Turtle Island String Quartet
Turtle Island String Quartet
Winnipeg Symphony cellist Mark Summer had a jarring revelation halfway through a performance of a progressive classical piece: “I remember being in the middle of playing Berlioz’s ‘Symphonie Fantastique, ’” he told Newsweek. “This amazing piece, way ahead of its time, and I’m going, Tm really bored”’ Shortly thereafter, Summer teamed up with violinists Darol Anger and David Balakrishnan to form the iconoclastic Turtle Island String Quartet. Summer no longer complains of boredom; neither do his audiences.
Dedicated to eradicating the distinction between highbrow and low, Turtle Island String Quartet has been credited in the Detroit News with having “erected a wondrous musical bridge that spans the chasm between the twangy mountain sounds of bluegrass and the rarefied elegance of classical chamber music.” Balakrishnan explained, “We’re a string quartet, we’re jazz musicians, we’re composers and we grew up listening to [British rock group] the Beatles.” Combining the classical quartet format with a varied American repertoire, Turtle Island has created a unique formula
Members include Darol Anger (violin; born c. 1953), David Balakrishnan (violin; born c. 1954; received master’s degree in composition from Antioch University), Jeremy Cohen (violin, viola; studied with Itzhak Perlman; replaced Katrina Wreede , 1992), and Mark Summer (cello; born c. 1958; attended Cleveland Institute of Music).
Quartet formed in San Francisco, CA, c. 1986; signed with Windham Hill Jazz Records; released debut album, Turtle Island String Quartet, 1988.
Selected awards: Grammy Award nomination, 1988, for “Night in Tunisia,” from Turtle Island String Quartet.
Addresses: Agent —Jeff Laramie, SRO Artists, Inc., P.O. Box 9532, Madison, WI 53715.
that has drawn a broad-based following. Chamber music aficionados are attracted to the group’s technical prowess, while a wider audience finds its “swinging strings” irresistible. Whatever its appeal, Turtle Island has won a spot at the forefront of a new movement among young classical musicians.
The name Turtle Island, derived from the Native American word for North America, reflects the group’s preference for a homegrown repertoire. Committed to what they call “American vernacular,” the group’s members draw on such diverse musical traditions as jazz, world beat, bluegrass, folk, and rock. In the course of a typical performance, the ensemble moves effortlessly from works by the likes of Chick Corea, Benny Goodman, and George Gershwin to such irreverent pieces as Balakrishnan’s suite “Waterfall With Blenders,” a spoof of New Age music. During one New York City recital, jazz great Dizzy Gillespie’s classic “A Night in Tunisia” was masterfully interwoven with Harburg-Arlen’s “If I Only Had a Brain”, and the theme song to the 1950s television sitcom Leave It to Beaver.
The Turtle Island String Quartet is able to pull off its blending of eclectic musical styles because of the members’ impeccable technique—the result of accomplished musical backgrounds. Darol Anger, an international performing and recording artist, is the product of northern California’s jazz and bluegrass movements. A central figure in the development of the “new acoustic” style, which combines folk and jazz, he is widely respected for his ingenious technical innovations.
David Balakrishnan, Turtle Island’s principal composer and arranger, holds a masters degree in composition from Antioch University. Balakrishnan’s work has received both critical acclaim and honors; he was the recipient of the National Endowment for the Arts’ Meet the Composer Grant in 1988 and was nominated for a Grammy Award for his arrangement of “A Night in Tunisia” on the album Turtle Island String Quartet
Known for his improvisational skills, Mark Summer is regarded by critics as one of the premier jazz cellists on the contemporary scene. Classically trained, he played for the Winnipeg Symphony after attending the Cleveland Institute of Music.
Jeremy Cohen, who plays both violin and viola, has extensive classical experience. He performed with the New Jersey Philharmonic, the New York Pro Arte Chamber Orchestra, and the National Orchestral Association after studying under Itzhak Perlman. Well versed in jazz, he has recorded with Ray Charles and Horace Silver.
Collectively, Turtle Island utilizes its members’ skills by combining the techniques each brings to the ensemble. Through their classical training, Balakrishnan told Newsweek, the Turtle Islanders learned standard techniques for precision playing such as bowing in unison. Under the guidance of its jazz players, the group mastered the art of improvisation and the “subtle shades and inflections” basic to jazz, Summer added. What’s more, the musicians’ skills are complementary: “Balakrishnan’s conservatism keeps Anger’s adventurousness from getting out of hand. And the others keep Balakrishnan... from getting too academic,” remarked a Newsweek correspondent.
Based in the San Francisco Bay Area, Turtle Island was formed in the mid-1980s by Balakrishnan and Anger, fellow members of the David Grisman String Quartet, a new acoustic ensemble. Summer met Anger at the 1985 Winnipeg Folk Festival, where he heard his band Montreaux perform. Following a concert by Anger, Balakrishnan, and Matt Glaser as part of the Bay Area’s Jazz Violin Celebration, Summer became the group’s third member. In 1992 Jeremy Cohen took the quartet’s fourth seat, a position previously held by Katrina Wreede.
Turtle Island made its Windham Hills recording debut in 1988 with Turtle Island String Quartet, an album that Down Beat commented “swings with distinction.” Featuring such jazz standards as Miles Davis’s “Milestones,” Dizzy Gillespie’s “Night in Tunisia,” Oliver Stone’s “Stolen Moments,” and Bud Powell’s “Tempus Fugit,” it also includes original compositions that are a hybrid of bluegrass, Indian, and European music. The album is made distinctive by its unusual rhythmic techniques. With no traditional piano or bass drum accompaniment, the Turtle Islanders create a strong backbeat by stretching their strings to the limit. “The violin can produce acoustically all the sounds rock guitar players buy those pedals to create electronically,” Balakrishnan told Newsweek. To do so, the musicians pluck strings, run their bows over miked instruments or the side of a violin to create a brush effect, and use the “chop.” “The chop is something we use... to get the sound of the drums or the rhythm guitar sound,” Balakrishnan explained in the Detroit News. “That gives the really important backbeat groove that we need to create the Swing feel.”
Turtle Island String Quartet introduced the eclectic approach to repertoire that would become the group’s trademark. On Metropolis, released in 1989, the quartet explored that repertoire further, presenting arrangements of pop-jazz works by Pat Methany, Horace Silver, Lee Morgan, and John Coltrane alongside its own, original compositions. The album also gave the Turtle Islanders the opportunity to demonstrate their well-honed improvisational skills. Indeed, Metropolis’s rise to the Top 20 on the jazz charts is a tribute to the group’s musical prowess.
Turtle Island’s next two albums reflect an interest in a more focussed repertoire. Skylife, released in 1990, features original compositions, while the 1991 album On the Town concentrates on conventional jazz material from the swing era. “Instead of making albums that have something of everything on them,” Anger noted, “we’re going to concentrate album by album, so we can really immerse ourselves in the style and see how far we can take it, and put the Turtle Island stamp on it.”
If the quartet’s performance since its inception is any indication, the Turtle Island stamp is bound to make a lasting impression. The group has distinguished itself with its adventurous repertoire, technical innovations, and able improvisations. Having achieved an acceptance in both classical and jazz circles that has helped to significantly expand the scope of the string quartet format, the Turtle Island String Quartet is not about to quit. “There is so much to explore,” Balakrishnan told the Detroit News. “We see a life’s work here, no problem at all.”
On Windham Hill Jazz Records
Turtle Island String Quartet, 1988.
A Shock to the System (soundtrack), 1990.
On the Town, 1991.
Spider Dreams, 1992.
Billboard, November 30, 1991; September 19, 1992.
Chamber Music, summer 1989.
Detroit Free Press, March 6, 1992.
Detroit News, April 11, 1991.
Down Beat, April 1988; December 1991.
Los Angeles Times, April 8, 1991.
Newsweek, September 24, 1990.
People, August 21, 1989.
Pittsburgh Press, June 22, 1992.
Reading Times (PA), March 25, 1991.
Stereo Review, November 1990.
Topeka Capital-Journal (KS), October 8, 1991.
Additional information for this profile was obtained from a Windham Hill Records press release, 1992.
"Turtle Island String Quartet." Contemporary Musicians. . Encyclopedia.com. (February 24, 2019). https://www.encyclopedia.com/education/news-wires-white-papers-and-books/turtle-island-string-quartet
"Turtle Island String Quartet." Contemporary Musicians. . Retrieved February 24, 2019 from Encyclopedia.com: https://www.encyclopedia.com/education/news-wires-white-papers-and-books/turtle-island-string-quartet
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