String quartet experiences Hendrix

Turtle Island Quartet
plays the music of Jimi Hendrix at BGSU Sept. 23 (Photo: Jay Blakesberg/Baylin Artists

When asked how much of the Turtle Island Quartet’s versions of Jimi Hendrix tunes are improvised,
founding member David Balakrishnan gives a definitive answer — 50 percent.
Then he backs away, “maybe more like 40 percent,” the violinist and composer said.
The truth is, he said, that at this point the boundaries between written out and improvised is porous.
“You weave them together,” he said.
The spaces left for the musicians to extemporize may be a half measure, and sometimes as they rehearse
something, one of them will improvise a phrase so apt it gets incorporated into the piece.
Balakrishnan said improvising is so central to his approach to music that “it would be harder to play
completely written out music.”
The Turtle Island Quartet will perform the first Festival Series concert of the season “Have You Ever
Been …?” Sept. 23 at 8 p.m. in Kobacker Hall of the Moore Musical Arts Center.
This merging of the planned and spontaneous is part of the ensemble’s DNA. Balakrishnan had long been
interested in improvisation. In college he studied classical composition, but played jazz and rock.
“Both styles evolved side by side,” he said. His desire to have a sounding board for his own
compositions led to the founding of the quartet in San Francisco in 1985.
In cellist Mark Summer, he found a kindred spirit. A classically trained player who left a steady
orchestra job to play in small ensembles devoted to folk, contemporary and Baroque music. A master of
the classical repertoire, he can also lay down a steady beat in the manner of a jazz bassist.
“He’s the ultimate bipolar player,” Balakrishnan said. “We build everything on top of him,”
Turtle Island’s foray into the music of Hendrix strikes at the heart of what the ensemble is about.
Growing up in Southern California, he was studying violin in a desultory manner. Then in his early teens
he heard Jimi Hendrix, once with the Jimi Hendrix Experience and then with the Band of Gypsies. “The
first time I was young enough that I was surprised my mom let me go,” he recalls.
He experienced “a rush of adrenalin that’s hard to imagine. I just loved his incredible passion.”
That sparked the idea of being a musician. At first Balakrishnan picked up the guitar, but soon started
rocking on the violin. “It started me improvising and using that part of my brain that you don’t use in
classical music.”
The fire lit by Hendrix wouldn’t die. Drawing inspiration from the Kronos Quartet that had already
recorded albums of music by jazz composers Bill Evans and Thelonious Monk, Turtle Island set about
reshaping the classical string quartet in its own image.
“You can’t dabble in improvisation you have to make it a major part of your life.”
While other quartets may dabble in rock and jazz sounds, Turtle Island devoted itself to its own musical
Over the years musicians have taken their places along side Summer, 53, and Balakrishnan, 57. To young
musicians such as current members violinist Mads Tolling, 31, who studied at Berklee College of Music in
Boston a school known more for producing jazz and pop musicians, and violist Jeremy Kittel, 27, this
kind of genre hopping is how they’ve developed. They bring fresh energy and vision to the group,
Balakrishnan said.
With the Hendrix project, the arranging “was very loose.”
The quartet started by listening intently to the Hendrix recordings. The ensemble aimed to capture “the
soulful expressivity of the music.”
Balakrishnan said they wanted to avoid the more extreme elements. “If you try to get too loud and edgy it
becomes overwrought.”
The string quartet is up to the task.
The venerable ensemble “is the perfect composing template,” Balakrishnan said. It offers both a depth of
harmony as well as a chance for individual voices to shine through.
“The way the instruments rub… they create this glorious noise,” he said. There’s a reason it’s still

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