Nov. 17 2010 10:33 AM

The Calder Quartet plays everything from Mozart to Andrew W.K.

The Calder Quartet takes on an ambitious piece this week
As far as musical forms go, the string quartet is about as conventional as the rock band. But Calder Quartet isn’t the classical equivalent to a Rolling Stones tribute.

To be sure, the L.A.-based group—Benjamin Jacobson and Andrew Bulbrook on violin, Jonathan Moerschel on viola and Eric Byers on cello, each of them 30 or 31— were delighted to perform Franz Schubert’s daringly modernist String Quartet No. 15 at the Melbourne international Arts Festival last month. But in September, their repertoire was decidedly more contemporary when they toured with The Airborne Toxic Event, providing resonant harmonies for the band’s indie-rock anthems.

Whether it’s classical string quartets by Mozart, experimental pieces by path-breaking composer Terry Riley or exciting new work by contemporary British composer Thomas Ads, Calder Quartet love it all. They’re even into world-beat preppies Vampire Weekend and hard-rocking party animal Andrew W.K., both of whom they’ve performed with in recent years.

“The challenge is to sort of get inside each composer’s head,” Byers says by phone from Los Angeles. “There’s a lot of very common human emotions that we have, and most composers are trying to express those. I think that’s definitely a common thread. But something that sounds like frustration in Mozart sounds really different in Andrew W.K.”

Calder Quartet comes from a conservatory background—they started playing together in 1998 while they were studying at the University of southern California’s thornton School of Music. Later, they studied at the ColbuSchool of Music in L.A. and at Julliard in New York. In Berlin, renowned chamber music professor Eberhard Feltz taught them to learn Mozart’s “language,” Byers says—to convey the freshness, boldness and dissonance of age-old chord progressions that modern ears have heard a million times before.

When they play with bands, however, Byers says he has to get in a different mindset: Loosen up. Be a little more spontaneous. Realize that playing a song about breaking up with your girlfriend doesn’t require the same attention to detail as one of Mozart’s compositions.

Violins and Skeletons, an ambitious, hour-long piece by Australian composer Kate Moore that the quartet will perform at The Loft at UCSD this week, presents its own challenges. Moore was co-commissioned by UCSD and Calder to compose the piece after she won a composer’s contest for the Carlsbad Music Festival in September. What Moore gave them wasn’t the five- to 15minute piece that winners usually produce.

Inspired by optical illusions and visually striking patterns in works by artists M.C. Escher, Bridget Riley and Paul Klee, Violins and Skeletons is composed of four separate string-quartet parts. Three parts that Calder pre-recorded play on speakers positioned to surround the audience while the quartet performs the fourth part live, engulfing the listener in a blurred whorl of strings that Moore likens to the passing of the seasons.

“The hour that passes holds the seasons and the seasons hold the waxing and waning of the months and in the months are the weeks and in the weeks are the days,” she explains by e-mail.

In a way, the piece is more like an art installation than a traditional concert performance. “You just sort of lose yourself in it and you might zone out for a while, take a nap or whatever, but it’s still kind of going on,” Byers says.

Composers have done crazy things with the string quartet in the 250-odd years since Haydn first fathered the form’s classic four-movement structure. In the early ’90s, Karlheinz Stockhausen composed a string quartet where each player performed in a different helicopter. New York avant-garde composer John Zohas written schizophrenic quartets that make Mozart’s famous “Dissonance” quartet sound downright calming.

But, Byers says, some purists still think a quartet’s credibility goes out the window when they start playing with bands.

“I feel like some groups might stay away from it because they might think it’s a bad idea. Like, as soon as you play with a band, that means that you can’t play Mozart as well or something,” he says. “I don’t believe that.”

Calder Quartet performs at The Loft at UCSD on Thursday, Nov. 18.