Taking form in the 17th century, the string quartet was a four-piece ensemble small enough to play in the drawing rooms and salons of the European aristocracy. Classical composers explored the tonal relationships between violins, violas and cellos, and the musical structure of the quartet became the essence of repertoire chamber music.
That is until Halifax's improvisational jazz company, suddenlyLISTEN, began reworking the standards. On Wednesday at the Bus Stop Theatre, Quartetto Obscuro returns as part of suddenlyLISTEN's main concert series with four distinct string musicians. With Chris Church (violin), Don MacLennan (violin), Robin Streb (viola) and suddenlyLISTEN director Norman Adams (cello), the Quartetto Obscuro will draw on the different musical backgrounds and formal styles of each player with a minimally rehearsed improv session that will take both the players and the audience to fresh places.
This experience will be a new one for MacLellan, a violinist who began in the Celtic tradition before moving into gypsy and manouche jazz and eventually bluegrass, lately playing with The Modern Grass and the folkier Ben Caplan. He says his style differs from the more experimental bents of Streb and Adams, which is part of the appeal.
"It's something I've never done before, an eclectic string quartet, but it's something I've been imagining being a part of for awhile now," he says. "There are certainly going to be elements of jazz in the performance but we'll really be using the styles from where we all come from musically and taking that in directions together, however way it moves."
This approach and convergence of genres, which some call fusion, is one that MacLennan observes as a trend in new music. "Up until a few years ago, the idea of putting different genres together was totally avant-garde, the idea of fusion anything, but fusing all types of music, including classical, means that pretty soon there isn't going to be genre-crossing anymore," he explains. "It's pretty interesting and is what we're doing. It's like pairing wines."
And they're fine wines, indeed. With MacLennan's traditional background and the experimentalism of Streb and Adams, Toronto violinist Church adds more to the score.
Working within world, flamenco, Middle Eastern and North African styles, Church's international blend is sure to move the quartet over borders into new terrain. "I find some of the most fulfilling musical experiences that I have had have come from the cross pollination of musical genres," he says. "It not only gives the performer a chance to explore the style of music from a certain region or time period, but also allows one to walk through a cultural door of sorts into an unfamiliar musical space."
This is also true for the audience. Both Church and MacLennan call the practice of improvisational performance a conversation with the audience, as well as each other: "You never know where it's going to go," Church says.
It's part of the musical adventure. "Improvisation is one of my favourite things to do," MacLennan says. "It's a real treat to have the classical instrumentation and orchestration with the ability to improvise."
Wednesday, October 16 at 8pm
Bus Stop Theatre, 2203 Gottingen Street