If everyone's making unique work, we can't call it eclectic anymore, can we? Rather, we must listen to each composition as its own collection of references and ideas, which is what makes contemporary classical music—often called "new music" nowadays—so relevant.
"It's not about rules. It's about the work," explains Emil Kang, executive director of Carolina Performing Arts. "It's not about following traditional paths of writing for orchestras. Now it could be a gig at a bar with some singer and a pianist at 1 in the morning. Or it could be opening up for a rock band. You have all of these young, hot performers and composers and ensembles coming and going, not asking for permission."
Using Stravinsky's provocative 1913 ballet The Rite of Spring as a lens, the current season at Carolina Performing Arts has been a rolling acknowledgement of the monumental shifts in art that accompanied the Modernist moment at the end of the 19th century. For a series based on the past, though, the entire Rite at 100 series is resolutely focused on new and future work. That idea is epitomized by the string quartet Brooklyn Rider, now in the first year of a three-year residency at UNC-Chapel Hill.
True, Brooklyn Rider's program on Friday night contains nods to those elders to whom we refer with only last names. They play three Stravinsky pieces from the years immediately after the Rite and present Bartók's second quartet, which transcribes that Modernist shift from a Mozart-like opening through a Hungarian folk music collage into a closing mosaic of musical fragments. But they will also premiere commissions by the quartet's violinist Colin Jacobsen and composer/ songwriter Shara Worden; pieces from the past year by John Zorn and Gabriel Kahane are also on the bill.
All of these contemporary composers—and the ensemble playing them—have often been described as "eclectic," in an effete effort to capture the long list of musical traditions that inform their work. When Brooklyn Rider premiered Kahane's piece at Zankel Hall at Carnegie Hall last month, the program included works by Schumann, Ives, Jerome Kern, Sufjan Stevens and Cee Lo Green.
"To me, Stravinsky and Bartók still sound new," violist Nicholas Cords explains. "Both have ideas—Stravinsky in a more flamboyant way and Bartók in a more quiet way—that really changed the course of music. It made it possible for what we do in our quartet. The other pieces in the program represent a very different aesthetic, each of them. John Zorn really pushes us in a totally different direction, being able to take in very complex bits of music, to change our dynamic together. Shara and Gabe Kahane are both coming from the ... independent movement in pop music that's really straddling the ground between classical music composition and pop."
The beauty of Brooklyn Rider, as well as the constellations of ensembles and musicians it overlaps with, has to do with how normal these programs are now. If you still have to stick the eclectic label on these guys, then you might as well reach for your torch and pitchfork when your iPod playlist shuffles.
Kang first heard Brooklyn Rider perform in New York; he got to know the musicians when three members rounded out a quartet with cellist Yo-Yo Ma for a 2008 performance in Chapel Hill. He recognized in them a personable virtuosity capable of pulling traditional classical music audiences into the present, as well as attracting new college-age listeners. To wit, this Saturday night Brooklyn Rider is making a special live studio recording with banjo player, composer and cross-genre superstar Béla Fleck in Pittsboro's intimate 40-seat space at the Manifold Recording studio.
The quartet's post-eclecticism makes Kang think big: "Thirty years or so ago, the Kronos Quartet came into being and they redefined this idea of what a string quartet should be. A lot of people have been following this idea and asking, 'Who's the next great string quartet?'"
Kang is betting three years of commissions that it's Brooklyn Rider.
"When you commission a work, you invest in relationships, not in concerts or performances. It's not just about the performance. It's about investing in the future, in the artist, in their talent and ideas."
This article appeared in print with the headline "Against eclecticism."