When the string quartet Brooklyn Rider conceived of the project they called “Healing Modes,” its members had no idea that a recording of the same name (released on March 27) would land in a world literally overrun by disease, and in direst need of healing and comfort.
It began as a way to explore Beethoven’s late String Quartet in A minor, Op. 132 — and in particular, its central slow movement, an extraordinary musical oasis written after the composer’s recovery from a painful bowel affliction. Beethoven named the movement “Heiliger Dankgesang eines Genesenen an die Gottheit, in der Lydischen Tonart” (“Holy song of thanksgiving from a convalescent to the deity, in the Lydian mode”).
Healing is at the core of this profound music, and Brooklyn Rider commissioned five composers — Du Yun, Matana Roberts, Reena Esmail, Gabriela Lena Frank, and Caroline Shaw — to reflect on the same idea. Their pieces — which range in character from Yun’s searing “i am my own achilles heel” to Shaw’s evenly flowing “Schisma” — broach the concept of healing in its medical, religious, personal, and cultural dimensions. On the recording, the five works are interlaced with the five movements of the Beethoven quartet, creating a new composition both familiar and strange, with its own contours and internal structures.
Brooklyn Rider had planned to play “Healing Modes” programs this spring, plans that the coronavirus pandemic has shut down for the foreseeable future. Violist Nicholas Cords answered questions by e-mail about how the project came about, and what it can offer now.
Q. What was the idea behind this album?
A. The idea was to somehow respond to what we identified at the time as an increasingly fractured, partisan, and contentious world. Looking at Beethoven’s towering Opus 132 — a quartet that celebrates a return to the composer’s creative powers after grappling with a life-threatening illness, and a piece we love deeply — we felt inspired to use it as a platform for a project. In addition, we are constantly looking for ways to give new life and expression to the string quartet tradition — what better way to do so than to dive headlong into the study and interpretation of Opus 132 while at the same time commissioning and bringing to life five new works to explore healing today?
Q. How did you decide which composers you wanted to contribute to this project?
A. After years of playing together, one develops a sense of what inherently feels “right” as a quartet. In this case, what felt right was to find creative voices that might uniquely further an eons-old conversation around music’s relationship to healing, and, perhaps even more importantly, explore how music can shed a light on what is desperately in need of healing in this world.
The five composers were all excited by the proposal to write music around this theme, and all write not only from a place of deep personal conviction but from a sense of obligation to use music as a way to give testament, to bring listeners together, and to invent something new. Each also represents a very different cultural perspective and musical language, and each managed to write in ways that deeply challenged us as a quartet.
Q. What’s it like to play this entire program for audiences?
A. We have played this program in a couple of different ways. One is to play all five new commissions on the first half, engaging in conversation with the audience as we do so, and then resetting the scene and playing the Beethoven in its entirety after intermission. This is the way we have done it most often. The other way mirrors the sequence on the recording, which interweaves the different movements of the Beethoven with the new commissions in an unbroken manner, nearly an hour and a half of continuous music. This is intense but also incredibly rewarding: the act of playing and listening in such a way really pulls everybody in the room together. And of course, we’re all literally in need of healing after holding our instruments in place for an hour and a half.
Q. What has the reaction been?
A. We feel a quality of intense listening. … It’s not music for the easy chair. But I think the reward for audiences is that we journey somewhere together — and that along the way, we might consider some of the hard questions in our daily lives with just a little bit more depth and a little more empathy than we might have before. And healing is a perennial need, whether it be Beethoven confronting his own mortality through music in 1825, or the present day, where we are struggling with a global pandemic.
Q. Speaking of which, it’s kind of uncanny that the release of this recording happened when it did.
A. Indeed, none of us could have possibly predicted such a scenario. We hope that our project can find a body of sympathetic listeners in this incredibly uncertain and frightening moment — that it might offer some comfort as we all reconsider questions about physical, mental, and emotional wellness, both as individuals and societies. This project certainly doesn’t have any answers, but hopefully it can help to be a part of what moves us forward.
Q. With illness and disease on everyone’s minds right now, what would you want listeners to take from this music?
A. The thing I ultimately take away from Beethoven is the expression of thanksgiving. Upon his own convalescence, he was overwhelmed with a feeling of gratitude for the return of his own creative spirit. With this inspiration in mind, we then wanted to empower the creative spirit of five incredible composers. Life is incredibly difficult for so many right now, but it’s also a moment to be thankful for what we have, and to trust that life will eventually return.
Interview has been edited and condensed.