As a violinist who had both studied the Beethoven quartets and played in jazz and bluegrass groups, David Balakrishnan had been working hard to create serious string quartet music that evolved from vernacular styles. As always, it came down to finding an ensemble able to play it.
Balakrishnan had heard “strings can’t swing” enough times to take offense personally, but he really started to cringe when he started to assemble a group to play his music. “There are a few jazz violinists,” he says. “There are far fewer jazz cellists. But there are no true jazz violists.”
So Balakrishnan, who up until then had composed on the instrument itself and simply recorded each part in tracks (three on violin and one on a baritone violin, which sounds an octave lower), recruited an experienced jazz violinist to play the viola part. The result was the Turtle Island String Quartet, which since its formation in 1986 has been through a number of membership changes — including Balakrishnan himself, who took a four-year sabbatical.
“I see my music as coming from the Beethoven-Bartòk quartet model,” he says. “It uses different playing techniques, but it deals largely with issues of form and harmony. I see it as expanding tradition, not ignoring it, incorporating jazz within the standard counterpoint-with-four-moving-lines that everyone gets in their compositional training.”
In between his own compositions, Balakrishnan put together a series of “covers” — quartet arrangements of famous jazz tunes that would help acclimate the audience’s ear to his own musical direction. True enough, the TISQ’s initial attention came not from his own works, which he says took three or four years to write, but from his arrangements, which he knocked off in a couple of weeks. Balakrishnan received a Grammy nomination for his arrangement of Dizzy Gillespie’s “A Night in Tunisia” from TISQ’s debut recording in 1989.
But his own work thrived under the TISQ’s collective bows and fingers, as well as in collaborations with groups as diverse as the Modern Jazz Quartet, the Detroit Symphony, the Manhattan Transfer and bassist Edgar Meyer. With his idioms more firmly established, Balakrishnan had to leave the group from 1993 to 1997 to keep up with his commissions, which came from a number of groups including the Modern Mandolin Quartet and the Eugene Symphony under conductor Marin Alsop.
“Some of my music is completely written out, some is nothing more than a lead sheet,” he says. “Most is somewhere in between. Improvisation is composition, after all, and the TISQ tends to blur the lines. It’s one of our most common questions: How much is written out and how much is improvised? That, and How many people are in your quartet?”
From Speak For Yourself! A Hyper-History of American Composer-Led New Music Ensembles
by Ken Smith
© 1999 NewMusicBox