Picture this…

Jun 23, 2004 at 12:00 am
The jazz violinist chose a shot of wild horses taken during a Brazilian vacation. The jazz bassist, a picture of his late mother. One classical composer chose a picture of himself as a child on his tricycle. Another classical composer chose a picture of a parakeet posing as a cowboy.

And as inspirations for compositions that are interpreted by the Elements String Quartet, they comprised what one Washington Post critic hailed as "the liveliest new-music concert I’ve heard in ages."

That kind of praise is gratifying to Danielle Farina, a member of the Elements String Quartet, one of a number of string quartets to come on the scene since the 1980s with an avowed goal of garnering an audience beyond the traditional classics-loving crowd. "There are so many quartets out there, it’s hard to distinguish yourself," she sighed during a phone conversation from her home in New York City.

The granddaddies of the movement would be the Kronos Quartet, which relies heavily on cutting-edge composers, and what in the group’s early years were unheard-of compositions for string quartets: works of Bill Evans, Willie Dixon, Jimi Hendrix and the like. Turtle Island, which has played with the Detroit Symphony Orchestra, to cite another more established group, leans heavily on improvisation.

"We’re somewhere between those guys and your standard string quartet. And our programming reflects that.," says Farina, of the roughly 5-year-old Elements. First halves of shows are usually commissions or less-known pieces ("we like to dig around") presented causally in a cabaret style. The second halves go for the more traditional "big crowd pleasers." (The fact that this chamber group is playing the State Theatre makes clear that the presenter, the Great Lakes Chamber Music Festival, is also thinking about getting beyond chamber music’s typical audience and venues.)

But it’s Snapshots that has garnered Elements its largest measure of praise. The idea originally came from Pulitzer Prize-winning composer David Del Tredici. Each composer involved would choose from his or her personal collection a photograph and use it as a jumping-off point for a short composition for the quartet. The photographs would then be incorporated into the performance.

To Farina, the idea is, in part, to demystify what goes into composition: "It’s actually there in front of you. It’s kind of cool and it gives you a window into their thinking and their creativity."

Del Tredici, for his part, chose a picture of himself as a child. "He must have been like 4 or 5 years old, and it’s called ‘Innocence,’ and the picture is just really adorable. I think it evokes childhood. It’s fun," said Farina.

Here’s what Farina had to say about some of the other pieces:

• The jazz bassist John Patitucci chose a picture of his late mother. "It’s just entitled ‘Joan Patitucci,’ and it’s very, very low-key."

• Detroit-born classical composer Paul Schoenfield took a picture of his mother-in-law’s parakeet poking it’s head through a cardboard cut-out of cowboy’s outfit, "like when you go to the beach and you stick your head through the cutout of the muscle-man or the lady or whatever." As to the piece: "It’s a lot of fun; you can kick up your heels."

Hollis Taylor, a jazz violinist and fiddler, took a picture of herself in tourist mode, disembarking from a boat landing on the island of Corfu. She’s showing her midriff, wearing big sunglasses, and sailors are ogling. "It has a jazzy feel and it also has a folky feel and you can sort of sense the Mediterranean flavor."

• John Corigliano, the son of a former New York Philharmonic concert master, chose a picture of his dad as a little boy playing violin while an uncle plays guitar. The quartet splits roles, with some members playing parts related to the violin, some to the guitar.

Among the other contributors is former Detroiter Regina Carter. The jazz violinist spoke about her piece recently, just before her homecoming performance for the Detroit Festival of the Arts. She said he chose a picture of wild horses encountered during what sounds like an idyllic beach vacation in Brazil.

"It’s based on the walk of the horses because their legs never move at the same time. And it also has a little bit of the Latin flair. I just had to get that in," said Carter.

And while the quartet plays each piece, the original photograph is projected not as a static element but with motion, for instance, the audience sees Cor’s picture as just the sound hole of a guitar before the view widens. The projection system was designed for Snapshots by Wendall K. Harrington, who has won awards for projects including The Who’s Tommy.

"We didn’t want it to be a slide show. We wanted it to be somehow integral," says Farina.

In the future, the quartet hopes that Snapshots will continue to grow with more composers commissioned.

The hope is that Snapshots, she says, will "take on a life of its own, and change and morph into who knows what? That’s the exciting part."


As part of the Great Lakes Chamber Music Festival, the Elements String Quartet performs Friday, June 25, at 8 p.m., at the State Theatre (2115 Woodward Ave., Detroit); call 313-961-5450 for more information.

W. Kim Heron is Metro Times managing editor. E-mail [email protected].