Brooklyn Rider: Spontaneous Symbols
In A Circle Records

On 2012's Seven Steps, Brooklyn Rider paired Christopher Tignor's Together Into This Unknowable Night with Beethoven's fourteenth string quartet; on the subsequent A Walking Fire, the group again balanced contemporary material, this time pieces by Ljova (Lev Zhurbin) and Brooklyn Rider's own Colin Jacobsen, with an established work, Bartók's second string quartet. Spontaneous Symbols now sees the group—violinists Jacobsen and Johnny Gandelsman, violist Nicholas Cords, and cellist Michael Nicolas—eschewing the standard repertoire altogether for a set-list of new material, a move that perpetuates the forward-thinking spirit of its previous release, So Many Things, the group's collaboration with mezzo-soprano Anne Sofie von Otter. In covering material by Caroline Shaw, Sting, and John Adams, among others, the collaborators concentrated on the present more than the past, and now, on this latest release, Brooklyn Rider reasserts its status as new music ambassadors by shifting the focus from Beethoven to, in one particular instance, the NYC music scene of the ‘70s and ‘80s.

Issued on In A Circle Records, the imprint established by Gandelsman in 2008, Spontaneous Symbols is one of the most personal statements to date by Brooklyn Rider, seeing as how almost all of the music was written for the group by close associates, among them Tyondai Braxton and Evan Ziporyn. Background info, sometimes of a technical nature, for each work by the composer in question comes with the release, but its seventy minutes provide just as much satisfaction when broached on purely listening terms. While it's no doubt interesting to learn, for example, that Battles co-founder Braxton composed the six-minute ArpRec1 generatively using Ableton and Max/MSP, what one more experiences is something not unlike a jittery, two-part riff on Short Ride in a Fast Machine scored for string quartet, the steamrolling second part especially.

Brooklyn Rider often involves guests on its releases, and such is the case here, with electro-acoustic composer Paula Matthusen contributing live electronics to the quartet's performance of her 2015 work on the attraction of felicitous amplitude. The incorporation of Matthusen's resonant, field recordings-derived material, which she collected at the site of an ancient Roman cistern buried beneath the American Academy in Rome, naturally provides a striking extra dimension to Spontaneous Symbols, especially when the minimal string writing allows ample opportunity for the composer's contributions to be heard. Ziporyn, well-known as the former clarinetist of the Bang on a Can All-stars, is represented by the three-part Qi, whose title refers to the traditional Chinese character for life-force. Its first part “Lucid Flight” is characterized by soaring, sometimes careening movements that form the image of birds gracefully swooping, whereas “Garden” and “Transport” evoke impressions of peaceful splendour and insistent mobility, respectively.

Kyle Sanna's twenty-minute Sequence for Minor White pays tribute to one of the most influential American photographers of the mid-twentieth century. Inspired by White's habit of arranging individual photos into sequences, what he referred to as “little dramas of dreams with a memory,” Sanna replicates the idea by overlapping sequential movements and having one or two players repeat material at the beginning and end of each section, resulting in a constantly evolving yet still seamless flow. One of the more interesting challenges Sanna set for himself in fashioning his oft-elegiac setting involved creating a convincing impression of “stasis within the passing of time.”

As fine as the preceding are, to these ears the album's most captivating work is BTT, another twenty-minute setting but this one by Brooklyn Rider violinist Jacobsen. Though Cage and Bach functioned as referential touchstones during the writing of BTT, with Jacobsen recognizing that both, despite their obvious differences, established specific parameters within their works that allowed for particular developments to occur, it was the incredibly fertile downtown music scene of NYC in the ‘70s and ‘80s that provided the primary impetus for the work's creation. Still, as inspired as Jacobsen was by the contributions figures such as John Zorn, Philip Glass, Glenn Branca, Meredith Monk, Steve Reich, and Arthur Russell brought to the scene, no one should come to BTT expecting direct quotes of their works. Instead, Jacobsen infuses his composition with the visceral energy of that period, the stabbing strokes with which the violins end the piece, for instance, redolent of the chaos and fury associated with performances by The Ramones and The New York Dolls at CBGB and Max's Kansas City. Without being dour, Jacobsen's affectionate, wide-ranging travelogue sometimes plays like a requiem for a lost era, though such passages are countered by lyrical and lively sequences, pizzicato, minimalism-inflected, and otherwise.

December 2017