The Michigan Daily - WeeU . -- -Thursday, April 11, 1996 -9B
Balanescu Quartet breaks musical barriers
By Craig Stuntz
ily Arts Writer
'The barriers between different kinds
of music seem to me to be artificial,
really." With these typically succinct
words, Romanian-born violinist and
composer Alexander Balanescu began
to describe the unifying artistic force
which drives his unique ensemble. "The
music we do is always very expressive;
I call it 'lyrical aggressivity.' There is
an aggressive element because of the
Formed in 1987, the BalanescuQuar-
tet has released a series of wonderfully
performed recordings of music by con-
temporary composers such as Michael
Nyman and Gavin Bryars. To truly ap-
preciate how different they are from
other contemporary string quartets such
as the Kronos Quartet, however, you
need to hear their two albums released
on Mute Records.
"Possessed," released in 1992, made
*m instantly infamous for its acoustic
transcriptions of music by the German
proto-techno band Kraftwerk. "I think
the music is pure genius," Balanescu
says. "It's very classical; you can't take
anything away, and you can't put any-
thing in. A lot of techno nowadays is
very overproduced, but their stuff is
sort of quintessential."
Working with this material alsotaught
the group about pop music recording
hniques. In their quest to create re-
ordings that appeal to gut emotions as
well as the intellect, no studio tech-
nique is off-limits.
For example, listening to "East," the
first track of their album "Luminitza,"
you notice immediately that it doesn't
sound like a conventional string quartet
recording. The violins are dripping with
reverb,the cello has the low-end "thump"
of a double bass and the viola bow seems
Ohave enough rosin on it to saw through
the wooden body of the instrument.
What you might not notice at first is
that, for as captivating and danceable as
the song is, it changes time signature
nearly every measure. "I'm very much
interested in changing meters,"
Balanescu says. "I guess that's partly
the influence of folk music. In Balkan
folk music, it's really a feature; some-
times it's so subtle that you can't really
count the thing."
The playing style is different, too.
"Vibrato, which you use in classical
and romantic music, we don't use al-
most at all," Balanescu explains. The
sound he wants is "not always a beauti-
ful sound. I'm always looking for a very
expressive sound, but not necessarily a
classical sound. String instruments can be
verypercussive, and verygrainy as well."
The other distinctly pop element of
the production of "Luminitza" is the
use of cross-fades between songs. A
series of short, "bridge" tracks, com-
posed by second violinist Clare
Connors, lead the listener smoothly from
one composition to the next.
Though the quartet's lineup has
changed frequently over the years,
Connors has been a long-standing mem-
ber and artistic collaborator, and did the
Kraftwerk arrangements in 1992. She
also wrote about half of the material
performed on "Luminitza."
Connors described how she and
Balanescu work together: "We're sort
of opposites in that Alex, maybe be-
cause he's such a virtuoso performer,
thinks very much when he's writing
about the players, and feels that ifthey're
great players they should have lots of
things to do, whereas I'm very simplis-
tic. If I want just one long, very simple
note I don't have any guilt about giving
that to somebody and I don't worry that
they'll get bored playing it."
The Balanescu Quartet has adeptly
managed to work within and be taken
very seriously in the classical world,
and maintain a pop sensibility at the
same time. When Balanescu, a Julliard
graduate, formed the ensemble, he
wanted to create and nurture long-term
relationships with the composers whose
work they recorded, instead of churn-
ing through more than 100 new works
per .year, as with the quartet he had
previously played with. The band's
more "typically classical" releases in-
clude music by Robert Moran, Michael
Torke, and Kevin Volans.
Both Balanescu and Connors had
worked with composer Michael Nyman
for 15 years, and had a major impact on
the sound ofhis band. "Before wejoined,"
remembered Balanescu, "he was using
baroque strings and the whole sound was
acoustic. But with this kind of'aggressive
lyricism,' it changed, and we started to
amplify the strings, and then the whole
band was amplified and it went much
more towards rock and roll."
This use of amplification as an ex-
pressive tool continued with the
Balanescu Quartet: "When we play live,
we always amplify. The sound engi-
neeris very important; he's like another
member of the group. We try to gain in
powerand bring the audience in our midst,
but without losing the wonderful nuances
that the string instruments can have."
After forming the group, Balanescu
started to work with non-classical mu-
sicians such as David Byrne, Elvis
Costello and John Lurie, because he
discovered that he could learn a lot
from "people who have no preconcep-
tions about the string quartet at all."
The group has also worked with non-
musical artists such as filmmakers Derek
Jarman and Phillip Haas and noted chore-
ographer Philippe Saire, whose company
performed at the University's Mendelsohn
theater last fall.
Writing the score Haas's film "An-
gels and Insects" allowed Balanescu to
work with a much larger ensemble, a
sound that will re-emerge on the
Quartet's next album. "The material
I've finished seems to be going towards
an orchestral sort of feeling," he says. "I
have this image of orchestral dance
music. I'll probably have bass and
drums, but with a larger ensemble of
strings, and possibly brass." Balanescu
also reworked some of the music that is
heard in "Angels and Insects" before
going back into the studio to finish the
soundtrack album. "I expanded some
pieces which I thought were nice ideas,
but fleeting in the film."
It was filmmaker Jarman who intro-
duced the group to the Pet Shop Boys, a
relationship that led them to perform in
front of 10,000 people at London's
Wembley stadium. What was it like for a
string quartet to open up for the Pet Shop
Boys? "Dangerous!" answers Balanescu.
"It was an irresistible challenge."
Balanescu, who seems to be equally
adept at appealing to classical academics
and contemporary fans, seemed like a
good person to ask about the future of
classical music. His answer was quite
"In terms of young composers in the
sort of 'serious classical' area, to my
mind there hasn't been a new genera-
tion to take over from Nyman and Bryars
and Glass and Reich. ... There is an
area of electronic music or techno or
ambient that in a way is now sort of
indistinguishable from the classical area.
... I think that's very hopeful, because
some of this music, which is primarily
instrumental as well, is quite success-
ful, because young people are prepared
to listen to it.
"Even techno and electronic music
can be very, very intellectual and very
dry. This influence from ethnic music I
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