Who are the Samurai String Squad? They’re Alastair Eng, Courtenay Vandiver, Jeremy Harmon and Jesse Lewis – and they’re a string quartet, of a sort.
It’s clear the group are different from most string quartets from the moment they walk on stage, as they did on Wednesday night at St. Brigid’s Centre for the Arts, presented by the Ottawa International Chamber Music Festival. They all play the cello: There’s not a violin or viola in sight.
The Samurai String Squad got started two years ago, in Boston – and the Ottawa concert was their Canadian debut. However, Eng, the driving force behind the quartet of twentysomething musicians, is originally from Toronto. He does most of the arranging for the group: instrumental covers of songs by Smashing Pumpkins, Nirvana, Stone Temple Pilots and the like. (There was one classical piece on the program: a sweet arrangement of Schubert’s song Der Jüngling auf dem Hügel.)
The audience gathered in the basement of St. Brigid’s was an all-ages crowd: grey-haired veterans of Ottawa’s annual chamber-music blowout mixed with a curious younger set. Every time the Squad announced a song – Smashing Pumpkins’ Disarm, or Nirvana’s Lithium, for example – the younger half of the audience howled with delight while older listeners stared blankly at each other.
When the quartet came back after the break for their second set, there was a lot less grey hair in the hall. But the youngsters howled with even more delight – “Woohoo!” – at each new song. They even sang along to Sound Garden’s Black Hole Sun.
These days, it’s not unusual for classically trained chamber groups to take an interest in popular music. The Kronos Quartet pioneered this trend in the 1980s with its Jimi Hendrix arrangements, the Turtle Island Quartet is known for its John Coltrane covers, and Quartet San Francisco has made a specialty of Dave Brubeck. And it’s not a uniquely North American phenomenon: France’s Quatuor Ebène likes to end a program of Ravel, Debussy and Fauré with Miles Davis or the Beatles.
Part of the appeal seems to be the irony of highly trained specialists in classical chamber music reinventing themselves as jazzers and rockers. It's transgressive, from whatever direction you look at it. Bowed stringed instruments have never figured prominently in popular music – dominated for decades by guitars, drums and winds – and now some audacious violinists, violists and cellists are saying, “We can do it too.”
The Samurai String Squad have obviously put a lot of effort into doing what they do. They bring their bows down hard on the strings, and move their mics in close to pick up all the harshness – and, presto, they get “cello grunge.” (The sound was surprisingly guitar-like in a cover of Guns N’ Roses’s Sweet Child o’ Mine.) Add a secure yet flexible sense of rhythm, and a penchant for bending notes like they were made of rubber, and the results are impressive.
A fad? Perhaps – it seems unlikely that we’ll soon hear Russia’s Borodin Quartet inserting Rolling Stones tunes between movements of a Shostakovich quartet. But for younger chamber musicians who grew up steeped in popular music, it’s an authentic idea whose time has come.
One more thing. It seems that Eng will be spending more time in Toronto in the coming year, as he just got himself a job playing in the Canadian Opera Company Orchestra. Will opera patrons get some grunge with their Gluck?
© Colin Eatock 2011