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The Isaura String Quartet on Machines and Strings

On October 24, the Isaura String Quartet performs Machines and Strings at REDCAT. Billed as “an immersive concert experience,” the program features works by artists including Chrysanthe Tan, Stephanie Smith, Ajay Kapur, Sarah Belle Reid, April Gerloff, and Jules Gimbrone performed in collaboration with interactive lighting and projection by alumni artists from the 2018 CalArts Expo creative team. The evening also includes the world premiere of Ulrich Krieger’s completely revised quartet Up-Tight II and a new work by Amy Knoles featuring the KarmetiK Machine Orchestra, directed by Ajay Kapur, who also created the custom-built robotic musical instrument Lydia.

I caught the original version of Ulrich’s piece when Isaura played it back in February at Human Resources and was really taken with the piece and their approach to it. Here’s a video from that performance:

Needless to say, I’m excited to hear the revised version and hear and see everything that the quartet is promising us for the 24th, so asked if the members would be down for an interview. Violinists Madeline Falcone and Emily Call and cellist Betsy Rettig kindly answered my call. Here’s our conversation:

You just performed at CalArts and are now bringing Machines and Strings, Part II to REDCAT. The show has been billed as an “immersive concert experience.” I know you’ve got a deep interest in production. Could you talk a bit about what, beyond performing music, this program is all about?

Madeline: These concerts are about community, musical language, and elevating voices that we believe are important. Many artists are struggling with the current state of art and struggling to contextualize their art within the current social and political climate, and it is wonderful to find these ways in which we can support each other. We feel very proud of our team of amazing artists including performers, composers, lighting designers, video artists, and technological innovators. We have learned from each of these artists over the course of this production and the quartet has expanded our musical language through the process of working on each of these pieces.

We have developed an interest in production because we are used to self-producing, which is how most of these shows featuring experimental sounds/weird ideas/emerging artists tend to happen, but also because production relates directly to the music. The audience experiences sounds, lights, energy—all of those are essential to bringing the thing to life. For both of these concerts we have been working with Lauren Pratt as a producer and mentor, and she has been wonderfully supportive.

What attracts you to the work of the composers you’ve programmed?

Emily: When we started thinking about putting together a program featuring strings and music tech, the theme of order and disorder kept coming up: strings as disorder—going out of tune, breaking a bow hair, the natural human nature of playing an instrument where error is a factor—and machines as order, completing tasks, following functions, the precision with which a machine can act. At the same time, you can think of strings as orderly and machines as disorderly. Disorderly machines have actually come up quite often during our preparation for this concert! We kept this idea in mind when we were looking for composers and pieces to perform, and that idea has really shaped the program. We’re excited to showcase so many composers who are using technology and strings, sometimes together and sometimes not, in really innovative ways.

I know Isaura has a heavy focus on working with local composers, and that you’ve also taken quite a few gigs in the rock and popular music world, such as your residency at Emo Nite LA. How do those performance practices inform each other in your work? Do you approach them very differently as players?

Betsy: In many ways all of these different musical worlds need each other, and musically, we use the same tools for approaching every genre. As an ensemble we work together the same way to communicate time, expression, musicality, intonation, etc. Most of the pop and rock projects we have been part of have involved the artist specifically wanting players who were well-versed in a variety of playing styles and extended techniques.

Our crossover experience has been particularly helpful in our work with Ulrich Krieger, developing his quartet Up-Tight II. When he approached us about playing this piece, it was because of a prior collaboration with opera singer Timur called Love, Honor, Obey. Ulrich arranged an Elvis song for that project and really wanted us to go crazy with it. Up-Tight II is dedicated to Lou Reed and inspired by the Velvet Underground. We’ve been working a lot in rehearsals developing the physicality of the piece, which is so often present in rock music.

What are your favorite concerts you’ve attended in LA in the past year?

This is an almost impossible question to answer because there is so much exciting music happening in this city all of the time… but a few stand-outs include:

Emily: James Tenney’s Changes: Sixty-Four Studies for Six Harps presented by SASSAS at The Box last November and Dog Star 14’s concert of pieces by Eric Heep, Corey Fogel, and Erika Bell. (Side note: Eric Heep is actually one of the co-creators of Lydia, the robotic piano featured on our concert!).

Madeline: Matmos at The Broad’s Summer Happenings; Dolores: Our Lady of the 7 Sorrows with Ron Athey and Nacho Nava; and Quartetto Fantastico with visuals by Jesse Gilbert for the Mars Festival earlier this month.

Betsy: Michael Webster and the Breath Control Orchestra, Nice Day for the Races from a radio play by Samuel Beckett at the Box, and Southland Ensemble: Ruth Crawford / Ruth Crawford Seeger at Automata

Can you tell us more about Lydia?

Madeline: Lydia is a modified mechatronic instrument built on an upright piano created by CalArts students and faculty in 2013 under mentorship of artist and MacArthur fellow Trimpin. The instrument uses motors rather than hammers to create sound on the piano strings, and also includes other tools such as a saw that scrapes against the bottom of the instrument to introduce new piano sound worlds. We have enjoyed getting to know her as our chamber music partner over the last couple months.

What’s next for the quartet?

Emily: We will be ending 2018 with a few recording projects, and we have some exciting collaborative projects for 2019 in LA and New York, which we look forward to announcing soon!

Anything else you’d like to add?

Betsy: Thanks for chatting with us!

Tickets for Machines and Strings are available at redcat.org/event/machines-and-strings.

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