Darwin's Theories, Speaking Musically

fromAPM

The Turtle Island  Quartet i i

Violinist David Balakrishnan (second from left) has written a new piece for the Turtle Island Quartet, inspired by Charles Darwin. courtesy of Turtle Island Quartet hide caption

itoggle caption courtesy of Turtle Island Quartet
The Turtle Island  Quartet

Violinist David Balakrishnan (second from left) has written a new piece for the Turtle Island Quartet, inspired by Charles Darwin.

courtesy of Turtle Island Quartet

This year marked the 150th anniversary of what may be the most important science book ever written: On the Origin of Species, and the 200th anniversary of the birth of its author, Charles Darwin.

Darwin was British, and throughout 2009, the English have been particularly proud, issuing a Darwin coin, official stamps and a variety of celebratory exhibitions.

But none of the Darwin-mania was lost on this side of the pond, even in musical circles. David Balakrishnan, violinist and founder of the Grammy-winning Turtle Island Quartet, composed a piece titled Tree of Life, inspired in part by Darwin's groundbreaking book. It's a large-scale multimedia composition (commissioned by the Lied Center at the University of Kansas), mixing theatre, dance, video, spoken word, a wind ensemble and the Turtle Island Quartet itself.

Balakrishnan and the rest of the Turtle Island Quartet stopped by the Performance Today studio to play a version of the piece for string quartet.

"The subject matter is Darwin's theory of evolution," Balakrishnan says. "I tried to avoid getting into the conflict of it, but instead talk about the cultural values of wanting to know where you came from and what that means artistically."

Turtle Island's Cross-Cultural World

The piece is in four movements: "Aswatha" (the Indian Tree of Life), "Lucy" (named for the second oldest human found, "Monkey Business," and "Coelacanth" (named after the world's oldest fish).

As Tree of Life flows by, styles and eras of music seem to evolve, swimming seamlessly into each other. You can hear a good dozen, or so, including Indian classical music, bluegrass, swing, bebop, Afro-Cuban, the songs "Strangers in the Night" and "All of Me," Eastern European folk music, blues and hints of rock and funk. Probably more. But what's important is that it doesn't feel like a pastiche; all of these styles live organically in the Turtle Island world.

The Quartet has always had a love for the multi-stylistic and multicultural. And, as Balakrishnan told me, each member of the group comes by it naturally. It's particularly obvious in the story of his own musical evolution.

"My father is from India, so I grew up hearing that music as a kid," Balakrishnan says. "Then I fell in love with Jimi Hendrix and wanted to play Hendrix on the violin. That was great for a while. I got into fusion, got into classical 12-tone study. Then I discovered bebop, then the David Grisman Quintet. All these things, they are all accidents, right? But they are following your heart. In the end, Turtle Island was the way that I found to connect the dots."

Balakrishnan says he has tremendous respect for Bach, Beethoven and Brahms, but his musical world encompasses much more. Rarely do you hear a piece of music with such a wide range of cultural references that doesn't sound like a collage. Tree of Life sounds wholly integrated — a single musical ecosystem, made from many species.

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