For its debut album, the Attacca Quartet pays homage to one of America’s all-time greatest composers, John Adams, recording his complete repertoire for string quartet. The composer will be joining the ensemble for their concert at NY’s Le Poisson Rouge on Tuesday, March 26 at 7:30 PM. Doors open at 6:30 PM. Tickets $20 in advance, $25 at the door.
In its 10th anniversary year, the intrepid Attacca Quartet releases its first commercial CD, Fellow Traveler: The Complete String Quartet Music of John Adams on Azica Records [ACD-71280] (Also being released on March 26th). Demonstrating what The Strad called “musical maturity far beyond its members’ years” and possessing “fierce dedication” (The New York Times) to new music, Attacca embarks on a journey through some of Adams’s most eclectic chamber scores on this high-spirited new disc.
In addition to the famously demanding String Quartet (2008) and John’s Book of Alleged Dances (a fantastical collection of 10 short pieces for string quartet and pre-recorded rhythm track), the disc includes the first ever recording of Adams’s five-minute tribute to Nixon in China/Dr. Atomic collaborator Peter Sellars. The album represents the culmination of several years of work on this music that began with the group’s first performance of the String Quartet at Alice Tully Hall in December 2009.
The quartet did a joint interview with me to talk about the CD and the concert.
CM: Can you please talk about recording the first CD and why you chose to make it exclusively John Adams’s music?
In 2009, we were asked by the Juilliard School to play John Adams’ recently composed string quartet for both the St. Lawrence Quartet (who were premiering the work that month) and John Adams himself. Having worked with John on the piece, he asked us to give the Alice Tully Hall premiere of the work, after which we started to perform it frequently. We fell in love with the piece, and when we began to talk about ideas for a new album, the music of John Adams was a natural choice for all four of us. We were big fans of the Book of Alleged Dances, and we were happy to discover that the short piece for string quartet, “Fellow Traveler”, had never been recorded. We love to play John’s music, and audiences love to hear it. As one of the most successful and respected living American composers, he writes music that is compositionally brilliant and nuanced, but still has popular appeal–no small task. And as an American group, it is our pleasure to present music so wonderfully representative of that unique school of composition.
CM: The Book of Alleged Dances is a masterpiece and full of so much exciting stuff–It’s my favorite work on this album! Can you talk about working with these pieces and what goes into learning them for performing?
The hardest thing about performing these incredibly difficult pieces is knowing the notes so well that you can forget them and just groove with the music, particularly in the tracks with pre-recorded prepared piano. There are so many different dance styles that are referenced in the ten short movements that the point of them is lost if one is caught up in the technique (which can happen very easily!). It also helps to read John’s notes about each of the dances, which are rather enigmatically titled, to know what he had in mind for each of them. One particularly good example is “Alligator Escalator,” where John envisioned an alligator awkwardly crawling up the escalators from the basement of Macy’s department store all the way to the top floor, eliciting screams from children and astonishment from adults.
John Adams: Rag The Bone (From John’s Book of Alleged Dances; from the new CD)
CM: Can you guys please talk about the show at LPR next week and what people can expect?
We are playing the Alleged Dances as the first half of the concert, then the string quartet as the second half. John Adams will speak to the audience about both works before we perform them, so attendees will get a unique perspective from the composer immediately before the work is played. Also, Le Poisson Rouge is a really great venue for these works; while they are wonderfully effective in a concert hall, playing them (particularly the Alleged Dances) in a setting where people can drink, eat, and casually relax seems much more fitting to the character of John’s music.
CM: What would be great for a follow-up recording at this point?
For a long time, we have been excited at the prospect of doing an all-Haydn album. We created our own series in New York called “The 68,” on which over the past three seasons we have been performing all 68 string quartets of Joseph Haydn. We are about halfway done now, and we have self-produced an album of our favorite live tracks from the series (all of the series’ concerts are video and audio recorded). Doing a studio album of some of our favorite Haydn quartets, so many of which are not known at all to the public, would be a great project to work on.
Attacca Quartet plays Haydn Op. 71 no. 1 — Fourth Movement