Attacca: ‘Almost as much fun as a rock band’

New York’s Attacca Quartet are in Ireland to play the ‘humorous’ music of John Adams. The four friends talk about their complicated relationship

Attacca are, clockwise from far left, Amy Schroeder, Luke Fleming, Andrew Yee and Keiko Tokunaga

Attacca are, clockwise from far left, Amy Schroeder, Luke Fleming, Andrew Yee and Keiko Tokunaga


At the moment, New York’s Attacca String Quartet are tied up with the music of John Adams. They’re playing excerpts from his witty John’s Book of Alleged Dances on their Music Network tour. And they’re coming to Ireland from Madrid, where they gave performances of his new Absolute Jest for string quartet and orchestra – based on scherzos from late Beethoven Quartets – with the composer conducting.

Adams is a huge admirer of the group’s work. “They’re very young, completely energised with the idea of being chamber music virtuosos,” he tells me. “I first heard them at Juilliard as very recent post-graduates. I had just written my first string quartet for the very wonderful St Lawrence Quartet. The Attacca came as a kind of an apprentice quartet, and I sat in on a coaching. I was so dazzled not just by their technical command, but by their elan on stage. They’re almost as much fun to watch as a rock band. I determined to support them and mentor them, and they rewarded me with a wonderful recording of my complete string quartets.”


The best thing about playing in a quartet: “You not only get a chance to play great repertoire, and you get to choose what it’s going to be. Every year seems to be better and better, playing pieces we’ve always wanted to play. And then, surprises like getting to play Absolute Jest . In normal circumstances we would never have chosen this piece – you need an orchestra and a conductor for it. It’s amazing how that works out.”
And the worst thing: “Like anybody’s job, there can be a sense of doing the same thing over and over again. It can get very exhausting. If you were to describe our job to anyone outside of it, it sounds incredibly glamorous. We have a three-hour workday. We play the most beautiful music in the world. And we get to travel. But those three hours are so concentrated, so tough on your soul – you’re thrust into the depths of depression or joy, wherever the composer was at that time – and to talk about it and to really dissect it on a daily basis can get very tiring.”
What would outsiders find surprising? “When we’re doing tours people are used to seeing us in really nice concert halls. But the next day we might be playing a wedding, and then we’ll go and play 12 Haydn quartets in one weekend, and the day after we’ll do background music for a party. That flexibility is not especially visible.”
On Adams, Janacek and Beethoven: “Our thought process behind the tour came from the fact that they asked for something that would tie it all together, and we wanted pieces that told stories. John Adams’s Book of Alleged Dances are all like little stories; the Janacek has a very touching story; and the Beethoven has a Romeo and Juliet connection in its second movement.”
If you weren’t a musician . . . “I really love to cook. I just ended a 3½-year stint as a barista in New York. I went to my favourite coffee shop, started washing dishes, and worked my way up. I really like to learn about new things. It keeps me sane. I was thinking about working part-time in a brewery or in a butcher’s next.”


The best thing: “Developing a relationship with your colleagues in the quartet. Players in an orchestra develop a collegial relationship, and they play chamber music on the side, no doubt. But, with a conductor in control of how a rehearsal goes, the mechanics of the orchestra function within narrow parameters, whereas the four people within a quartet have to create their own dynamic. Working outside of the quartet never has the synchronicity that we have together.”
The worst thing: “My teacher, the former violist of the Juilliard Quartet, was fond of saying that being in a quartet was like being in a four-way marriage, without any of the benefits. We travel together, we eat together, we rehearse every day. We’re friends, we’re colleagues. It’s a complicated relationship. In the end it’s immensely gratifying, like a good marriage, but it does take some working out.”
The most surprising thing: “I come from a non-musical background, and grew up in a place where there really isn’t any classical music. None of my friends from childhood know anything about music. When I see them from time to time, I honestly think that most of them really believe that all I do is show up for the concert and play the music. They don’t recognise how many hours of practice go into it, how many hours of music history, music theory, went into it.”
If you weren’t a musician, what might you be? “My family are all ministers. And I did have some thoughts about going into the ministry. Either that, or being a lawyer.”

Second violin

The best thing: “In the beginning we went to towns in the middle of nowhere, where the best restaurant was McDonald’s. Now we’re going from Madrid to Ireland. Last year we were in Melbourne. We have a tour coming up in Japan. It’s really the best way to get to know the world. You have this great music, colleagues who trust each other and take care of each other. This small community travelling together and experiencing new things is really amazing.”
The worst thing: “Keeping in mind that whatever your colleagues tell you in rehearsal has nothing personal in it. It’s purely musical.”
The most surprising thing: “Most people find it fascinating that we do what we’re most passionate about for a living. I always took that for granted, because I never even considered becoming anything other than a musician. I’ve met so many people who say they don’t like their job, but it pays the bills. I just can’t imagine living like that.”
On Beethoven: “As a string quartet player, Beethoven is kind of a sacred figure. When I first heard the Op 18 No 1, I was blown away, and at the time I didn’t even know that Beethoven had the Romeo and Juliet tomb scene in mind. Regardless, I was crying like a baby. It was so beautiful and so wrenching.”
If you weren’t a musician? “I probably would have taken a job that has something to do with words – translating, looking into the origins of words.”

First violin

The best thing: “My favourite thing is when we travel and get the opportunity to establish a close relationship with other people. . . . Our audiences are not always that big, given the halls we play in, and sometimes we even get to stay in the homes of people from the societies we play for. So we really have a personal connection with our listeners.”
The worst thing: “A lot of our life is focused on the group as a whole, our identity as a foursome. It can be difficult to keep the individuality of each person and each player, and feel that you still have an individual voice and personality.”
The most surprising thing: “I think people would be surprised at how much time we spend on the business aspect of things, working through the little details of the business.”
On the works: “I’ve been wanting to play this piece forever. I listened to the slow movement several times a day for an entire summer. Each of the composers we’re playing has for me a very clear way of expressing emotion and gathering an audience to that emotion and going for it full force. A lot of the Adams is very humorous. The Janacek has these intimate letter stories behind its heart-wrenching, clear emotion. You just can’t not be in it when you’re hearing it. And the same goes for the Beethoven.”

The Attacca String Quartet play St Finian’s Lutheran Church , Dublin, tonight then tour to Waterford, Cork, Wexford, Dún Laoghaire and Clifden . 01-4750224,

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