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Turtle Island String Quartet’s David Balakrishnan Honors Tradition While Being Transformative

(Left-to-right) Benjamin Von Gutzeit, Mateusz Smoczynski, Mark Summer, & David Balakrishnan of the Turtle Island Quartet
Bill Reitzel
(Left-to-right) Benjamin Von Gutzeit, Mateusz Smoczynski, Mark Summer, & David Balakrishnan of the Turtle Island Quartet

The traditional string quartet has staying power. Austrian composer Joseph Haydn legitimized the combination of viola, cello and two violins during the mid-1700s, and it’s still one of the most prominent chamber ensembles in music. It’s an old format, but one that’s becoming more flexible.

“The Turtle Island Quartet was expressly formed to get us string players off the page, so to speak,” says David Balakrishnan. “That’s the easy way to say (it).”

Balakrishnan is the founder and “resident composer” of the Turtle Island Quartet. For 30 years, the classically inspired string ensemble has strived to maintain tradition while introducing popular music influences, varied instrumental styles, and, perhaps most notably, the kind of improvisation most associated with a jazz combo.

“So, there’s always been those of us who got attracted to the dark side, so to speak, who wanted to, first of all, play rock n’ roll,” Balakrishnan says. “Turtle Island is a group that allows us to come back together to play in an iconic form of tradition, and yet do our improvising rock n’ roll, jazz, fiddle thing and find a way that we can make peace with it, with both sides of the equation.”

The Turtle Island Quartet formed in San Francisco in 1985, which Balakrishnan says was a “hot bed for acoustic string music.” Balakrishnan and his friend (and fellow violinist) Daryl Anger were already exploring multi-violin jazz arrangements. Other string players, like cellist Mark Summer, were attracted to the Bay Area due to the bourgeoning New Age movement. The only missing piece? Finding what Balakrishnan called a “victim violinist.”

“It was funny because you knew right away you were doing something that was unprecedented. And it worked!” Balakrishnan says. “I remember playing “Stolen Moments” for the first time – our first jazz arrangement. (It) was like, ‘Wow, we found something here!’ And we were so out of our minds with excitement and youthful, exuberant energy.”

Turtle Island Quartet’s lineup has changed over the intervening years – Balakrishnan and Summer are the only original members. But the group’s marriage of various musical traditions and influences remains constant, which helped to land the quartet Grammy wins for Best Classical Crossover Album in 2006 and 2008.

"Confetti Man"
"Confetti Man"

Last year, the quartet found itself in the studio once again, working on a collection of songs to commemorate the 30th anniversary of the original vision. The resulting album, Confetti Man, leans heavily on Balakrishnan’s love of jazz – with new works by both original quartet members, as well as unique and notable arrangements of compositions by jazz icons like Wayne Shorter, PaquitoD’Rivera, Bud Powell and John Carisi (whose song “Israel” was performed in similar fashion by Miles Davis on his album Birth of the Cool).

“That approach was an aside to the more fiery, bebop thing that they were getting into. It was more textural, and in some ways it makes you think of classical music,” Balakrishnan says. “It’s been for a long time now recognized that jazz is – (or) could be considered – a classical music form in itself, like an American classical music form. So, the way we’re approaching it – combining the European classical model, the quartet, and American classical jazz style – is just pretty obvious that it’s fitting in this kind of expanded definition of classical music.”

David Balakrishnan and The Turtle Island Quartet offer a special concert salute to jazz during a program called “Birth of Cool” Friday, Nov. 6 at 8 p.m. in Oklahoma City University’s Petree Recital Hall. Details are available at KGOU’s ‘Events’ listings.


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Jim is a journalism/mass communications graduate from the University of Oklahoma. While still a student, he became the host of what is now The Weekend Blues. He currently serves as KGOU’s Program Director where he supervises all aspects of KGOU’s on-air programming output.
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