One of the most recognized facets of postmodern culture is the blurring of boundaries between high art and low art, between "popular" and "cultured" traditions. All too often, this combination assumes an air of disassociation or cold observation, or what Fredric Jameson has called "blank parody." Nonetheless, while the Turtle Island String Quartet certainly represents in music the dissolution of genre, race, and class distinctions, the variety of influences and sources from which the ensemble draws inspiration are combined into a sonic collage that is celebratory rather than cynical. While we get a sense of this demolition of boundaries from groups like the Kronos or Brodsky Quartets, Turtle Island seems to pretend that these boundaries never existed; its performances of Dizzie Gillespie or Cole Porter make the music of these men sound as native to the string quartet idiom as that of Vivaldi. "A standard beyond reach of its few contemporaries," one critic has written. "In the multifarious idiom they have all but invented, Turtle Island remains the ne plus ultra." Yo-Yo Ma has proclaimed Turtle Island to be "a unified voice that truly breaks new ground — authentic and passionate — a reflection of some of the most creative music-making today."
The idea for the group initially came about while violinist and founding member David Balakrishnan was pondering subjects related to his master's thesis at Antioch University West. The ensemble, whose name is derived from creation mythology found in Native American folklore, was formed in 1985 in Oakland, CA, with the intention of giving voice to an eclectic, intergeneric, and intergenerational swath of music. The journey has taken Turtle Island through forays into folk, bluegrass, swing, be-bop, funk, R&B, New Age, rock, hip-hop, as well as music of Latin America and India...a repertoire consisting of hundreds of ingenious arrangements and originals.
A Turtle Island concert is a fairly laid-back event that draws a crowd that is as ecumenical as the music itself. Likewise, the group's discography reflects its virtuosic polymath tendencies. Projects like a tribute to the swing music of Ellington and Gershwin, or the approach to more recent jazz masters like Miles Davis and Chick Corea, are complemented by its full-circle embrace, around the turn of the twenty-first century, of more "traditional" string quartet repertoire. The quartet has made over a dozen recordings on labels such as Windham Hill, Chandos, Koch, and Telarc; soundtracks for major motion pictures, has been featured on TV and radio shows such as the Today Show, All Things Considered, and A Prairie Home Companion; and in articles in People and Newsweek magazines and has collaborated with artists such as clarinetist Paquito d'Rivera, Manhattan Transfer, pianists Billy Taylor and Kenny Barron, saxophonist Branford Marsalis, the Ying Quartet, and the Parsons Dance Company.
Whatever the genre, however, the thread that connects virtually all of the group's undertakings is an emphasis on improvisation. Sound reason supports this approach, since during the period that saw Haydn compose his first string quartets, the musicians involved were more or less the equivalent of today's gigging jazz musician; the disappearance of improvisation from the classical music realm is, in fact, a relatively recent trend, one that Turtle Island hopes to reverse. By doing so, all music and music-making are seen as various shapes cut from the same fabric in a kind of musical postmodernism with a distinctly optimistic outlook toward music's future. As of Fall 2012, two of the quartet's founding members remained: violinist Balakrishnan and cellist Mark Summer; the other two are violinist Mateusz Smoczynski and violist Benjamin von Gutzeit.