Articles & Reviews

Computers and the Classics

They’ve built their reputation in part on their novel use of electronics. In place of the customary music stand, the Borromeo String Quartet relies upon the screens of their Macbook Pros, whose views are changed using foot pedals. Is it any wonder they were the first classical quartet to perform in Boston’s Apple Store?

Electronics were not always a distinguishing feature of the quartet’s performances. When four students at Philadelphia’s Curtis School of Music founded the quartet in 1989, and joined the faculty at the New England Conservatory a few years later, they built their reputation on musicianship alone. You don’t receive both the Lincoln Center Martin E. Segal Award and an Avery Fisher Career Grant, let alone manage to play over a hundred concerts a year on three continents, simply by navigating your desktop faster than Jascha Heifetz could zip through Paganini. But the electronics angle certainly enhances their profile.

Perhaps the Borromeo’s embrace of computer technology, which includes producing and editing recordings and videos of its concerts, was inevitable. The quartet’s electronics wizard, co-founder and first violinist Nicholas Kitchen, grew up helping his mathematics professor father maintain the tracker action organ he played at St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church in Durham, North Carolina. Given the young Kitchen’s familial familiarity with math, music and foot pedals, it’s no wonder he ended up championing an elaborate foot pedal system that uses as many as three hundred and twenty processing pedals to create a host of effects.

Some of the quartet’s electronics savvy may come into play this month when they perform in the superb Music in Deerfield series. The middle piece on the program, Steve Reich’s modern classic Different Trains, utilizes an elaborate pre-recorded soundtrack based on the multiple resonances trains hold for the composer.

“During WWII, Reich’s parents were divorced, with one on either coast,” Kitchen explained by phone. “He kept taking trains back and forth across the country to visit them. His memories are reflected in part by the soundtrack’s recording of the voices of train conductors from the time of his youth.”

While conceiving Different Trains, Reich realized that as a person who is Jewish, his youthful train rides might have taken him to a very different destination had he lived in Europe. Based on the mainly peaceful recollections of U.S. residents, and the horrific associations of European World War II survivors, his soundtrack also incorporates genuine sounds from the old European train system, including a few truly harrowing whistle cries.

“We’ve worked with Mr. Reich a number of times,” Kitchen reports. “He’d love us to record our own version of the soundtrack, and we have every intention of doing so. If we have it done by January, rather than using the original soundtrack prepared by the Kronos Quartet, our soundtrack will combine Reich’s mandated sounds and voices with our own playing.”

So much has been written about what may be Schubert’s most brilliant string quartet masterpiece, Death and the Maiden, that I wasn’t sure Kitchen could add anything new. But he did remind me that the piece is “so captivating, so moving, so powerful, so exciting and so multi-layered that if it’s at all well played, it can induce epiphanies. The potency of the fundamental material, and the galvanizing way Schubert handles its unfolding, gets more stunning the more you know about it.”

The Borromeos will play from a facsimile of the original manuscript, which they will also project behind them to enhance the listening experience for the audience.

“When we all play from the entire score, rather than from copies of our individual parts, it completely changes the nature of the conversation,” says Kitchen. “There are pieces we play from fair copies of the manuscripts Brahms, Beethoven and Schoenberg delivered to their publishers for the first printing. I’ve never seen one where they weren’t making corrections up to the last second. The corrections may be small, but they are very telling. They really show you how the composer was thinking about the structure of the music. In both the Schubert and some of the Beethoven manuscripts that we’ve worked with, they often connect two sections, and there’s this last-minute moment when they decide that there needs to be a tiny interlude between them. Even where the music seems to unfold without any corrections, the penmanship expresses their attitude and approach.”

The concert opens with the quartet’s original string transcription of Bach’s Passacaglia and Fugue in C minor. One of the two organ works that Leopold Stokowski championed in orchestral transcription, it works extremely well when played by four string players.

“Every day brings a feeling of reinventing ourselves,” says Kitchen. “It’s challenging, but we’re always opening doors to new possibilities.”