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Interview with Brooklyn Rider

img  Tobias Fischer

These days, originality appears to be the main gauge for artistic success: No insult could be worse than being made out a copycat or rip-off, no praise higher than having one's work being commended as 'unique', 'personal' or 'inventive'. And yet, as much as it's in demand, originality is a highly problematic term. For one, entirely original music is an impossibility, since every composition already builds on what came before it in some form or the other. Also, originality as a main priority does not by default result in satisfying results. Even more critically, our notion of originality is questioned by the advances of the information age: The more people are making and releasing music, the smaller the potential for each of them to create something truly original, after all. What happens when everything has been done - every sound sculpted, every beat programmed, every chord played and every arrangement tried? We spoke to a wide selection of artists from all corners of the musical spectrum to find out more about their take on originality, how they see it changing and what it means in their work.

In this interview with string quartet Brooklyn Rider's Colin Jacobsen and Nicholas Cords, they stress the importance of music as decision-making – and that, as an artist, one needs to shed the pressure of 'living up to 500 years of musical tradition'.

For most artists, originality is first preceded by a phase of learning and, often, emulating others. What was this like for you? How would you describe your own development as an artist and the transition towards your own voice?
Nicholas Cords: In the world of string quartets, you often have to operate within the extremes of honoring the inherited tradition of playing and willfully casting it aside. It's ultimately best when these polarities are simply taken as a given; we adore the tradition of hundreds of years of string quartet playing (including the earlier recorded ensembles like the Capet and Busch String Quartets) and we all studied with some of the great quartet players of our time, and yet, we are doing this thing because we felt that we had something unique to say. The thing is, finding your own voice IS the tradition- has always been and should always be.

When, would you say, did you start to appreciate originality as an important quality in music? What were some of the first artists that stood out in terms of their originality to you and what was it about the originality in their work that attracted you to it?
Nicholas Cords: I feel like the ear inherently recognizes something great. Age group, listening experience, background; these are not necessarily prerequisites. They can be, but sometimes a piece of music hits you like a ton of bricks. To me, the aforementioned Capet String Quartet hit me in this way many years ago - the playing represented a crazy discipline that at the same time sounded unhinged and ecstatic. On a slightly different end of the spectrum, I discovered the band Deerhoof a few years later and was struck by a sound that I never heard before - kind of that same unhinged thing, but also somewhat assuming and utterly individual. It was for that reason that we asked Greg Saunier - the drummer and driver of lots of their material - to write a piece for The Brooklyn Rider Almanac.

What's your own definition of originality?
Nicholas Cords: This is hard to define! Originality tends to trump definitions - I rely on my senses and my intuitive self to recognize originality. Thing is, it is probably different for everybody - one person's idea of original can be another person's idea of banal. You don't have to go much further than a lively listener review/comment section to discover this to be the case. The simplest thing I could say is that originality is something that hasn't been heard before. Of course, that doesn't mean that it can't reference another idea or feel part of a style adopted by others - in fact, part of the idea behind our Brooklyn Rider Almanac was to ask people to write original material but very much inspired by another musician or artist. This was just our way of making explicit the role of tradition in originality- we can never really cast it aside, whether that influence is explicit or implicit.

Originality is one, but certainly not the only aspect of quality in music. What, from your current perspective, is the value of originality and has it become more or less important to you over time?
Nicholas Cords: Originality is of course important, but trying to get to a place of originality can sometimes lead down some less desirable and organic paths. The values that we identify as important within Brooklyn Rider are more about the level to which an idea communicates. Originality can surely translate, but as much time as we spend in our music 'laboratory' creating and commissioning new music, we also play things like Mozart and Beethoven quartets. Those guys are of course 'original,' but our challenge then becomes more of an interpretational challenge - we are really thinking about the score and testing the ways that we can bring our vision of the score to an audience. And the thing about working with that music is that there is a whole lot of gorgeous craft. Knowing how to make the string quartet really sound was part of their greatness, and it becomes hard to separate the seamless craft from the originality of the ideas. Again, our Almanac project was exciting to us because we opened the door to a lot of folks who are not necessarily part of that grand old tradition of classical music. It was super fun to see the way all of the composers represented their very idea of the sound of the string quartet in their works, often pushing the boundaries considerably.

With more and more musicians creating than ever and more and more of these creations being released, what does this mean for you as an artist in terms of originality? What are some of the areas where you currently see the greatest potential for originality and who are some of the artists and communities that you find inspiring in this regard?
Nicholas Cords: This is the era of the long tail of music, meaning that there is more out than ever with fewer barriers. It is both exciting and daunting. The drive for originality should not trump authenticity and answering to your own passions, so essentially, you still have to go to a very individual place to create. But knowing that there is a community of people doing similar things is ultimately a huge bolt of energy. We have derived a lot of inspiration over the years from friends both inside and outside of music, and are excited greatly by the power to express an idea through multiple art forms. For instance, Padma Newsome's work on the Alamanc introduced us to the work and incredible story of the great Aboriginal watercolorist Albert Namatjira - hearing Padma talk about his inspiration, playing his music, and also getting to know the remarkable work of Namatjira has fueled our imagination (as well as the imagination of audiences). Making multiple points of contact with a listener can create durable experiences within our otherwise ephemeral art form.

What are areas of your writing process at the moment that are particularly challenging to you and how does the notion of originality come into play here? What have been some of the more rewarding strategies for attaining originality for you? Please feel free to expand on some of your recent projects and releases.
Colin Jacobsen: Composition was something I studied in high school, but then abandoned (other than the various theory/ear training/analysis courses one normally gets in conservatory-land) in the athletic pursuit of instrumental proficiency and immersion in the interpretive process in those college years. At some point, after some time playing with the Silk Road Ensemble, and starting Brooklyn Rider, I started to feel guilty not to sit down and play with the sounds and ideas that had been banging around in my head for several years. I realized (or re-realized) an essential aspect of creativity- the playful aspect. The way a child will sit down with a bunch of building blocks or crayons and just make something. And how somehow the way music is taught in many conservatories/music schools had gotten away from that spirit of serious play in the increasing specialization and segmentation of musical life over the 20th century. This isn't to say one shouldn't bang one's head over and over in order to come up with something (I have to)- but not feeling the pressure of living up to 500 years of musical tradition is necessary in order to decide that even one note should follow another. And that was another realization- that essentially writing music is making decisions; choosing one path over another. And even if John Cage exploded that idea of personal decision-making (which was a useful development), it allowed hopefully something of a reset to happen so that our ears could start over again, and things like wars over tonality vs atonality could end. One thing I feel that I might bring to the table as a performer/composer is a sense of how music feels in time and space in front of people. And in my most recent piece, "Chalk and Soot", (a song cycle/dance theater piece based on poems by Kandinsky) that's the primary consideration- above stylistic concerns. The poems themselves have a wickedly gleeful sense of play/theater which allowed the music to travel to many different places by juxtaposing (sometimes smoothly, sometimes harshly) very different elements. The song "Exit" on our latest album, The Brooklyn Rider Almanac is drawn from this song cycle, and you'll even hear within this song some of that stylistic vertigo between the opening section and the middle ("trio"?) section.

The idea of originality is closely related to one's understanding of the creative process. How would you describe this process for yourself - where do ideas come from, how are they transformed in your mind and how do experiences and observations turn into a work of art?
Colin Jacobsen: I think many people imagine creativity happens in a vacuum (perhaps the one inside a painter, composer or writer's skull, which sometimes can feel very drafty...) But luckily it doesn't - there's a whole amazing world out there, waiting to be experienced and then internalized and vomited out again. I see originality coming out in the way an artist draws surprising and unexpected connections for themselves and their audience between seemingly disparate elements. And then finding a way of ordering that experience so it makes a certain kind of emotional, logical or spiritual sense. Once again in music this is about time, how things flow from one thing to another ...

The aspect of originality has often been closely linked to copyright questions. I'm not so much interested in the legal and economic consequences, but your thoughts on how far an artist can claim an idea / composition as being their own – is there, perhaps, a better model for recognising originality than the one currently in place?
Colin Jacobsen: This is a big question - and I think it is hard to detach it from the legal and economic consequences. In an ideal/utopian world, we might all be more like the folk music tradition as I understand it- in which it's hard to pin down who wrote what when, but everyone is engaged in constant innovation within tradition, and respected for what they bring to the table. (This is probably an idealistic view that my friends in the folk music scene would refute). On the other hand, if we are headed toward a hive mentality where no one is ever credited with creating anything and the monetary incentive isn't there, that might not be great either. I don't have any answers right now.

How do you see the relationship between the tools to create music and originality?
Nicholas Cords: Tools have always been a part of originality, and I really think their role is integral to the quality of work itself - the chisel mark in a statue, the paintbrush, the laptop, the viola! Improvising with the tools, creating new tools, and modifying existing tools; all of these processes feed creativity. I would just say that it is important to not get obsessed with the tools. We have a crazy amount of resources, but I think it is always good to find contentment with as few tools as necessary.

The importance and perspective on originality has greatly varied over the course of musical history. From your point of view, what are some of the factors in the cultural landscape that are conducive to originality and what are some of those that constitute obstacles?
Nicholas Cords: I think that existing in artistically and culturally pluralistic communities and workplaces is great soil for creativity. One of the greatest obstacles is lack of education - young people should all be given the chance to explore creativity (in its many forms) in all stages of their education. Having this broader impact across the educational spectrum could not only help with our general appreciation of culture, but it may help identify some future great artists.

Do you have a vision of a piece of music which you haven't been able to realise for technical or financial reasons?
Nicholas Cords: Honestly, not really! We are really focused on what is doable - what can tour, what is sustainable, what is possible within a very busy schedule. Do we have ambitious ideas in the hopper? Yes! But those all are filed in the future category - some are this season, some are next season, some might happen in five years (if we are lucky). We are really excited about Colin Jacobsen work he mentioned earlier in this interview, which we did recently did at Lincoln Center's White Light Festival with Dance Heginbotham. The score features texts by the painter Kandinsky and also vocals by Gabriel Kahane and Carla Khilstedt (Shara Worden did it with us earlier this summer at Jacob's Pillow - we also recorded the music from 'Exit' from Chalk and Soot with Shara on our Almanac). This was an absolutely colossal project to mount, so we are recovering at the moment! We have a new Almanac work in the pipeline by Tyondai Braxton to premiere in January, and we are currently in talks with John Luther Adams about premiering a brand new string quartet in late March.

Brooklyn Rider Interview by Tobias Fischer
The Brooklyn Rider Almanac is out now on Mercury Classics

Homepage: Brooklyn Rider