A Perfect Family of Sound

Photo courtesy of Erin Baiano.

WHRB had the great privilege of sitting down to talk with violist Nicholas Cords, a member of the contemporary string quartet Brooklyn Rider and a professor of viola and chamber music at the New England Conservatory. Cords has worked with many of the greatest composers and musicians in contemporary and global music and has released over a dozen projects with various ensembles. Brooklyn Rider, comprised of violinists Johnny Gandelsman and Colin Jacobsen, violist Nicholas Cords, and cellist Michael Nicolas, will be performing with the Boston Celebrity Series over a season-long residency. Their first concert is Thursday, October 7th, at 8pm at the GBH Calderwood Studio. Information and tickets can be found here.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Marcus Knoke: I want to ask about your favorite or most interesting or most eye opening collaboration that you've done in the past, either with a composer or with another musician. Is there any experience that sticks out to you?

Nicholas Cords: In the context of my work with Brooklyn Rider, we have worked with a lot of different people, that's just in our DNA. The Quartet is looking for eye opening experiences, because that's one of the things that we really enjoy, is to push our boundaries out a little bit. But in terms of a single memory…one of our oldest collaborators, Kayhan Kalhor, plays the Persian kamancheh, which is a four string fiddle from Iran, with an old history. It was eye opening because here's this instrument, and a tradition that comes from a very faraway place, but this tradition is actually so closely linked to our own bowed, string tradition, in the European tradition. There is a shared history and lineage there, that was eye opening not because it was so crazy different, the experience was eye opening, because it felt kind of coming to a place of home playing with Kayhan, and I just really didn't expect that. And to this day, I just imagine the way that Kayhan’s bow is drawing across the string when I want to feel inspired, in some way to paint or to create sound, or to spin sound on my instrument. So I first met Kayhan 20 years ago, more than 20 years ago, and I'm still drawing from that experience today.

What are the differences in the ways in which you and your group approach different musical traditions? Or is there a common thread between all these different musical traditions?

Well, I think it's a little bit of both, I think the difference would be that we're trying to find something essential about that particular person or collaborator, that we can learn from and draw from in our own way. We're not so naive as to think that we're going to ingest a tradition like somebody who is actually a tradition bearer, but we're just looking for those little corners that we can hang on to as a quartet, and that's going to be different for each person. Because they're all absolutely unique. But the common thread across those different collaborations is just like, how do we find our quartet voice? In the collaboration, there is a language that we speak, as Brooklyn Rider, but there's also a language that a string quartet makes together, the pooling of resonance, and all the various connotations of what that might mean, but we're always trying to preserve a sense of what is the Quartet voice in this collaboration. And it's not just for people kind of freely associating with a collaborator, but we're taking the string quartet along with us, as well. But it turns out that there's so many ways to do that. I think that it's important to both be swayed and deeply influenced, to break new ground with a collaborator. But on the other hand, it's also important to really bring what you know, as well make those two work together, because good collaboration is a two way street.

I was wondering how you feel about performing as a soloist versus performing with ensembles, and how these different musical enterprises affect you differently as a musician.

Yeah, it's an interesting thing. I mean, I think all performance in some way, shape or form is collaborative. So even if I'm playing by myself, and nobody else is playing with me, I think it's still a collaborative enterprise. Because there’s actually an audience in the room, a live audience, which is completing the listening experience. The audience is hearing the music that's being played, but not just sitting in the chair and kind of taking it in, but actively listening and sending out a feeling into the room as a sort of response to the music or the music making that is happening. And as a performer, you pick that up. And you, in turn, do something different with the way that you're playing. So all performances are a dynamic exchange of energy between performer and audience, at their best. I think that's true in solo playing, and certainly true in string quartet playing and other ensembles. You first have the communication amongst you on stage, but hopefully that role is open to the audience where it just always becomes in its very best form the widest possible conversation.

With your performance coming up on October 7th, I know you're working with a lot of different composers, including some premiere recordings. How has your experience with performing for living composers differed from performing, say, Beethoven, or these other composers that have been dead and gone for hundreds of years, and whose repertoire has been played over and over again?

In the case of Brooklyn Rider, it's in our DNA to have one foot in the historical tradition and then the other foot really firmly in the music of our time. I think we've always wanted to put them on an equal platform because they inform each other. Sometimes, in the case of this concert on Thursday night, it is actually the case that one or more of the pieces have come to us very, very recently. So what do you do? Do you worry, like, Oh, my, I don't possibly have enough time to do this? Or do you sort of adopt a mindset, which is this sort of way to make music feel as familiar as possible, and as if it were old, even though you're cracking the piece open for the first time. You're looking for those elements in the music that actually connect in a really long archetype, you’re always tapping into that, so that you're delivering a piece of music in front of an audience, you're making them feel, as well as yourself as a performer, like this piece has existed for centuries. For a piece where it's been in the Canon for a while, at least in Brooklyn Rider, we know we are a part of a performance tradition, but it's always for us about taking a look at this score with as fresh a lens as possible. Not necessarily ignoring the performance history, but actually looking at the piece from a really compositional level, that when we begin working on it, we really are trying to approach that piece from the ground up. And that's kind of the exciting space where we like to be. And I think it's possible to do all that when you try to honor both old and new at the same time, and you're not necessarily saying one is better than the other. It's actually all tradition, and it's all part of exactly the same continuum.

I would love to hear more about the form of a string quartet. What makes the string quartet necessary? For a lot of this music? Why is it that the music comes across in the string quartet differently than it would in other ensembles, and how do you see the importance of this kind of ensemble in the music that you play, and the composers that you work with who work with string quartets?

Part of it really does have to do with the kind of works that, traditionally, have been reserved for the string quartet. Think of Beethoven’s late string quartets. Think of the six Mozart quartets dedicated to Haydn. Think of some of Schubert's great works, like the Death and the Maiden quartet or the great G major quartet. You can sort of trace this idea that this is some of their very best, most precious, and some ways experimental works. It just took on this sort of epic nature, in a way, and I think that feeling has been passed down amongst different generations, in such a way that you ask somebody to write a string quartet now and there's still composers that feel like there's a special aura around this form because because the canon is so incredible. And then beyond that, I think the string quartet just has this kind of heavenly combination of four string instrument resonances, all resonating together, in this sort of perfect family of sound, and expression. And it models human conversations, and exchanges of ideas, and even the idea of democracy itself. I think he's very much reflected in the history of the string quartet, through Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven. For those reasons, and many more that I could mention, are why I think the string quartet is on such a pedestal.

In your years of teaching at the New England Conservatory, what has most inspired you about your students? What have you noticed there that makes you want to keep teaching music?

Yeah, I mean, I have to say that I can often be in a sort of pessimistic state, about music and live performance and culture, in a time where concert halls and theaters were dark, in a time where we were having some incredibly difficult conversations in this country, and thinking is it going to be possible for somebody to make a life in music? And having to think those thoughts, over the last couple of years, like, what is the future actually going to look like? But I do keep returning, not to a pessimistic sort of attitude towards things, but a very optimistic one, when I'm actually in my teaching environment, and I'm reminded that students around me, they not only want this so bad, but they actually are the ones who are going to be able to imagine what that future looks like. And I'm just really, really excited and thrilled to be part of helping them realize that vision.

You have your upcoming concert this Thursday, October 7. Brooklyn Rider is being featured three times during the Celebrity Series of Boston season from 2021 to 2022. I want to hear what it’s been like, just coming back to this concert as an ensemble together. What are you really excited about for this concert?

NC: I've been really looking forward to this concert for a long time, for a few reasons. The residency that you mentioned that we're doing, it's so great to be able to come back to a place or a series like Celebrity Series over the course of a single season and do three different projects, which are all very different programs. This one, on Thursday, is a string quartet program. And what we're doing is really featuring the contemporary lens of what we do. All of it is music that was written for us. There's also a kind of a Boston strain running through this because many of the composers have a Boston link. Matana Roberts, the great jazz musician and experimental musician, wrote a wonderful piece as part of our Healing Modes project, which pairs the music of late Beethoven with five conditions about music and healing. Matana wrote a piece about the US-Mexico border called Borderlands. Matana is a New England Conservatory of Music alum, which is exciting. Gonzalo Grau is a composer from Venezuela, who lived in the US for a good 20 years. He went to the Berklee College of Music here in Boston, and he's now living in Spain. His piece, called Aroma a Distancia, is about home, but also just the idea of having many identities in many places that you call home. And you might be in one place that you call home, but you miss the other home from afar. Osvaldo Golijov is actually Boston based, he lives in Brookline, and has been here for many years. He's written us a five movement String Quartet. It's trying to channel a sort of a lighter side of things as sort of suspension of time, a lightness of breath. It's capturing the spirit and the idea of a single day, from morning to night. These five different chapters tell the story of a life as told through the eyes of a child. You know, so we can't be more excited to play this music for the Boston audience. We're starting the program with a piece by Kinan Azmeh, who's a wonderful Syrian clarinet player. He wrote this piece for us called Dabke on Martense Street during the pandemic and so it's great to be actually getting to perform this music in front of a live audience.

Marcus Knoke is a producer for the Classical Music Department.