Coming attractions: Turtle island string quartet

Written by Holly O. Austin April 10, 2014 09:57 am

Turtle Island Quartet
 Versatile instrumentalists include Jimi Hendrix and John Coltrane in their repertoire

Visualize a string quartet with two violins, a viola and a cello. Now, hear them playing the music of Jimi Hendrix and John Coltrane. Hard to imagine, but that’s what Crescent City will get when Turtle Island Quartet (TIQ) performs for the Del Norte Association for Cultural Awareness on Sunday evening in Crescent Elk Auditorium.

Winner of the 2006 and, most recently, the 2008 Grammy Award for Best Classical Crossover Album, Turtle Island has created a new niche for string quartet music, one that fuses classical virtuosity and aesthetics with American rhythms and styles of music such as rock, jazz, bluegrass and more, and a performance practice that honors both.

Turtle Island is “a unified voice that truly breaks new ground — authentic and passionate — a reflection of some of the most creative music-making today,” noted renowned cellist Yo-Yo Ma.

The quartet’s birth in 1985 was the result of violinist David Balakrishnan’s brainstorming explorations and compositional vision while completing his master’s degree program at Antioch University West. The ensuing journey has taken Turtle Island through forays into folk, bluegrass, swing, bebop, funk, R&B, new age, rock, hip-hop, as well as the music of Latin America and India, compiling a repertoire consisting of hundreds of ingenious arrangements and originals.

In its Crescent City appearance, Turtle Island will perform a program called “Have You Ever Been ...” featuring the music and styles of two pioneering giants: Jimi Hendrix and John Coltrane. 

Another unique facet of Turtle Island is its revival of improvisational and compositional chamber traditions that have not been explored by string players for nearly 200 years.

At the time of Haydn’s creation of the string quartet format, musicians were more akin to the saxophonists and keyboard masters of today’s jazz and pop world — that is, they were improvisers, composers and arrangers.

Each Turtle Island member is accomplished in these areas of expertise, as well as having extensive conservatory training as instrumentalists. 

In addition to Balakrishnan, the quartet features Mateusz Smoczynski on violin, Mark Summer on cello and Benjamin Von Gutzeit on viola. The group has “the ability to create the best jazz, rock, bluegrass and the rest in sonorities that are rich, transparent, balanced and blessedly lightly amplified,” wrote The Washington Post. 

Turtle Island Quartet has more than a dozen recordings on labels such as Windham Hill, Chandos, Koch and Telarc, soundtracks for major motion pictures and TV and radio credits such as the “Today Show,” “All Things Considered,” “Prairie Home Companion” and “Morning Edition,” as well as feature articles in People and Newsweek magazines.

Turtle Island has collaborated with famed artists such as Paquito D’Rivera, Stefon Harris, Leo Kottke, The Manhattan Transfer, Billy Taylor, Kenny Barron, Ramsey Lewis, the Ying Quartet and the Parsons Dance Company, among others.

The performance series of the nonprofit DNACA is made possible by its underwriters: Caldwell & Sund Family Trust, Lodolini Family, Bill and Kathy Maffett, Physicians of Sutter Coast Hospital Fund, Gene and Carol Schach, Smith River Rancheria, Sutter Coast Hospital and Wild Rivers Community Foundation.

DNACA is also a state/local partner, funded in part by the California Arts Council, a state agency and the National Endowment for the Arts, a federal agency.

Holly O. Austin is executive director of the Del Norte Association for Cultural Awareness.