The members of Turtle Island Quartet: Benjamin von Gutzeit, Mateusz Smoczynski, David Balakrishnan, and Mark Summer. Courtesy Photos | Bill Reitzel
The members of Turtle Island Quartet: Ben­jamin von Gutzeit, Mateusz Smoczynski, David Bal­akr­ishnan, and Mark Summer. Courtesy Photos | Bill Reitzel

The inno­v­ative Turtle Island Quartet has been blending a clas­sical chamber esthetic with con­tem­porary American music styles since 1985, and has twice won the Grammy Award for Best Clas­sical Crossover Album. This Sat­urday, they will be per­forming the program “Jelly, Rags & Monk,” a col­lection of rag and jazz selec­tions. Founding member vio­linist David Bal­akr­ishnan sat down with the Col­legian to talk about the quartet’s latest release, “Con­fetti Man,” and the group’s upcoming Hillsdale performance. 


- Com­piled by Madeleine Jepsen


Your music is “clas­sical string quartet” yet inno­v­ative, and draws upon some unique American styles — how do you combine the two?


The answer to that is that each member of the quartet is chosen specif­i­cally because they are trained in both clas­sical tech­nique and jazz impro­vi­sation. When I was growing up, I fell in love with rock’n’roll. I started on guitar, like everybody was doing, and quickly realized there were a lot of guitar players, but that I could kind of sound like rock’n’roll on the violin. And there were people that were doing that — Papa John Creach, David LaFlamme, and It’s a Beau­tiful Day. Looking back on it, that’s when I started impro­vising. When I got on stage to play rock violin, people always liked it. Go forward and 10 years later, I’m out of college and trying to figure out what my voice is. I started writing music for string quartet to try and combine these styles that I loved to play that involved jazz impro­vi­sation and clas­sical com­po­sition and tech­nique. What hap­pened was that players showed up who could play the music and from then on, as soon as we started playing, we realized we were doing some­thing pretty unique in that we could swing. As Paquito D’Rivera said, “Strings that can swing are like a barking cat.” So 30 years of exploring that vein, and here we are, still going strong. 


According to your website, the name Turtle Island Quartet is derived from Native American cre­ation mythology. What’s the story behind that name, and how does it encap­sulate your music?


When we were formed, we knew we were unique in the way we were con­structed — this idea of all four players being able to speak on the violin with an American accent, so to speak. So we needed a name to reflect that. One of our members, Darol Anger, came across a poet, Gary Snyder, who won a Pulitzer Prize for this book called “Turtle Island.” It turns out turtle island is a cre­ation myth — it’s the Native American name for the North American con­tinent. The Native Amer­icans believed that they lived on the back of a turtle, and that was their world myth. But what Gary Snyder was doing in that book was talking about how American culture is an immi­grant, polyglot culture. That really appealed to us — it was so similar to what we were doing as a string quartet. We’re so focused on playing jazz, which is America’s clas­sical music. It’s a style that’s born here in America that reflects immi­grant culture both from Africa and Europe, but also from Latin America and Asia. In some ways, you could con­sider jazz the first world music form. In calling our­selves Turtle Island, it seemed like a way to address that uniqueness that we brought.


You’ve won 2006 and 2008 Grammy Awards for Best Clas­sical Crossover Album. To what do you attribute your success?


One of the things that is dif­ficult when you’re trying to break down bar­riers and find cre­ative juice is that you can leave the con­fines of cat­e­gories that make it easy to define who you are. We actually don’t see our­selves as a crossover group, in a sense that we’re not crossing over, we’re already there. We’re not leaving some­thing that we know to do some­thing that we don’t know, which is so common in crossover-type concepts. 

So for us, we were clearly not fitting into the tra­di­tional, clas­sical cat­e­gories, and it was really hard for people to identify what we were doing — there wasn’t a name for that. 

But nonetheless, to be nom­i­nated and win that cat­egory, it was really important for us because it gave people a sense that what we were doing was valued, and important. 


What is it about your music that has struck a chord with modern audiences?


String quartet in general; it’s one of those iconic music forms — the violin, the viola, the cello, these are incredible instru­ments that can do so much. You see the violin in just about every culture across the world. It just seems to be one of those designs that allows for so much cre­ativity and so much expres­sivity for human beings. We’re trying to take that form and extend it and still rec­ognize it as being the same form that Haydn was using in the 1700s. Now, based on who we are as these inte­grating musi­cians bringing styles together, we can reflect the music of America in a more genuine way. Which means we can play classic pieces like Miles Davis’ “So What” and all these famous pieces in the jazz world, and we can also explore our own original music concept as well. And in it all, you can hear the sound of the string quartet. 


Tell us about your latest release “Con­fetti Man.”


There’s some jazz stan­dards on there, there’s some original music by great jazz com­posers written spe­cially for us, there’s original music written by myself, and there’s even an appearance by a singer we’re working with named Nellie McKay. So you just get a full Turtle Island meal of what a string quartet can do with the right approach.


You col­lab­orate fre­quently with Cyrus Chestnut. What does he add to your performance?


When we do col­lab­o­ra­tions, we gen­erally look for players or groups that we feel sim­patico with. Cyrus was one who has really fit — he’s one of these great, iconic jazz pianists. He has a very gospel, rootsy feeling to his music, but is also incredibly intel­ligent and thoughtful as well. He’s clas­si­cally trained as well as trained in jazz, and so we can just do so much with him. In working with him, it’s a really valuable expe­rience for Turtle, because it really gets us more going toward the more spon­ta­neous, intu­itive side of what we do, as a balance to our more thoughtful side. Which isn’t to say that this isn’t thoughtful music, it’s just that when you have a great jazz pianist like Cyrus, you can really blow that horn — so why not?


Describe the program you’ll be playing. It’s “Jelly, Rags & Morton” — a range of ragtime compositions. 


Jelly refers to Jelly Roll Morton, who’s often regarded as the founder/inventor of jazz, though it’s one of those con­tro­versial things that people love to argue about. That was Cyrus’ idea. He was inter­ested in exploring Jelly Roll’s music, and he talked about how he hears it. So we’re really bowing to him in much of what we do with the Jelly Roll influ­ences, and also in the ragtime. We’re working with him to find a way to express this music so it swings the way it should swing, so to speak, espe­cially from Cyrus’ view­point. And then there’s Monk — for us he’s the king of bebop piano, and playing this amazing original music for Turtle Island is a no-brainer. 

We also go so far as to do a clas­sical piece — Debussy’s “Golliwog’s Cakewalk.” I love that piece because you can hear a little bit of that eastern style he was inter­ested in, but yet it’s def­i­nitely got that ragtime influence.


How does the quartet incor­porate impro­vi­sation into their work as a clas­sical string quartet? 


When the string quartet was first formed in the late 1700s, they were impro­visers. Everyone was impro­vising to some extent back then. It’s just that over time, for various cul­tural reasons, that skill set got lost. Turtle Island comes at it from the jazz stand­point, but it’s like returning some­thing that was there pre­vi­ously. It’s important because it gives each player in the quartet an indi­vidual voice that goes beyond just playing written out notes. He’s playing from his sen­si­bil­ities, coming from his intu­itive self when he’s playing in that moment. 

Given that, we can also sound like a band because our cellist is really tal­ented at playing the cello like a bass, and we have these tech­niques from blue­grass called shuffle bow and chop, where you get this guitar-riff way of playing that creates rhythm and harmony.


Where do you find inspiration?


My father was born in India, and he came over here in ’47 and met my mother, an American. When I was growing up, the American culture won the battle, and my dad didn’t teach me any­thing about the culture. So there was this longing to under­stand the culture that my dad came from. 

One of the things I do is I play with these south Indian folk musi­cians who are playing a form of music called Bajan. It’s weird when you can feel how fiddle music brews the same way as cathartic, south Indian music does — it has the same kind of loping vibe. 

I’m con­fronted with trying to figure out how to play these incredibly com­pli­cated melodies that Indian music is based on. It’s not so much the way they slide around the notes, but the sound between the notes — the violin can do it, but it’s really, really chal­lenging. It inspires me because I don’t know how to do it very well, and it forces me out of my comfort zone and into the cre­ative middle ground where you have to go to create some­thing that’s fresh and alive, and not caught up in a pre­vious history.