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Classical Notes

From Beethoven to beer and beyond with the Danish String Quartet

The Danish String Quartet
The Danish String QuartetCaroline Bittencourt

Here is the story of the Danish String Quartet, as told by the ensemble on its website. “We are three Danes and one Norwegian cellist, making this a truly Scandinavian endeavor. Being relatively bearded, we are often compared to the Vikings. However, we are only pillaging the English coastline occasionally.”

There is, of course, a more straightforward biography on the site — how they met, decided to pursue chamber music, and became “a serious string quartet” — but why bother? The “alternative” story is far more entertaining to contemplate, and who knows, it may be true. (In which case, watch out, Lindisfarne.)


What is not open to question is that this deeply talented group, still young, has been moving from strength to strength since it entered the public eye. They now have their own festival, complete with its own line of craft beer. Last year they recorded “Last Leaf,” a sumptuously colored assemblage of Nordic folk song arrangements. Their new release (both are on ECM) begins a cycle called “Prism,” each entry of which will mix works of Bach, Beethoven, and later composers (in this case, Shostakovich).

Ahead of a Nov. 18 concert at Rockport Music, two of the quartet’s members — violist Asbjorn Norgaard and cellist Fredrik Schoyen Sjölin — took time out of their busy traveling schedule to answer questions via e-mail about friendship, old and new music, and, yes, beer.

Q. You write on your website that “music is a way to hang out with friends.” I know that three of you met at a music summer camp at around age 13. How does that long friendship inform the way you make music together?

Norgaard: I don’t think that being close friends is a necessity for making music together, but for me it would be unbearable to spend that much time with people who weren’t my very close friends. The music-making that can be experienced in a concert is, in a way, only 10 percent of the music we are “making.” Ninety percent of the work and music-making happens in the rehearsal room, and I think we have found a way of working together that can be very efficient because we are very close friends.


In essence: If you don’t trust each other 100 percent, you have to rehearse every musical moment obsessively to make sure that everything is lined up. You have to make all the decisions and set them in stone. But if you dare to trust each other 100 percent — and it is, after all, quite easy to trust old friends — you can leave more things open-ended and free, and still be sure that the general musical message of the group will be coherent in the concert.

Q. You said in an earlier interview that in approaching the quartet literature and crafting your interpretations, you begin by “trying to have as much freedom as possible.” What does that mean?

Norgaard: Fundamentally, there are two ways of approaching a musical rehearsal and crafting an interpretation. One is very much conservatory textbook: You try different ideas, work your way closer and closer to some “truth,” and in the end you end up with a “perfect” interpretation where every decision has been made [and] agreed upon. . . .


Another way is to use the rehearsal time to open up and explore as many possible paths, and then actually not deciding on one “perfect” path. The idea being that you want to have as many musical options available as possible in the concert situation, leaving a lot open-ended. The reality is a continuum . . . but I believe it is always better to open up musical possibilities rather than closing them down.

Q. What was the inspiration for “Last Leaf”?

Sjölin: Basically, we wanted to make another album with folk tunes and our own stuff after the first album [“Wood Works”]. But this time we also wanted to see if we could make the album more contiguous, rather than just 10–12 pieces on a disc. We had all kinds of ideas and story lines on the drawing board, and even though none of them manifested themselves in the album entirely, they all played a role in binding everything together in the end.

One song that captured our attention from early on is “Now Found Is the Fairest of Roses,” which opens and ends the record, and at the same [time] stands as an example of how we colorize these very simple melodies to give them a sentiment and a context to fit a concert stage.

Q. Your new album begins a project called “Prism.” Can you say what that word means in this context, and talk about the thinking behind this project?

Norgaard: The idea came when I was reading Lewis Lockwood’s book about Beethoven. He writes about Beethoven’s lifelong obsession with Bach and, in particular, “The Well-Tempered Clavier.” In his last years, he basically spent all his time studying Bach and writing string quartets. Actually, most of the musical material that he used to craft his last five string quartets can be more or less directly found in specific fugues by Bach.


So the idea of “Prism” is to show this linear connection from Bach to Beethoven, and then to show how everything explodes with these monumental last string quartets. After Beethoven, every composer had to consider these quartets and somehow figure out how to carry on the torch. A fundamentally linear musical development was split into many different colors and potential paths. Just in the same way a prism splits a beam of light.

Q. How does your festival allow you to flex your creativity? And most important, what are the beers like?

Sjölin: The festival has always been a home for us. If it weren’t for the practicalities of space, we might actually have it in one of our homes. It’s meant to be a space where we can be 100 percent artistically free and invite anyone who wants to come into our own world. So every festival starts off with the question: “What would our ‘dream concert’ look like if we were the audience?” And beer has proven to be a part of that answer. And yes, they taste great!


Presented by Rockport Music at Shalin Liu Performance Center, Rockport. Nov. 18, 3 p.m. Tickets $35-$49. 978-546-7391, www.rockportmusic.org


Interview was edited and condensed. David Weininger can be reached at globeclassicalnotes@gmail.com. Follow him on Twitter @davidgweininger.