Jeff Lunden | NPR
One of the most adventurous classical ensembles, the Grammy Award-winning Attacca Quartet, has made its reputation with an eclectic musical palette – they've explored the string quartets of Haydn and Beethoven and premiered new pieces by contemporary composers. But the latest album from the group – violinists Amy Schroeder and Domenic Salerni, violist Nathan Schram and cellist Andrew Yee – might be their most surprising: Real Life features adaptations of electronic dance music by Flying Lotus, Louis Cole and Daedelus, among others.
Having come together as Juilliard School students in 2003, the original members of the ensemble leafed through a music dictionary, trying to come up with a name for their group. Starting with the A's, they quickly found what not only turned out to be a perfect name, but also a definition of their aesthetic.
"Attacca means attached; to keep playing music and to not stop," says Yee, a founding member. "And I think that's been sort of what we've done over the past almost 20 years; is to do something, but always be sort of in motion, always be really intentional about moving on and then discovering new things and finding joy in different places."
Pulitzer Prize-winning composer Caroline Shaw collaborated with the group on the Grammy-winning album, Orange. "One of the things that I love about Attacca is that they approach everything with creativity and enthusiasm and a willingness to try something new," she says. "Whether it's, you know, with something that I've written in the last few years or it's Beethoven. Everything feels – not to overuse a word – but it feels very fresh.
So, when Attacca puts together a concert program, they like mixing things up, says Schram. "What we've been doing in our repertoire for so many years, we've been playing Beethoven next to Flying Lotus next to Caroline Shaw."
That's right: Flying Lotus, the Los Angeles-based producer and DJ.
The members of the group listen to all kinds of music, including electronic dance music, so, it wasn't such a leap for them to record a full album of string quartet adaptations. "It seemed to make a lot of sense with what we do," says Schram, "because it's instrumental music, it's extremely dynamic, it's super intelligent and sophisticated. And it was such a perfect fruit to try to dig into."
The quartet's members made their own transcriptions and worked, via Zoom, with the album's producers, including Michael League of Snarky Puppy. "This whole record is sort of like poster child of pandemic production," Yee explains. "We had a laptop that had just Mike's face on it in the studio with us. We could see him jamming out five seconds behind, you know, on the computer."
Attacca used all sorts of technology on the recording: they overdubbed themselves, added electronic effects and even enlisted some EDM producers, like TOKiMONSTA, to work with them. Their collaboration – done entirely long-distance – was on a Flying Lotus tune, "Remind U."
"They had already recorded kind of like a demo, and it was just amazing," says TOKiMONSTA. "I changed some of the sequencing, but not too much. I added more rhythm and movement and that's what I did with the percussion."
The quartet is aware that the new album, Attacca's first on the Sony Classical label, might raise some eyebrows. "For us, this music isn't that different than Beethoven—like, in so many ways it is!" Schram says, laughing. "Ultimately for us, it's music we love playing. We're using our instruments in the same creative way we would if we were playing classical music. Obviously, the production techniques are very different. But for us, it still feels very much like we're playing string quartet music."
And already, Attacca Quartet is promising more instrumental mash-ups: Their next album, scheduled for fall release, will pair works by contemporary composers Philip Glass and Arvo Pärt with Renaissance polyphony.