No ordinary string quartet, Turtle Island Quartet (TIQ) performed a vast array of musical styles Friday evening: rock, folk, blue grass, jazz, blues, even Indian. Building upon their masterful technique and commitment to improvisation, TIQ was able to craft fresh, new melodies out of popular music. Tackling works by legendary guitarist, songwriter and performer Jimi Hendrix, as well as other compositions inspired by Hendrix, TIQ took audiences on a journey across space and time, reinventing rock and jazz to fit their unique string ensemble.

© Erik Jacobs for Boston Lyric Opera, 2011
© Erik Jacobs for Boston Lyric Opera, 2011

With David Balakrishnan and Mads Tolling on violin and Jeremy Kittle on viola, Mark Sommer played cello, bass and percussion on the very same instrument. From a smokey bass to the classic cello to punchy percussive sounds, much like Bongo drums, Sommer crafted it all. But that's not to say one musician was the star of the show: whether it was Hendrix or Coltrane, the melody travelled throughout the group, taking on a multitude of personalities and shining a light on their collective musical flair.

Starting off with a little bit of folk, Tolling’s violin sounded more like a fiddle. As Tolling mastered the tight, fast rhythms, the rest of group captured that upbeat, country feel that distinguishes a folk song.

A far cry from Mozart, TIQ also tackled jazz greats John Coltrane and Miles Davis. In Moment's Notice by Coltrane, the quartet felt more like a jazz band than a string quartet, and for just a few moments, the venue felt just like a smoky nightclub. Establishing a bedrock of sound for soloists to grow out of, it was the viola that made this piece their own: the viola felt weighty yet light, adding an element to Coltrane's music that was distinctly unique.

At the heart of Friday’s performance were fresh arrangements of Hendrix's legendary rock music. In addition to a suite of four Hendrix pieces taken from his seminal Electric Ladyland album, which were all played with a sweet, soulful groove, highlights included Hey Joe and Mark Summer's solo cello rendition of Little Wing. In Hey Joe, the strings took on a new sound; the viola burst with a verve unique to this classical instrument while the violin took on a wilder side, producing sounds akin to Hendrix’s famous guitar solos.

Summer's rendition of Little Wing was equally unique. With a variety of colours produced on Daphne (Summer’s cello), the breadth of Hendrix’s influence on music today was illuminated throughout the piece. Challenging traditional notions of classical music, Summer played his instrument as a drum, an upright bass and a cello, producing a range of sounds contained within a single piece. In this way, Summer’s music transcended traditional notions of music, much in the same way Hendrix pushed boundaries with his guitar playing, made popular by songs like All Along the Watchtower and his own version of the Star-Spangled Banner.

Admittedly, Jimi Hendrix is a seminal influence on the Turtle Island Quartet, and particularly with violinist David Balakrishnan. In Balakrishan's four-movement string quartet, Tree of Life, the musical mixing of styles is glaringly clear. At first, the music sounded atmospheric and calming, akin to an Indian raga. But then it morphed into crawling jazz and blues lines, only to change drastically midway through the piece. With an unusual key change, Tree of Life now harkened back to a more classical contemporary, Schoenberg perhaps, achieving a complete mood alteration accompanied by brighter, faster music. In just a few short minutes, audiences travelled across space and time, experiencing a wide mix of musical styles.

Overall, TIQ proved that classical music can live outside the bounds of traditional string music. With Jimi Hendrix as their guide, TIQ proved eclectic in both sound and form.

Turtle Island QuartetWith Jimi Hendrix as their guide, TIQ proved eclectic in both sound and form.