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Turtle Island puts spin on classical music

Published: Monday, September 30, 2013

Updated: Monday, September 30, 2013 00:09

Simon and Garfunkel set the pop standard for feelin’ groovy in the mid-1960s. Since the mid-1980s, Turtle Island Quartet has been refining and defining their own “groove” and sharing it with audiences around the country.

Turtle Island is jazzing up old standards, creating new music and making forays into folk, bluegrass, swing, be-bop, funk, rhythm and blues, new age, rock, hip-hop, as well as music of Latin America and India. The quartet’s next foray will take them to ETSU’s Martha Street Culp Auditorium Friday, Oct. 4, for a 7:30 p.m. performance of their “Art of the Groove” program.

As part of Mary B. Martin School of the Arts’ fall season, the winners of the 2006 and 2008 Grammy Awards for Best Classical Crossover category will not only perform their unique program of ingenious jazz arrangements and originals by group leader David Balakrishnan, but they will also give presentations of their music, concepts and techniques at Towne Acres Elementary School Friday morning; for an ETSU Intro to Music class Friday afternoon; and to Academy of Strings and other local string students Saturday morning.

“I knew about Turtle Island Quartet because I am a big fan of the Windham Hill recording label … This group recorded with them for years and are still recording now on other labels and performing around the world,” says Mary B. Martin School of the Arts Director Anita DeAngelis.

“We are excited to partner once again with the Academy of Strings, as we did last year for Brian Lewis, but this year we are excited about expanding the community outreach.”

The students and Friday evening’s audience will be hearing what cellist Yo-Yo Ma has called “ground-breaking” music and musicianship — “authentic and passionate, a reflection of some of the most creative music-making today.”

Their spectrum-stretching program includes contemporary American styles, featuring works by Miles Davis, John Coltrane, Dave Brubeck, Thelonious Monk, Herbie Hancock, Bob Dylan, Chick Corea, Egberto Gismonti, Paquito D’Rivera and rock guitar legend Jimi Hendrix.  The evening will also feature Turtle Island “resident composer” Balakrishnan’s music of diverse inspirations and styles. In his new composition Tree of Life, an exploration of Darwin’s Theory of Evolution, listeners might hear strains of “Strangers in the Night” and “All of Me” intermingled with myriad American, Indian and Latin American musical impressions.

“Often, folks won’t realize that even though we’re staring into these sheets of music, a lot of [what we play] is improvised,” Balakrishnan told NPR in a 2009 interview. “That’s not expected from string players, and that’s been a great source of income for us.”

Balakrishnan said that while he has tremendous respect for Bach, Beethoven and Brahms, his musical world encompasses much more and rather than playing together like a string quartet, he says, Turtle Island plays more like a band. In addition to Balakrishnan, the group includes other founding member cellist Mark Summer, violinist Mateusz Smoczynski and violist Benjamin von Gutzeit, all known for their alternative techniques.

“Spicing up and stretching out cultural parameters of string quartet tradition,” said a Santa Barbara News Press review.

The local and ETSU students will benefit from the quartet’s unique style and perspectives, says Tim Barrett, executive and artistic director of the Tri-Cities’ Academy of Strings.

“That’s such a great thing that they are going to have so much outreach for all the string students in the area,” Barrett says. “Their eyes are going to be opened. They’ll see that the classical stringed instruments are really versatile and capable of making so many types of sounds.

“We are just really excited. I am looking forward to hearing them and hearing and experiencing all the music genres they are going to play. Everyone is going to leave the concert having heard something they like.”

“It’s good to reach out to the school system and expand our capabilities just a little. This is something we have wanted to do for a long time. I think long-term it will be a really good relationship for us to maintain.”

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