The Turtle Island Quartet specializes in improvisational performance. Its four members have been involved in many television and film soundtracks, and the group won a Grammy in 2006 for the album “4 + Four.” The quartet is on tour and will perform at Ithaca College this weekend in Ford Hall. Assistant Accent Editor Andy Swift spoke with lead violinist David Balakrishnan about some of the group’s recent accomplishments and the inspiration behind its name.
Andy Swift: Could you tell me about your group’s Grammy win? How did all of that unfold? I know you had been nominated previously in 2003.
David Balakrishnan: Part of the reason we didn’t win the first time we were nominated is because we’re a group that falls between the cracks, stylistically speaking. We were nominated twice in the arrangement category, but recently they made [a new category for] classical crossover albums, and it was like, ‘Bingo! We fit that.’”
AS: I heard from your publicist that you recently removed the word “string” from the name of your group. Why is that?
DB: It’s a small adjustment, really. When some people hear “string quartet” they think they’re going to listen to something formal and serious, and they’ll need to sit still and dress the right way. I believe we’re a great combination of jazz and classical — the best of both worlds. Pop quartets like the Juilliard Quartet don’t have the word “string” in them. We’re leaner, meaner and more groovy-hip.
AS: I read that your group is named after a mythological story. Do you ever use mythology or any other forms of historical storytelling as inspiration?
DB: Our group is named after a creation myth. The Native Americans believed their world was a turtle and they lived on the back of it. Gary Schneider wrote a book named “Turtle Island,” and in his preamble, he said American culture is an immigrant culture. He wrote about how we are all descendents of somewhere else. A style like jazz is a world music style. It has African, European and other influences. It seemed perfect for us.
AS: When did you first become interested in improvisational music?
DB: We represent a subcategory of rebellious string players. When I was a kid, playing a violin meant studying with a classical teacher. In middle school … I realized I could play the violin like a rock guitar. I started playing guitar riffs on my violin. The story is similar for all of us, though it’s different for the younger guys. Four decades are represented in our quartet. I’m in my 50s. Mark [Summer] is in his 40s. Evan [Price] is in his 30s, and Mads [Tolling] is in his 20s. We all come from different phases of our lives and careers.
AS: The tour schedule on your Web site shows your group is booked through 2008. How do you manage to keep up your energy and enthusiasm after so many consecutive shows?
DB: It helps to love what you do. We do our best work when we stick to what we’re strong at and build on it. We’re composing and arranging pretty much everything we play. We’re also serious about taking care of ourselves.
AS: Will you be taking a break from touring next February like your schedule suggests, or have you just not booked those dates yet?
DB: February 2008 is as far as we’ve been booked. Because we’re covering so much ground, we just take things as they come. We trust that our agents will put together good tours and good schedules. Some groups, especially the ones that teach in residencies, tour in seasons. We work where work takes us, and it takes us all over the world.
AS: Can you tell me about the music you’ll be playing at the college?
DB: We’re playing with the Assad brothers, Sergio and Odair. It’s a concert in which both groups play individually, and then we play together as a sextet. The Assad brothers don’t improvise like we do, but when they play non-classical music, they swing like crazy. I’ve never heard classical musicians who can groove like they can. It shows the wide interest of the members of our two groups.
AS: Do you plan to start working on a new album anytime soon?
DB: We’re releasing a record based on the music of John Coltrane. It’s a new thing for us, since we usually cover a lot of ground. But for this recording we’re focusing on one great jazz composer and musician. We cover his song “A Love Supreme,” and we’re pretty proud that we’re able to convey that music in strings. That album is coming out in March.
The Turtle Island Quartet will perform at 8:15 p.m. Friday in Ford Hall. For ticket information, call 273–4497.