Remember recorders? Those long plastic tubes with eight holes in them that can grate on a listener's ears after minimal milliseconds? That, at least, is one view of the instruments that are handed out in elementary schools, and used more for teaching kids about music than producing beautiful sounds.
The fact is, there are virtuoso recorder ensembles, among them, the Quartet New Generation (QNG), from Berlin. The all-female quartet plays on around 40 different types of recorders -- ranging from a few centimeters in length to over six feet tall. Their repertoire runs the gamut: Renaissance and Baroque dances, arrangements of Bruckner and Shostakovich, avant-garde theater pieces by living composers.
In the WQXR Café, the ensemble played Fulvio Caldini's Clockwork Toccata, a buoyant minimalist jigsaw puzzle reminiscent of Steve Reich. QNG member Susanne Fröhlich admitted that not every composer is so naturally adept at writing for the ensemble. "It’s a big challenge to write for our instrument because there is not so much original literature," she said. "Composers have to be really flexible and really open to listen to everything we show."
The QNG began in 1998 as an ad-hoc student group at the Amsterdam Conservatory. The members, all from Germany and Austria, clicked and they soon began winning chamber-music competitions, like the Concert Artists Guild prize in New York. They built a particular niche on the new-music circuit, appearing on the 2010 Bang on a Can Marathon and at the MATA Festival this week in New York. They've also cultivated a outre image, with glamorous press photos and theatrical pieces like Chiel Meijering's Cybergirls Go Extreme (played with colorful wigs and robotic dance moves).
Despite these achievements, concert venues don't always know what to expect. "We have a range of 40 instruments with us," said Fröhlich. "The smallest is about half a foot and then we have a recorder that’s about six-and-a-half-feet tall."
"When presenters book us and think about a recorder quartet they think about four or eight instruments," added QNG member Heide Schwartz. "When they pick us up with a car sometimes it’s a little problem. Then we have to go twice or some of us have to walk and we put the luggage in the car."
Video: Amy Pearl; Sound: Edward Haber; Text & Production: Brian Wise