Appearances can be deceiving

Quartet gives classical music a modern spin

Posted: Thursday, March 10, 2005

The Turtle Island String quartet is traditional in appearance only - violin, violin, viola and cello.

They play classical music, true, but in the context of the bands they grew up listening to: The Beatles, Led Zeppelin, Jimi Hendrix, Dave Brubeck, John Coltrane, etc.

"We funnel that into our composing," cellist Mark Summer said. "We're playing this truly contemporary music like modern and classical blues, jazz, rock 'n' roll, fiddle music, even music from India. We're not playing a classical repertoire at all, but it's impossible not to be influenced by classical music."

Founded in 1985 to explore compositional forms beyond the reach of traditional quarters, Turtle Island plays at 7 p.m. Sunday, March 13, at the Juneau-Douglas High School auditorium. Tickets are $22 for general, $18 for students and seniors and $75 for families.

This is Turtle Island's second trip to Juneau. They've also visited Nome, Homer and Anchorage.

"We're really creating the textures of a traditional jazz band," Summer said. "The bass is done by the cello, and the drums are covered by just about everybody. It you've grown up playing classical music, it's natural to have an appreciation of jazz. The harmony and the language is just so rich and lush."

Turtle Island formed out of the creative vision of violinist David Balakrishnan. He began exploring the compositional boundaries of chamber music while working on his thesis at Antioch University West. Summers, a graduate of the Cleveland Institute of Music, was playing in his own group, The West-End String Band, when Balakrishnan invited him to form Turtle Island.

"I had very much wanted to be a jazz cellist, but the idea of putting together a string quartet was all David's brainchild," Summer said. "What I felt like I brought to the table was expanding the role of the cello. And we've all expanded the role of our instruments to find more and more interesting things to do with our concept."

Jazz violinist Evan Price joined Turtle Island in 1997 and also plays with The Hot Club of San Francisco, a gypsy-swing band. Danish native Mads Tolling, also a violinist, plays with world-famous bass player Stanley Clarke.

"I'm real happy to continue to be a part of something that's truly a unique entity," Summer said. "There's never been anything like Turtle Island, and I don't think there ever will be. Some of it is concept, and some of it is willingness to do something that's just difficult: to create a rhythm section out of string instruments. It's kind of like acrobatics without a net."

Last year, Turtle Island released "4+Four," a collection of octets written by the quartet and performed with the Ying Quartet, three brothers and a sister, all from Chicago. They played together for the first time at a hotel bar in Lawrence, Kan., and recorded the album last April in New York.

The two quartets are playing together in Ketchikan on March 9 and in Anchorage on March 12.

"I like to say they came in with empty cups: 'Teach us, show us what you do. They were very open, and we were very open to hearing what they had to say. When we tried to do something like the Mendelssohn octet, they were encouraging and complimentary. It was a string-quartet lovefest."

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