Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Brooklyn Rider: Seven Steps


            Whether conscious or not, it is difficult not to prepare for the music you are about to hear. You might be in an audience or listening to music on your iPod, but chances are your eyes will try to find the name of the upcoming piece. If you just heard a piece from the 20th century, seeing Brahms’s or Schumann’s name will most likely cause an involuntary shift in perspective.
            So when I listened to Christopher Tignor’s piece “Together Into This Unknowable Night,” composed in 2008, transition to Beethoven’s monumental String Quartet No. 14 opus131 naturally and without a change in perspective (or look at the back of the CD, for that matter), I knew the quartet and album they came from were special.
            The quartet is Brooklyn Rider, and the CD is their recently released album Seven Steps. The unforgettable group from New York, composed of Johnny Gandelsman and Colin Jacobsen on violin, Nicholas Cords on viola, and Eric Jacobsen on cello, definitely lets the concept of “variety” run through their veins: not only do their albums include selections from different times and genres, but they’re as collaborative and creative as they are interpretive—they work with other musicians, Colin Jacobsen often writes music for the quartet, and Seven Steps’s title track is the group’s first collaborative composition. 
            Brooklyn Rider’s Seven Steps uses Beethoven’s showstopper as just that—but instead of the contemporary pieces simply filling space, they work with the colossal piece. The number seven figuratively appears in multiple forms throughout the CD. The Beethoven quartet is seven movements, “Seven Steps” is divided into seven parts, and the number seven relates not only to Beethoven’s later life, but life in general (Buddha allegedly took seven steps at birth). 
            It’s rare when the programming of a body of work contributes almost as much as the music itself, and this aspect of Seven Steps is a sort of lesson. Sounds don’t have to be labeled as “old” or “new” and heard as such. Brooklyn Rider reminded me that when music is being played, it’s always in the moment, no matter what century it was created in. Maybe this seems obvious, but in a forward-thinking and trend-obsessed world, it is often forgotten. Seven Steps engulfs the listener in the music and pure fun of listening to it. The labels we have been trained to remember and assign melt away.  

Brooklyn Rider, being cool
            The bulk of the album is Beethoven’s opus 131. The piece is known for its enormity (in both size and importance), but Brooklyn Rider’s successful interpretation is sincere and approachable. The piece's movements range from a melancholy fugue to a high energy scherzo with a theme difficult to stop humming after a listen. The sounds that wriggle into the deepest parts of the brain put the listener inside the work, deep inside the conversational movements. Brooklyn Rider’s attitude pairs well with this. While listening to the quartet, you can almost see their eyebrows rising and their moving shoulders interacting with each other. This approach is refreshing--you feel like a part of the action instead of an onlooker. However, there are moments, such as the calm, descending transitions in the second movement, when the organic feel of Brooklyn Rider sounds odd with the tight and particular structure of Beethoven. There are phrases that sound too casual, too linearly thought out.
            The CD starts with the title track, “Seven Steps.” It’s not surprising the piece was composed by Brooklyn Rider—the immediate folk influences, the suspenseful bow bounces, and the overarching sense of collaboration make you grin and brace yourself for what's coming next.  It’s incredibly easy to listen to, probably because it was partially improvised. While the different sections have widely different themes and flavors, none adhere to a certain “genre,” and it becomes its own type of music. “Seven Steps” is like a person, quaint in some ways, intense in others, with countless personality traits.
            “Together Into This Unknowable Night” by Christopher Tignor, the second track on Seven Steps, brings the quartet into a cloud of similarly-moving lines. The sounds, metallic and adventurous to calm and melancholy, are backed up by distant electronics and voices. While each instrument is recognizable and can be separated in the listener’s head, the piece feels much larger. The emotion produced cannot be taken in one dose. There is not much variance in the structure of the strings, and this can get redundant if you try to focus on the quartet separate from the meditative nature of the entire work. The section that causes a gaping mouth (in the good way) is the last few minutes, when the strings are exhaling, dissolving into the distance, and the recorded voices echo in the distance. The piece is human, but also celestial.
            Music never goes unlabeled, and these groupings often cause perspectives to change when listening to pieces from different genres or time periods. By doing this, we restrict sounds from living with each other and from mingling the “old” with the “new.” Brooklyn Rider’s CD Seven Steps breaks these culture and time barriers by giving us a collection of music that not only is performed exquisitely and is exhilarating to listen to, but redefines the aspects of periods. Sure, Beethoven’s opus 131 is a colossal, classical period work, but it blends instinctively with contemporary pieces. Brooklyn Rider may be creating the new attitude and role of today’s string quartet, but they’re also showing us how to simply listen, without presumption.  


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