Quartet to Present a Sonic Collage

Nicholas Kitchen, a founding member of Music From Copland House, speaks with great admiration about his violin. “It’s held together with animal glue,” he said. “There’s not a nail in it. And if you play it a certain way, with proper tone projection, it will speak comfortably to 3,000 people in a huge hall. That’s pretty amazing without even one volt of electricity.”

But Mr. Kitchen, who is also a founder of the Borromeo String Quartet, is hardly stuck in the technological past. He shows abiding respect for those whose innovations in electronics have furthered the musical arts.

“Like any virtuosos,” he said, “there are individuals who take it to this fantastic level — almost unexplainable.”

Mr. Kitchen will unite both sides of the acoustic-electric divide when, on May 15, the Borromeo Quartet — Kristopher Tong on violin, Mai Motobuchi on viola, Yeesun Kim on cello and Mr. Kitchen — performs Steve Reich’s “Different Trains” at Copland House at Merestead. The piece combines the live quartet, unadorned save for a bit of amplification, with prerecorded tapes of strings, speech, sirens and train sounds. All are manipulated to form a kind of sonic collage, ranging from the cheerful to the chilling, that is meant to contrast trains running in the United States with those running to concentration camps in World War II Europe.

Beyond approaching the work with appropriate sensitivity, Mr. Kitchen points to the technical aspects of integrating prerecorded and live sounds. “The inclusion of the electronic element as, in a sense, a musical instrument or musical extension is a big part of the challenge,” he said.

But the quartet’s members will not be operating in a vacuum. They have in recent years built up their electronic capabilities, adopting a system of digital music display and adapting Bach organ works so that the members can control the tone and texture of the notes they play through the use of guitar pedals like those used by hard-core rockers.

In a kind of trial by fire, the ensemble performed “Different Trains” two years ago at the New England Conservatory, where it is the resident string quartet. Mr. Reich offered input to the group at that time, and he is scheduled to rehearse with it before the May 15 show, one of several celebrations of his 75th birthday.

By Phillip Lutz | May 7, 2011, NEW YORK TIMES
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