Sunday, November 2, 2014

Inspiration cuts 13 ways in adventuresome string quartet Brooklyn Rider's new recording

Brooklyn Rider: They got whole worlds in their hands.
Having taken its name from an early- 20th-century movement inspired by artistic cross-fertilization, Brooklyn Rider has made an album out of a series of new works inspired by a wide variety of artists.

The expressionist "Blue Rider" group brought a fruitful interdisciplinary vigor to the pioneering work of Arnold Schoenberg and Wassily Kandinsky in the early 1900s. The string quartet Brooklyn Rider has used its extensive network of champions and collaborators to assemble 13 new works in which the chosen composers salute artists they regard as inspirational, ranging from James Brown to Igor Stravinsky, Chick Corea to John Steinbeck.

In the 21st century, confidence about the future domination of any given artistic tendency is probably misplaced. As shown by these works, stylistic diversity is now cutting-edge. Across the wide variety represented in "Brooklyn Rider Almanac" (Mercury Classics), the only discernible trend is toward the deliberate, unironic infusion of vernacular elements, particularly as to rhythm and harmony, in composed works that fit under the awkward rubric of "art music."

Glen Kotche's "Ping Pong Fumble Thaw" (inspired by German electronic-music artist Jens Massel) was adapted from a minimalist piece for solo drum kit. Its performance here has that tight-knit energy always characteristic of Brooklyn Rider, playing as one despite the ping-ponging of notes across a nervous landscape.

Bill Frisell's "John Steinbeck" creates a hazy atmosphere typical of Frisell's jazz guitar playing and studio wizardry, while saluting with a drifting expressive warmth the novelist who brought California's fertile Salinas Valley into national consciousness.

Sometimes I found the pieces too cute and self-conscious to  justify their length. Christine Courtin's "Tralala" precisely represents the way in which she wants to salute Igor Stravinsky, but it seems to settle for a faux-naivete whose charm wears thin before its seven-minute duration expires. Greg Saunier's "Quartet, Parts One and Two" toys with string nasality delivered in extended snorts, separated by pauses whose significance remains beyond me.

What struck me as worth hearing in concert someday? Rubin Kodheli's "Necessary Henry!," a zesty tribute to the intricate jazz compositions of Henry Threadgill. Its bluesy feeling across a generous registral palette is overlaid with changing meters; its abrupt ending seems definitively Threadgillian. Also piquantly evocative of its source, and not in a slavish manner, was Vijay Iyer's "Dig the Say."  With its kaleidoscopic treatment of rhythm, including repetitive figures meant to energize the listener like the Godfather of Soul, the work raises to an exalted level the music of James Brown.

The folksiness of other pieces, like Aoife O'Donovan's "Show Me" (inspirational source: Faulkner) and Padma Newsome's "Simpson's Gap" (inspiration: Australian watercolorist Albert Namatjira), conjured fresh enchantments and didn't overstay their welcome. But I liked even more such compositions as Daniel Cords' "The Haring Escape" — i.e., compositions that neither struck me as puzzling nor reminded me too much of other genres.

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