and
seniors share musical experiences. The experience might, just
possibly, remind each group that the other is part of their world.
CAPPS, Mount-Burke Theater, Peddie School, Hightstown, 609-490-7550.
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