A Hendrix Experience, via the Turtle Island Quartet

by Carey Rutherford

They’re no Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, but they’ll kick ass anyway!
Photo by Jati Lindsay

Your faithful Writer can’t help but ask, right off the start, if orchestras, or other musicians the Turtle Island Quartet encounter, harbour a strong dislike for the freedom which the TIQ exhibit in their choices of music in the quartet’s repertoire. “Because,” I say with some admiration, “you guys seem to play whatever you want to!”

David Balakrishnan, founder, spokesman, composer and lead violinist for the 30 year old quartet, quickly dispenses with that illusion:

“That’s a very commonly wondered-about question. We seem to be going against the flow of what you would think about with string players. While I’m very proud to say that we have earned a fair amount of dislike and criticism (if you don’t have some of that you’re doing something wrong!), I would say we’ve been blessed with the exact opposite in most cases. (I think this is because) firstly, the group is not breaking the rules of the string quartet tradition: we’re playing the same instruments; we’re using the same 200 year-old technology; we’re grounded in how to use those tools in the same way that a classical string player is.

“(Secondly) we’re bringing in what we do from being attracted to improvising and playing more of the group-based American roots and jazz styles. What happens is the orchestra players will realize we’re not competing with their territory. Just think about it: if you’ve got a violinist playing a concerto with an orchestra, all of the violin players are in there thinking ‘I coed’ve been him!’ And they’re listening thinking, ‘Oh, I don’t know if he played that so accurately.’ We’re just people: it’s human nature to be critical. So what happens with us is, they know that they’re in no way near doing what we’re doing: we don’t threaten them in that way.. . . . Over time, it’s been that if you do what you do, and you love what you do, and you do it long enough, you can start to overcome (even) that last five yards (of contention), so to speak.”

David describes , after being asked about the other Turtle Islanders choosing these same musical paths, that he believes it’s more the music choosing the player than the opposite. Following his Jimi Hendrix epiphany as a teenage violinist, and the interest of those who heard his subsequent emulations on his own instrument, the young Balakrishnan continued in his classical direction, expanding into “harmonically developed music styles’ like folk and jazz and music from his father’s homeland,India (whose music his American-born mom described as cats being strangled).

David admits that he’s found he would not have done so well staying within the classical performer’s oeuvre: “Some people are born to beautifully preserve a tradition that needs to be treasured. Others are born to inquire forward, and see what could evolve. They’re both equally valid, I’ve found, and I appreciate the ones that choose the former path.. . . My life’s music work has been to continually look for the ways the door keeps opening into territory that is grounded in the past, but still evolves into something toward what has less ground to stand on.”

Having revisited Hendrix vinyl (and also TIQ’s latest Confetti Man CD), I suggests that the general difference between the ‘classical’ artist and the ‘rock’ artist, at David and Jimi’s level of competence, is perhaps a contrast between compositional and performative creation.

“There’s 2 aspects to that question that I would tackle. One is that there’s a way that we play, separate from the improvisational, in the moment, approach, that is still diametrically different to what a classically-grounded string quartet would play. Because our way of playing our instruments is informed (by) listening to American roots, jazz, rock & roll, and various world styles from the beginning.

“Having said that, there’s also this element of improvisation.. . . We ran into (the same challenge of interpreting Hendrix’s live angst and power) when performing our previous recording of Coltrane: you CANNOT recreate the crazy energy of John Coltrane, Elvin Jones, McCoy Tyner, and Jimmy Garrison with a wimpy little string quartet (laughs).. . . We still listen to (that music) and go, ‘Oh my god! That’s just hair-raising.’ You just long for it. And we let that longing guide us.”

David mentions that, when performing here on the 15th, TIQ will be doing works by (and informed by) Jimi Hendrix, Miles Davis, John McLaughlin and Shakti, and Balakrishnan himself. But there’ll be no amplifiers or wah-wah pedals, sorry. Here’s their next couple of performances, if you want to become Experienced:

Apr 15: “HAVE YOU EVER BEEN…?” Jack Singer Concert Hall, Calgary, AB Canada; May 20: “AEROELASTICITY” Presidio Officers Club, San Francisco, CA USA.