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Five Questions for The Calder Quartet

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The Los Angeles-based Calder Quartet was formed almost a decade ago, but its members still exude a youthful hipness. Their concert schedule includes club dates with the indie-rock band Vampire Weekend as well as in traditional performances in venues like L.A.'s Walt Disney Concert Hall.

A recent season found the quartet playing Beethoven in Berlin, appearing on "Late Show With David Letterman," and collaborating with author Frank McCourt on setting to music his Pulitzer Prize-winning memoir Angela's Ashes. Formerly the quartet-in-residence at Juilliard, currently the group is based out of the Colburn Conservatory in Los Angeles.

This week the Calder – which takes its name from the whimsical American sculptor Alexander Calder — is in New York to perform two shows at Le Poisson Rouge. They’ll return in April for their Carnegie Hall debut. Andrew Bulbrook, the Calder's second violinist, told us about their freewheeling activities.

You’re a Juilliard-trained quartet and yet you’ve probably gotten the most attention by accompanying musicians like the exuberant, long-haired rocker Andrew W. K. ( “Party Hard”) and the band Airborne Toxic Event. What’s the allure of rock music?

What we’re trying to do right now is work with artists who inspire us. Our role creatively is interpreters. Our goal is to be the best conduit, the best channel for people in their creative endeavors involving a string quartet. It’s about how we can best realize the vision of a composer or artist. It’s a very humbling thing to put yourself second in these situations. It’s not always a comfortable situation but that’s a really thrilling thing for us.

Is there a difference in audience etiquette when you’re playing before rock audiences?

A lot of times in classical music people take insult if the audience is eating during the show. But in many forms of music people expect to have a conversation while they listen. You could view that as putting music secondary but for most of the world that doesn’t mean the music is secondary.

You have a chance to help people appreciate the sound a good quartet can make. We play with the Airborne Toxic Event. If you drop a really tight string quartet into the mix it changes the sound. It’s not just four string players. When you have a group that is serious and committed to making it great, it really makes the music better. More people have gotten to see a good string quartet through those channels than might have gotten to see it otherwise.

In April you’ll be making your Carnegie Hall debut with the New York premiere of Christopher Rouse’s String Quartet No. 3. He’s known for being influenced by rock as well. Is that the appeal to you?

He has a saying, “fast is good, loud is better.” Extreme energy and extreme volume are very present in this work. It’s also an exploration of his personal darkness. It’s a spectacle. What he makes us do is crazy. Physically it’s nuts.

Last year you released an album called of Terry Riley’s music which was available for 75 days as a "pay-what-you-want" digital download. You also had artist Dave Muller to create limited-edition vinyl records. What was the impetus for doing it that way? 

We love Terry Riley and this year is his 75th birthday year. We decided to record it and we created this limited edition record that was a testament of our love for Terry. The String Trio was his masters project at Berkeley. He actually hadn’t heard these works in decades. The First Quartet is like foghorns in the San Francisco Bay. You can see the LaMonte Young influence. It’s long tones. You can get inside the tones. The works are transitional in a lot of ways. They stand on their own but they also show where he’s heading. These were 1960 and 1961 and In C was like 1964. You can see stuff coming out of it.

But why go back to old-fashioned vinyl?

With music, is it how many copies of something you sell? A recording could become a piece of art in itself. It could be a singular object. There might be one iteration of it. We were brainstorming on how classical recording could continue to exist and we thought it would be fun to make an object that reflected the music and to sell a small number. With from the way it sounds to the way it feels, the way it looks, for that to all be part of it. That was the genesis of the project. We wanted it to be out there so we decided people could donate.

Actually, it would be really fun to record a Schubert quartet album in a led box that weighs a thousand pounds.