Interview: Roaring Timber String Quartet

Roaring Timber String Quartet

Last year, I had the pleasure of getting acquainted with Toronto-based violinist Aline Homzy, who was organizing the Bitches Brew jazz performance that I was thrilled to hear in April.  Several weeks ago, she contacted me about a new project, the Roaring Timber String Quartet, described as an ‘explorative string quartet playing music that is simultaneously old and new.’

The quartet is comprised of Aline; Gabriel Dubreuil, a jazz/folk violinist and bandleader; Lea Kirstein, a folk/classical violist and fiddler; and George Crotty, improvising cellist and producer.  They will be appearing live several times around the Toronto area in the next few weeks:

March 17 @ House Concert, Artery House Concert, Toronto, ON

March 19 @ The Loft with 2ish / 7:30 / $25, 201 Division St., Coburg ON

March 20 @ House Concert & workshop, ​Artery House Concert, Toronto, ON (message for info)

March 22 @ St. Andrew’s Church 7pm / $25 door/ $20 advance / $10 kids & seniors, address: 47 Reynolds St, Oakville, ON

The quartet recently chatted with me about the ensemble and their plans for the future.

What inspired you all to start this project?

George: The string quartet played a role in our educational and creative development. We’ve all established our own smaller ensembles that offer an intimacy immediacy between the performers, and audiences. We’ve all got different backgrounds, and this instrumentation offers an opportunity to play to our strengths, together. George & Gabe have played together extensively as freelancers, as well as a swing-style Loose Roots Duo, and George has occasionally played as a sideman for Aline and Lea in their own projects.

Lea: This project has been a dream on the back burner for years for me. Since I never grew up rooted in one tradition of music, I was always looking to find the bigger picture, threads of commonality that tied together Celtic fiddle tunes with jazz colour palettes or the interwoven lyricism of chamber music. And to find three other string players that are equally curious and drawn to multiple linguistic worlds has been a really exciting journey.

I would imagine that when most people think of string quartets, they think of classical groups (or works), not necessarily jazz or improv. Is there much precedent for a string quartet like yours, or are you breaking new ground?

Aline: Absolutely, we’d think of the classical string quartet – which I personally adore. There are so many brilliant works written for the string quartet and it has really evolved into this very distinguishable “sound.” I think we are different in the sense that we all come from very diverse backgrounds. We also all arrange and write music. So in a way, I suppose we are breaking new group with the addition of all of our unique voices and inspirations/musical conditioning.

George: String players have been improvising since before recorded history, and improvisation was conventional in western history until the 19th century. However our craft is in mid-evolution dating back to at least the 1960s, and we’ve been educated, inspired and instigated by renowned groups ranging from string quartets like Turtle Island, and The Fretless, to contemporary folk ensembles like The Punch Brothers, and The Gloaming. We are statistically quite unique, and we distinguish ourselves by our unique chemistry as people.

How would you describe your style – is it jazz, or ‘chamber folk,’ or something else besides?

Gabriel: We are string players gone rogue. The music has more breathing room than in a traditional chamber setting, and brings together new folk and jazz-inspired styles from coast to coast.

Lea: I think modern folk with some elements of jazz improv feels the most right for now. In Canada right now, there is a really interesting intersection of fiddle music rooted in traditions like Celtic, French Canadian, and Scandinavian styles, and with all of our backgrounds in jazz and chamber music, it is inevitable that some of that language filters through to define our sound.

How exactly does a string quartet go about improvising? Is there a common basic text, or plan, that you follow, and (as in jazz) you decide beforehand on a rough blueprint? Or are you just completely winging it?

Aline: I think there is often a misconception with improvising in general and “jazz” music. I would say that everything is quite planned and calculated. The tone of it might not be conventional but it has been thoroughly thought out. In this case, there is a lot of written material that is given and then interpreted in our own respective ways. There are also sections in this music that have a lot of freedom, either using chord symbols or not as possibilities to make up our own melodies and rhythms.

Lea: We often bring leadsheets with fiddle tunes and specific chords or textures arranged, which then provide a springboard for a soloist or two to improvise over them. However, providing opportunities to all improvise together in a freer setting is an exciting prospect and something I’m sure we’ll explore in the future.

I think that as of this writing, you all have done at least a couple of performances now… how did they go, where did you feel this worked really well, and where do you feel the process needs to improve?

George: This is a relatively new project, considering some groups perform together for decades. The entire project has essentially been an experiment open to the public. Our ideal venue is a reverberant space with up to 50 seats. One thing that helps us is to perform standing up, it adds an interactive physically to the process. (George uses a Block Strap.)

Gabriel: The nature of a string quartet is that it can be easily adapted to a variety of audiences, from concert-hall settings, to house concerts and festivals, to educational settings.

Many people who learn string instruments as young people do so within the context of school orchestras, or private lessons (usually focusing on classical repertoire), and so they learn music as a very structured, planned thing – which isn’t always to their liking. Do you think your approach could open up new ideas about hearing and learning music for listeners, particularly young people, and if so, in what ways?

Lea: Certainly for young people coming from more structured traditional classical education would find our approach liberating. However, I find that more and more great string educators are starting to include composition, improvisation, and room for freer expression as a normal part of their pedagogy. If we compare learning music to learning a language, children always learn to speak freely and fluently before they learn grammar or literacy skills, and I think it only makes sense to start with aural learning and room for conversational music making before getting too deep into the structure of playing in an orchestra.

Speaking for myself, it was a very uncomfortable and slow process to unlearn that structure and learn how to be freer, but I did it with a team of very patient and lovely friends in my teens and twenties who were singer songwriters, (non-string playing) jazz musicians, and other creative string players, who encouraged me to develop my own voice. It always seemed to me during that transitional that time that I was an architect who could only build things to specifications, and they were painters sitting down at a blank canvas and just joyfully creating these magical landscapes at whim… it was and still is a very exciting process to discover.

George: Our approach is something we learned from the generation that trained us, and those before them. There are different values in classical, jazz, fiddle communities, and there is a very healthy exchange happening at a grassroots and institutional level. A young musician needs a reason to practice: communal function, creative expression, etc. This process translates to true versatility and confidence at the professional level. We are playing music on our terms, together and separately, and can show others how to this too.

Gabriel: Our approach is shaped by the belief that any musical style can be adapted to ‘classical’ string instruments. We play all original compositions and arrangements of existing pieces and tunes, that play to each of our strengths. Folk and fiddle music is based in deep-rooted social traditions, that will hopefully be passed down, and will inspire more young people to pick up an instrument.

Aline: I think there is a shift happening right now in the strings world. I believe it is coming out of a necessity for jobs – in my generation and younger. Many classically trained musicians are turning towards other styles of music simply because there aren’t enough opportunities for everyone to make a living playing music anymore. In a way, it can be disappointing because it lowers the standard of creative-improvised music. But! I do think it is a positive thing because it means people are opening up to being creative and perhaps writing their own music, listening to other music and going out to see live music that they might not have otherwise gone to see. For me, it is all about community – especially in the stage of being a student. You have to go out there and seek musicians and creatives that you believe are forcing through and breaking boundaries. You have to go listen to music that makes you feel uncomfortable. This is how music, art and the world can evolve. This string quartet in particular is so unique because we do this on a regular basis – we go out and see music all the time and we play with such diverse musicians which feeds into our improvisation and writing.

What is your hope/dream for this project? Where do you see it going in the next few months and years?

Aline: I hope that this project inspires younger generations to see what is possible on a stringed instrument. Growing up in a very classical-focused background meant that pretty much all the string music I was exposed to was classical. There is so much more to the instrument than that!

Gabriel: I would hope to bring this quartet to communities across North America, and work with orchestras and schools to promote and create awareness about possibilities of playing non-classical music on violin, viola and cello!

George: Playing in communities across Canada and beyond.

Visit The Roaring Timber String Quartet on Facebook.

Exposed to the wonders of CBC and Montréal Canadiens hockey as a teenager thanks to a satellite dish in rural Kansas, I have been an unabashed lover of all things Canadian ever since. I am a lifelong collector of esoteric and varied music, a teacher of piano, an avid reader, and a stamp/coin collector. In real life, I work in the field of technology.

Come find me on Goodreads.

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