The Violin Channel had the chance to catch up with VC Artist Rolston String Quartet, to get their perspective on what it takes to be a successful string quartet.
This summer, after concerts at Canada’s Elora Festival, they will perform a riveting program at An Appalachian Summer Festival on July 26. Tickets can be found here.
What are your most significant words of wisdom for up-and-coming chamber groups hoping to build a thriving career?
-Agree upon a vision for the future of the ensemble.
Being a musician/artist means constantly searching for what can be done better. Make sure you are all on the same page about your commitment to that search and the philosophies that drive it.
-Build a social media presence as soon as possible.
-When you hit a few bumps in the road, figure out how to navigate them in a constructive way. Rather than get discouraged, look at the challenges as a springboard for the group’s development. Keep a clear head and see everything as an opportunity.
What are your favorite parts of traveling together? Any tips for groups that are embarking on their first tour?
Exploring different food scenes is a fun perk for us! When you first start to travel in a group, it’s easy to choose rehearsing over exploring a new place. Of course, it’s important to sound good, always. But what’s also important is creating memories other than rehearsals and concerts. The amazing meal you had together or the beautiful gallery you all saw will be the things that stick in your head. Creating experiences makes the tour feel a little more alive.
How important do you think winning competitions is in regards to a quartet’s success?
We think it’s very important. Regardless of the success, you grow as a group. Entering a competition forces you to craft an identity as a group, one that is so crystal clear. You want a jury or audience member to walk away and say, “I understand what that quartet was about. I understand their unique take on music.” You also get exposed to audiences and presenters, and it’s always good to just put yourself out there.
When you’re preparing for a competition, you’re super “in shape” musically. Your ears are at an all-time high, as you come in contact with many other groups who have also pushed themselves to the brink. It forces you to constantly evaluate yourselves.
Although it’s not a natural situation of any sort, it’s beautiful to hear all these different people playing things they’ve prepared. They’ve gone through a similar scenario and it forces everyone to go through a state of hypergrowth.
Would you say it is a similar situation at a summer festival?
It’s a similar place where you can get a lot of work done. At a summer festival, you spend quite a lot of time together and really hone what you’re about. Competitions and festivals are similar in that they are goal driven, but with festivals, there is a little less pressure and competitive spirit. You can set goals and enjoy yourself at the same time.
This will be your first time at An Appalachian Summer Festival. How do you go about choosing a program for a summer festival such as this one?
Firstly, we pick music we like. We are currently working through all of Hayden’s Op. 33 String Quartets. At this concert on the 26th, we chose to play No. 2 and 4. From there, we tried to pick music that fits with those two works.
Often we’ll choose pieces that are structurally similar. All of the pieces on the Appalachian program seem to sprout from a seed. Each piece has a central, unifying motif that the entire piece sprouts out of. The A. R. Thomas and Beethoven employ a really crafted, structural approach to compositions, almost architectural. We think great composers populate their music with a lot of details and a sense of realism, but they’re all in the same framework of physics. There is a sense of verisimilitude. When we work on pieces like these, it makes our rehearsal process really joyous.
You’ve included a piece by living female composer Augusta Read Thomas. Can you tell us about that piece and how you found it?
August Read Thomas is a good friend of ours! She composed this piece for our quartet a few years ago. It is a musical depiction of the mosaics by award-winning mosaic artist Isaiah Zagar. It’s a really good distillation of what we like to do as a quartet, which is very crafted phrasing. She creates these cells and, just like a mosaic, puts them together like puzzle pieces between the different voices of the quartet. It starts out super fragmented, but by the time you get to the second movement, it becomes somewhat like a fanfare.
It was being written during the pandemic, so when we did collaborate with her on the piece, it was over Zoom. She made some adjustments based on our playing, but for the most part, her first draft didn’t need many changes.
When we talked with her about her compositional process, she said that she used other art forms. She dances to her music, paints it, etc.
How important do you think it is for a younger quartet to be working with living composers?
We think it’s really vital. There are so many different ways that music can sound and composers really have such a wide range of possibilities right now in terms of like the type of music that they’re writing. So when you work with a lot of composers, you learn a lot of the different ways that music can exist.
Also, you learn the certain musical language of the composer and each one teaches you something different about your instrument, or about the way phases can put together, notes combined, intervals used, etc.
Then, you can apply this new knowledge to your readings of Beethoven or Brahms or Haydn. You can use what you’re learning from the contemporary composers to better understand the older ones. As a musician, it can be a meaningful interaction to go between these eras, yet understanding that the music is crafted from the same basic tools.
Additionally, it is keeping the tradition alive of working with composers. Composers like Beethoven and Brahms would work with the violinists and musicians of their time. By interacting with composers of our day, we are creating the artistic language of the time we live in.
It’s the same as any great art form. The composers that are alive today are part of a tradition of composition that takes place over centuries. We’re lucky to be living in a time where we can look at very, very old and then very new music, and then find commonalities/differences.
You recently released your debut album “Souvenirs.” Any “Do’s” and “Don’ts” for up-and-coming ensembles getting ready to record their first album?
-Find a good recording engineer!
-Sometimes, you can get bogged down during a session, so find ways to keep things fresh.
-Listen back to the recording that you just made while you’re still in the studio so you have time to make changes if you want. For example, if you hate how the mics are set up, it’s better to know and change it right then, rather than have the CD come out and realize it later.
-Be very involved with the editing process. In a lot of recording studio situations, you can get self-conscious and nervous about doing everything right. But don’t worry too much, because lots can be edited.
-Once again, it comes down to having a shared vision with your quartet-mates. Recording music that means a lot to you as a group is important. Just have fun with it!
What is your social media strategy? It seems like you try to balance the serious things with more fun posts!
One of us runs the social media accounts, but it is definitely a collaborative process. Anybody can post whatever as long as everyone else is okay with it. And usually, we know what the others will and won’t be okay with posting.
In general, social media is a great way to engage with people even if they’re far away. We try to mix up the content for our followers and post stuff that we’d enjoy seeing on our own feeds.
What’s one of your best memories together?
Our recent tour to Germany was a lot of fun. It was seven concerts in about ten days. After not traveling as much due to COVID-19, it meant a lot to us to be able to spend a substantial amount of time on the road. Also, it was right after the Russian invasion of Ukraine, and we were meeting some Ukrainian refugees that had made their way to Germany. We included a Ukrainian hymn in the program and it made the whole experience a lot more personal and real. Some of the refugees we met were actually living in the same hotel that we were briefly staying at.
Being able to play music amidst the atrocity of the current situation made us realize the power of music and the distillation of what music is capable of. For the refugees attending the concerts, we hope they got something positive out of it.
To check out the Rolston String Quartet’s upcoming engagements, click here.