The Borromeo String Quartet is widely recognized for swapping sheet music for laptops, but the Living Archive might be its most ingenious use of technology yet. Like a parent obsessed, founding violinist Nicholas Kitchen has been documenting each of the Borromeo’s performances since 2003 and storing the digital recordings in what he calls the Living Archive.
Hundreds of rehearsals and performances later, he has amassed nearly 1,000 audio and video recordings of the group. The archive offers an impressive, yet incomplete, representation of the evolution of one musical family (hence the “living” title). “It’s amazing to see how a single piece of music changes in the hands of different performers,” Kitchen says. “But even to look at how it changes in the hands of the same performer is a pretty remarkable process—reevaluation, reinvention, and this constant process of change.”
Kitchen’s long-term goal is to organize and present the material accrued by the Living Archive project in a way that allows people outside of the quartet to learn. “There’s no reason not to have that inner knowledge of the musician organized to let people’s curiosity go very deeply into the music,” Kitchen says.
Much of this organization has been accomplished through what the group now offers online at LivingArchive.org. The DVD Nicholas Kitchen plays the Bach Ciaconna on 5 Great Violins from the Library of Congress studies the differences of Cremonese masterpieces, and the CD/DVD combo Mendelssohn: 1825 Ottetto features commentary on the 1825 and 1832 versions of the Ottetto, in addition to performance and manuscript-only tracks.
The 2011 CD As it Was, Is, and Will Be (GM Recordings and Living Archive) features Mohammed Fairouz’s “Lamentation and Satire” and Bartok’s Quartet No. 4. It also includes the Borromeo’s live and studio versions of Gunther Schuller’s String Quartet No. 4, so that listeners can measure for themselves how the quartet reacts before an audience.
“The chemistry of the two situations is quite different,” Kitchen says. “The sounds are a little smoother, a little more cohesive, and there’s more internal refinement in the way the edited version holds together. But there is a kind of energy conveyed in the live performance, and you can feel the difference.
“Even when you have the same players, it’s pretty amazing when you see a Debussy quartet start and the group does a certain type of performance, and that’s the greatest performance they conceive of at that moment and they’re responding to the score. But then you come back to it a couple of years later and it’s changed. You are reinventing it yet again. It’s remarkable how that happens and how much it changes.”