Brooklyn Rider: Seven Steps
In a Circle

It would be tempting to see Brooklyn Rider as the heir apparent to the Kronos Quartet, given their shared focus on new composers, but there are key differences. On its fifth release, Brooklyn Rider not only includes a self-authored piece but devotes a major chunk of the recording to a Beethoven work (the String Quartet No. 14 in C# minor, opus 131 to be exact), of all things, a gesture sure to upset some hipsters and avant-gardists. But what the recording actually reveals is that the modern compositions and the Beethoven are on sonic grounds surprisingly similar in spirit. The connection between the Brooklyn Rider and Beethoven compositions is strengthened further on structural grounds: both are seven-part works, even if the former's is executed as a singular, uninterrupted movement while the Beethoven is presented as distinct movements.

The title piece opens boldly with an array of skittering figures and goblin-esque flourishes, before settling into an extended episode that's like some bold pastiche of tango, klezmer, and Viennese waltz. Eventually, the rhythmic thrust subsides, allowing the four players to undertake a series of urgent expressions before collectively alternating between a number of urgent and calming episodes, one even suggestive of Baroque music. A blend of pre-determined structure and improvisation, “Seven Steps” is composed by the group itself—an unusual and telling move on Brooklyn Rider's part in asserting itself as something more than a mouthpiece for other composers' ideas.

An obvious highlight for Slow Six fans is the inclusion of Christopher Tignor's “Together Into This Unknowable Night,” an ambitious, fifteen-minute testament to the NY composer's ample gifts. Tignor plays on the piece also, and expands on its sound world by adding live sampling, percussion, and AM radio to the quartet's full ensemble attack. His presence is most apparent during the quieter passages, where the textural burble and hum of his sounds are heard alongside the lyrical lines of the strings. Aside from that, the work, which Tignor wrote for the quartet in 2008, is distinguished by a number of lovely passages, including a particularly plaintive one that combines bowed and pizzicato playing. Ultimately, though the composer's contributions lend it a contemporary electronic character, it's the piece's powerful emotional expressiveness that registers most powerfully.

It also turns out to be a natural segueway to the majestic Beethoven work, especially when it begins with the elegant, fugue-styled first movement, as moving an adagio as one might find within the string quartet canon. The exuberant second movement offers an immediate contrast in being so comparatively sprightly and light-hearted. Elsewhere the quartet handles the movements with aplomb, whether it be the grandiose central Andante or the zest with which they attack the sinuous Presto. The listener comes away from the performance newly sensitized to the work's relevance and greatness, but also impressed by the sincerity of Brooklyn Rider's rendering. That the quartet manages to make the piece sound so fresh and vital speaks volumes about the dedication the group brings to the recording as a whole.

March 2012