Brooklyn Rider’s “Seven Steps”

Culturebot doesn’t write about music a whole lot – not because of lack of interest, but mostly due to lack of time and expertise. But right now NYC is abuzz with an adventurous and vital group of young contemporary classical musicians who are reinvigorating and re-imagining the canon while creating new and original work. I’m told by people much more knowledgeable than myself that this is really an exciting moment, and I’ve been trying to see/hear as much as I can (in addition to my already-full schedule of dance and theater).

One of the groups I’ve really enjoyed getting to know is Brooklyn Rider, a kind of indie-classical string quartet out of, obviously, Brooklyn. Comprised of Johnny Gandelsman and Colin Jacobsen on violin; Nicholas Cords on viola and Eric Jacobsen on cello, these four young musicians bring an incredible energy and originality to their music, blending genres, influences and aesthetics to bring classical music to life in unexpected ways. They’ve been a big hit with both the establishment and the more upstart younger crowd.

On February 21st Brooklyn Rider will release (digitally) their fourth album, Seven Steps. It will also be available in a limited edition vinyl pressing! Yay vinyl!!

The album is inspired by Beethoven’s op. 131, which makes up the bulk of the record. In addition to their expert rendering of Beethoven’s iconic work, they are debuting a new work by composer Christopher Tignor and their first-ever collaborative composition, Seven Steps. I’m not a music critic, but as a neophyte, I find the juxtaposition of the new work next to the Beethoven really exciting and interesting. It provides a certain kind of aesthetic consonance and framework, drawing a connection between the past and the present, convincingly making the argument for the form (and the string quartet) as a vital, dynamic, contemporary medium.

Brooklyn Rider gave me access to the digital recording last week and I have been listening to it on my iPod ever since. It is really great! The music is dramatic and engaging, and the recording is exceptional. You can almost hear them breathing – it feels so close to live and they are all such dramatic, expressive, powerful musicians. For the first time in ages I just put on my headphones, closed my eyes and gave myself over to truly listening. You just want to take the time to pay close attention and get into every nuance, very shift in tone, every emotion. Admittedly, as I’ve said, I’m not a music critic, but it feels like I’m discovering a whole new genre of music – even though it is one of the most well-known genres in the world.

Seven Steps, the collaboratively devised composition, veritably vibrates with intensity, bringing an almost jazz-like feel of improvisation to the classical vernacular. Together Into This Unknowable Night, the commissioned piece from composer Christopher Tignor, opens with a lush, expansive and suspenseful sound bed, segueing into a more overtly lyrical section and continuously evolving in complexity before gently bringing the listener back to a place of meditative contemplation.

I try to avoid cutting and pasting from press releases, but in this case I feel that they have said it better than I could. From the press release:

The programming of Seven Steps was partially born out of the need to define a place where the labyrinth of Beethoven’s colossal String Quartet in C-sharp Minor, op. 131 could work itself out guided by a spirit of free play rather than the heavy weight of the great composer’s pen. This idea, along with the ensemble’s ongoing desire to follow the lead of popular music and endeavor to create music collaboratively rather than relying on the singular voice of the composer, lead to creation of the title track, Seven Steps. Half-sketched, half improvised, the piece is the first work by Brooklyn Rider, and a first in the world of the classical string quartet.

Christopher Tignor, NYC-based composer/band leader by night and software engineer by day, wrote Together Into This Unknowable Night in 2008 for Brooklyn Rider. Tignor’s music, informed as much by the vast possibilities of the electronic music universe as it is by his tactile experience as a violinist, seemed to be a natural fit for this album. His vivid description felt like it shared a kinship with Brooklyn Rider’s view of Beethoven:

“In Together Into This Unknowable Night, I wanted something that took the quartet somewhere overwrought, something they could lean into with heart as much as bow. Big vertical stacks that would take that centuries-old quartet resonance and let you live inside it. Music that is as much noun as verb, as much a story as a place for your story. And I want it to feel like we’re sorting it all out together.”

The intersection between the improvisatory spirit of Seven Steps, the luminescent sound world of Together Into This Unknowable Night, and the transcendent world of late Beethoven aptly represents the multi-faceted passions of Brooklyn Rider.

Whether you are a tried and true fan of classical music, or just a casual listener on the lookout for great new music, Brooklyn Rider’s Seven Steps is a great addition to your playlist.

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