Brooklyn Rider: A Walking Fire (pt. 1)

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Dear Matt:

Let’s pick up where we left off before last week’s concert excursion. You had me listen to some loud, crazy punk rock because the time had come for me to confront my fears and doubts. Now, likewise, that time has come for you.

This week, you’ll be listening to classical music. (Well, nominally “classical,” anyway. Someday I’ll bore you with a lengthy diatribe about why that label is stupid, but I’ll spare you for now.) And, just as you offered me a deeply unconventional way into punk, I’m going to be shooting you far off into the outer limits of classical — where the canon fears to tread. Well, kind of.

Your assignment is to listen to A Walking Fire, the 2013 release from the string quartet Brooklyn Rider.

You may be shocked, once you’ve listened to this album, by the notion that some classical music listeners would find it difficult. But you’ve got to understand the fundamental difference between the classical side of the music industry and the rest of it: most major classical releases contain no new music. Instead, they feature new interpretations of old (sometimes very old) music that has been recorded before (sometimes hundreds of times).

So, an album like this, where two of the three works presented are premiere recordings by living composers with unfamiliar names, is not entirely conventional. I, for one, wish that it was. Because, recordings like A Walking Fire are way easier to recommend to adventurous non-classical-fans such as yourself than, say, a recording of Mozart’s 40th symphony.

So, what exactly is on this?

The first piece, Culai, is by a Russian-American composer named Ljova, who isn’t enormously well known, in spite of having written for Yo-Yo Ma and the Kronos Quartet. The last piece, Three Miniatures for String Quartet, is by one of Brooklyn Rider’s violinists, Colin Jacobsen. Both of these were written specifically for Brooklyn Rider, and that’s kind of the point of them: they’re custom-made vehicles for the explosive sound of this quartet, which is unlike any other in the world.

The work that’s sandwiched in between them is different in that it’s 100 years old: Béla Bartók’s second string quartet. Ask any string player who the top three quartet composers ever were, and you’ll probably get some permutation of Haydn, Beethoven and Bartók. Mozart and Schubert might enter the conversation soon after. Of those five, Bartók is the most recent by nearly a century.

Part of why I’m giving you this album is because I’m interested in how you’ll react to the Bartók in relation to the newer music. This album demonstrates two different models of classical music: the “futureproof masterpieces” model in the Bartók, and the “music for now” model in the other pieces.

My feeling is always that music need not stand the test of time before it can be dubbed “good.” It’s remarkable how uncommon that opinion is in classical circles, but I suspect I don’t need to justify it to you.

Anyway, the point is: classical music has lots to offer aside from the earnest pursuit of everlasting beauty. It can also be just casually awesome. That’s the kind of classical music that I’m most attracted to these days, and there is plenty of it on A Walking Fire.

I think you’ll find something to like in this. If not, no worries. I’ve got plenty of other potential classical gateway drugs lined up.

— Matthew

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