Brooklyn Rider's Nicholas Cords on Breaking the 'Fourth Wall'

Wednesday, September 05, 2012

The music of Philip Glass will always be inextricably linked with our very understanding of how to be a string quartet. Early on in our history as Brooklyn Rider, we decided to learn his String Quartet No. 3, which is an adaptation of his score for "A Life in Four Chapters," the brooding 1985 Paul Schrader film about the life of Japanese author Yukio Mishima. Despite the relative simplicity of the score's veneer, we quickly discovered a rich inner life to the music and learned much about ourselves in the process.

Though we faltered here and there, already present in the first reading of Mishima was an addictive feeling that our parts were being merged to create an entity larger than the sum of our parts.

String Quartet No. 3, "Mishima": I. (excerpt)

 The swirling sonority coaxed us towards a truly collective spirit as an ensemble. Not only did the music require us at all times to be emotionally invested, but it also demanded that we proceed with a heightened group sensitivity to blend, transparency and color – as if the notation served as a kind of Rosetta Stone and it was our job to decipher the code. 

The absolute lock-step relationship between harmony, rhythm and melody we observed in this quartet and subsequently in others... 

String Quartet No. 4, "Buczak": I. (exceprt)

caused us to take renewed notice of this ever-shifting equation in the music of others. Beethoven, for instance! To take a rather auspicious example, the opening movement of Op. 131 is never just about who is primary and who is secondary.

Beethoven: String Quartet No. 14, Op. 131: I. (excerpt)

While balances are extremely important, those voices which provide drones or underlying harmonies are as enormously vital to the undertaking as the main subject.  

Beyond our fundamental approach to the score, Glass’s synergistic combination of recursive patterns and powerful harmonies caused us to draw associations to our own world: whether it be the gossamer-like inner voices of an early classical-era string quartet, the urban landscape of Brooklyn, or the drone infused tones of Persian music. All of this underscored a growing belief that has since persisted in our approach to programming; that the great string quartet tradition we inherited does not exist exist in a historic or geographic bubble. 

Lastly, Philip Glass taught us something about the power of reaching across the audience divide. And I mean this in two senses. First of all, he is an absolute exemplar of the type of musician who reaches many different kinds of listeners, something we try to emulate in our work. His ability to be both a composer of our time and curiously ‘unstuck’ from time fosters a shared appreciation of his music amongst fans of nearly every genre of music.

But more importantly, what allows so many people to plug in is the quality of listening experience his music generates. I love that he creates the space for each and every listener to enter freely.

String Quartet No. 3, "Mishima": Mishima/Closing (excerpt)

Even from our perspective as performers, we actually need to be greater listeners than players. This entails listening to the way the music behaves in a room, and it also means being receptive to the way the audience is taking it all in. The practice of 'breaking the fourth wall' is so essential to creating the live music experience, and the music of Philip Glass has taught us above all to become more empathetic performers. 

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