Colin and Eric Jacobsen: Collaboration in Brooklyn Rider and The Knights
This pair of brothers is pioneering a unique dimension of artistic collaboration with both The Knights and Brooklyn Rider, and through their quest for creative expression, redefine the method and meaning of classical and chamber music performance.
Photo: Sarah Small – Colin(right) and Eric Jacobsen
Colin (violin) and Eric (cello) Jacobsen took inspiration for their quartet, Brooklyn Rider, from Der Blaue Reiter (The Blue Rider), an early 20th century artistic alliance promoting modernist art through exhibitions of Germany’s pre World War I Expressionist circle, which included artists like Vassily Kandinsky, Franz Marc, as well as the musician Arnold Schoenberg. Besides having a strong social dynamic, the group was loosely united by the common ideological aim of expressing spiritual truths; they believed strongly in the connection between music and visual art, and were committed to bringing a personal, individualistic approach to their creative endeavor.
It is this same effervescent approach to musical collaboration, and the spirit of friendship within the musical community of Brooklyn, that allows Brooklyn Rider as well as The Knights to stand out from the myriad chamber music collaborations that have arisen within the young generation, a surge partly impacted by educational efforts, such as the Marlboro Festival’s, on chamber music education.
The Knights were created as a modest group in 2000, consisting initially of strings alone. The group gained winds in 2006, and the quartet that constitutes Brooklyn Rider came into its current state seven years ago. Musicians with diverse backgrounds unite in The Knights’ efforts to change the representation of classical music; the ensemble employs unique approaches and talents in their performances, and maintains the capacity to expand and retract the ensemble size as needed.
“We always attempt to look forward, but with tons of humility and respect and acknowledgement of past traditions. As far as the inspiration of the name, ‘Der Blaue Reiter,’ well we don’t claim to be experts in the movement but it touched on the idea of the kind of shared vision that inspires us as well,” says Eric, while we wait for Colin to join our conversation in a tiny coffee shop downtown. Colin is the older of the talented brothers, the two of whom possess musical outlooks and ways of life that seem totally in sync. Colin (pictured below on the right) arrives carrying his violin case, as he is on his way to practice. The brothers bounce ideas and explanations back and forth, and now the team seems complete. They generously include me in the creative course of the personal interview, which we all seem to enjoy.
The two brothers have been in constant contact with creative powerhouses who have inspired them throughout their careers. Since inspiration is an important aspect of choosing collaborators and repertoire, it seems the natural initial concern for high-caliber musicians like Eric and Colin, who have performed with Yo-Yo Ma’s Silk Road ensemble since early in their careers. Colin started playing with Silk Road in 2000, thanks to recommendations from his friends at Tanglewood; Eric was invited to join some years later, and together, the brothers followed the prestigious cellist to music festivals at Caramoor and Ravinia. Last summer, The Knights were able to partake in these festivals as an ensemble. At Juilliard, both brothers were greatly influenced by greatly respected pedagogues and performers like Colin’s teacher, Robert Mann, founding member of the Juilliard String Quartet, and Eric’s teacher, Harvey Shapiro.
Eric, who describes himself as slightly obsessed with perfection, still strives for constant improvement in order to keep himself inspired. He says, “Every time I touch the cello I am trying to improve and teach myself; even when I am on the subway, I am constantly brainstorming. I look to excite and surprise myself in the first place – it’s not a selfless proposition, but yet it’s so exciting to be able to stimulate other people.” As cellist and conductor of the Knights, Eric always brings a thought-out, yet exuberantly executed idea to the rehearsal and performances.
Eric says, “My brother gives me tons of inspiration; he is consistently able to show me new paths, as well as other artists, I am surrounded by, like Johnny and Nick, (both co-collaborators of Brooklyn Rider-Johnny Gandelsman and Colin Jacobsen, violins; Nicholas Cords, viola; Eric Jacobsen, cello).” Colin adds: “Our father is a great violinist himself, who performed with the Metropolitan Opera orchestra and we grew up in a home with music as a lifestyle, musicians rehearsing and hanging out constantly.”
Embracing the communal satisfaction of making music together, both artists continue the musical lifestyle instilled in them from childhood, but reach beyond the immediate classical circle, forging connections with musical influences ranging from early baroque, to folk and rock music, as well as exploring music in association with different art forms. With this practice, they pay homage to ideas proclaimed by the ‘Almanac’ of their namesake group, The Blue Rider. Brooklyn Rider looks to connect music with dance, fine art, and literature for their new, innovative presentations. “One of the things we hold dear and we look for and ultimately find in our music,” says Colin, “is the spirit rather than the words….We all struggle with using the right words. The notes are on the page, and yes, playing the notes correctly is great, but it is a guideline, still. To find the spirit of a piece one can’t get dogmatic. It is – like in life – a constant struggle, we continuously search for new meaning and we don’t want to get stuck in routines.”
Original venues are a staple of The Knights’ performances, and their shows are often met with high profile broadcasts and press coverage. The Knights’ have been hailed as an expressive avant-garde band, and have been praised not only for their extensive collaboration efforts and cutting-edge programs, but also for their groundbreaking personalized styles in rehearsal, as well as their individualistic, highly compelling live performances.
It is no wonder that their charisma has attracted numerous famed performers like Yo-Yo Ma, Dawn Upshaw, and Itzhak Perlman, whose undisputed high status has in turn allowed them to re-invent their outlook, and find refreshing chemistry with the young group. This mutually beneficial situation has sparked an interactive generational conversation.
In 2011, The Knights performed at Carnegie’s Zankel Hall, and in 2012, Brooklyn Rider performed there with singer/songwriter Gabriel Kahane. “Gabe lives down the block, so it became so easy to exchange ideas when he asked the quartet to perform with him in a commission with singer Shara Worden, where everyone also wrote for everyone,” says Colin. “Over time, classical music has somehow been distanced from the popular music of the day and has lost its immediate connection, but it is coming back in a very integrated way, now, with musicians like Gabe, so seamlessly.” This mission holds true for the approx. 35 musicians that make up The Knights, who are taking on upcoming projects, including participating in the execution of ‘Tempelhof Etude,’ which will reach massive, new audiences. The grand-scale installation, conceived by friend and composer Lisa Vielwa, will be based on a song cycle of ‘chance encounter’ texts overheard in random conversations at transient places. Based on the project she had originally written for The Knights, which premiered at the lower East Side in 2011, ‘Tempelhof Etude’ will follow 400-500 musicians starting at the former runway of Berlin’s Tempelhof, the site of the Berlin airlift in 1948, eventually spreading out over a few square miles of vast, empty space.
The Knights pride themselves on their open-mindedness towards new and promising projects, and the spontaneity to follow their instincts. “There are so many amazingly talented people doing so many fascinating projects, and sometimes it’s not really about doing different things, but doing them in a different way,” says Colin. He adds that in their effort to maintain quality, it was important to revitalize “Knights Camp,” which initially coined The Knights’ name. He says it, “goes back to the roots of the group, playing chamber music with our friends in our living room.”
More of The Knights’ and Brooklyn Rider’s upcoming projects include “Mozart Dances” with the Mark Morris Dance Group, and a recording collaboration with virtuoso Banjo player Bela Fleck for Mercury Classics, a new label that will be released by Universal Music in April. Besides launching an artist-in-residence program with WQRX, The Knights’ have a documentary film, We Are The Knights produced by WNET/Thirteen, that has been broadcasted since 2011. For their inspired programming, innovative formats, and “crusading musical mission,” The Knights have been hailed as “the future of classical music in America” (Los Angeles Times), and soon they are heading off for a US tour with Pipa virtuoso Wu Man.
It does not seem a far-fetched proposition to connect today’s creative community of baby-boomer musicians surrounding Colin and Eric Jacobsen (who are currently renovating their own house in Brooklyn) to the artistic spirit captured by The Blue Rider in the times of Kandinsky and Schoenberg. The grassroots communal rapports of both communities have a lot in common. While for Kandinsky the color blue in the Blue Rider was a spiritual association: “The darker the blue, the more it awakens human desire for the eternal” (Kandinsky, on the Spiritual in Art, 1911), Brooklyn Rider finds its spiritual element in the ensemble’s unique, earthy vitality, irrevocably connected to the presence of their Brooklyn community.