Brooklyn Rider, “Der Blaue Reiter,” and the Heritage of Black Mountain College

by Nicholas Cords, on behalf of Brooklyn Rider

Inspiration has been the very lifeblood of our tradition since the days of Mozart’s six ‘Haydn’ quartets, lovingly dedicated to the progenitor of the string quartet medium. Across the musical ages, it has just as often been the case that composers look outside of the sphere of music for creative inspiration. Over a century ago, the cross-disciplinary relationship between the German composer Arnold Schoenberg and Russian-born artist Wassily Kandinsky greatly affected each of their creative psyches. In fact, the string quartet played a starring role in their first encounter. 

Franz Marc, The Large Blue Horses, 1911, oil on canvas, 41.6 × 71.3 inches (Walker Art Center)

Schoenberg’s Second String Quartet, the composer’s first full dip into the opaque waters of atonality, was a musical lightning rod that sharply divided audiences and critics alike. Following the riotous premiere in Vienna in 1908, the work received its Munich debut some three years later. In the audience for that performance sat Kandinsky. Transformed by Schoenberg’s music, Kandinsky’s style took a further step towards abstraction with his landmark painting, Impression III, a visual synthesis of that very concert. A friendship ensued between these visionaries and Schoenberg soon became associated with of a group of artists surrounding Kandinsky known as Der Blaue Rieter (our namesake). This group published ‘Der Blaue Almanach’ in 1912; a highly eclectic collection of artwork, essays and music which served as an artistic testament to their era while also offering a vision for the future. The unquenchable drive for artistic exploration, open embrace of the collective spirit, and the cross-disciplinary approach displayed by Der Blaue Reiter in part inspired the formation of Brooklyn Rider

Just over 20 years later and across the Atlantic, Black Mountain College was formed with a belief in the central role of the arts in education. Kindred in spirit to the work of Der Blaue Reiter, Black Mountain College celebrated a similar challenge to the status quo while providing a space for new conversations to happen amongst different art forms. As it pertains directly to Brooklyn Rider, it could be easily argued that the musical visionary John Cage opened doors in the mid 20th century that very much paved the way to much of the music we play, from the music of Philip Glass to our very own Colin Jacobsen’s BTT (which uses the musical signatures of Bach and Cage as fodder for a 20 minute odyssey celebrating the fabled downtown scene of NYC in the 60’s, 70’s and 80’s) to Matana Roberts’ recently composed graphic score borderlands… (a work based on the US/Mexico border crisis which invites each of us to roll dice at various stages to determine pacing and calling to mind pioneering work around the idea of chance that Merce Cunningham and John Cage began at BMC). Cage’s own In A Landscape, a work conceived at Black Mountain College, formed a central part of our early recording ‘Dominant Curve.’

Since our founding, we’ve tried to adapt an inclusive approach as a string quartet; we invite music by Mozart to John Zorn under our tent. We’ve also collaborated with musicians from a wide variety of styles and cultures, which also forms an important part of who we are – from Mexican singer Magos Herrera to Persian spike fiddle player Kayhan Kalhor to Irish fiddler Martin Hayes to jazz saxophonist Joshua Redman. We’ve resisted the idea of specialization; while we focus a good deal on the music of our time, we would never call ourselves a new music quartet. And while we also play ‘classical’ repertoire (Debussy, Janacek, Beethoven, Brahms), we resist the part of our tradition that wishes to put these works on a pedestal, divorced from a sense of belonging to a living tradition. As wonderful as the masterworks are, if we can create a fluid playing field, we cultivate an interpretative and intuitive working space where we’re able to draw elements from the past to shed light on the present and vice versa. This is somewhat highlighted in our latest project, Healing Modes, where we’ve asked five composers – Caroline Shaw, Du Yun, Gabriela Lena Frank, Reena Esmail, and Matana Roberts – to write works inspired by personal healing or the need for healing in society. We received five incredibly powerful scores in response. These works will eventually be paired with Beethoven’s monumental Opus 132 String Quartet in a recording to be released this fall. The transcendent slow movement of Op 132 – ‘A Holy Song of Thanksgiving From a Convalescent to the Deity in the Lydian Mode’ – is an ode to healing and the creative spirit. 

We’ve discovered along the way that one of the inherent strengths in a string quartet is that there are 1,001 ways to exist and still remain absolutely true to what a string quartet is at its core. It was therefore with a sense of great joy that we were guests at the Black Mountain College Museum this past November. The artists that convened during that special period of time also very much expanded their forms through experimentation, thus contributing to a living tradition. Being able to walk the original grounds, to be in the spaces, to perform Healing Modes and to learn more about that particular creative community all felt deeply resonant with our work and has provided much inspiration for the next chapter of Brooklyn Rider. 

Nicholas Cords is Co-Artistic Director of Silkroad, violist for Brooklyn Rider and Faculty at the New England Conservatory of Music. For more than two decades, omnivorous violist Nicholas Cords has been on the front line of a growing constellation of projects as performer, educator, and cultural advocate. He is deeply committed to music from a broad variety of traditions and epochs, with a particular passion for the cross-section between the long tradition of classical music and the polyglot music of today.