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The Friction Quartet Pins Its Hopes on the Future

December 17, 2019

Welcome to the wonderful, wise, and slightly wacky world of the Friction Quartet, classical music futurists. Swing a violin as if it is a bird in the air to cure extensor ulnar tendinitis; shout, scream, and inhale deeply as if you’re shoving air hundreds of feet underground to sing; dream not only of Carnegie Hall or the Kennedy Center but of performing for people incarcerated in prisons; hope your audience is composed of people of all ages from underserved communities who may never have heard or played a violin as has the quartet’s Otis Harriel, but share his thoughts about classical music: “It’s just music like any other music,” he says in an interview. “If you do a good enough job, they will listen.”

Friction Quartet represents one of the glimmers of hope for the future of classical music. They are among the organizations with a willingness to take risks — often, they view the only true failure as a refusal to evolve. These groups shake up long-held assumptions and practices while committing to excellence, not just in performance, but in purpose.

The definition and future viability of classical music therefore could boil down to this: Classical music exists as a sturdy, broad-spectrum approach to sound-making whose participants keep it vibrant by testing, skewing, breaking, and reconstructing its borders.

Such is the atmosphere and mindset of the San Francisco-based group that includes cofounders cellist Doug Machiz and violinist Kevin Rogers, Harriel, and violist Lucia Kobza, who joined the quartet in August 2019 after the departure of Alaskan violist Taija Warbelow. Formed in 2011, Friction made its Carnegie Hall debut in 2016 under the iconoclastic rubric of Kronos Quartet’s Fifty for the Future Workshop. A return in 2018 (to perform George Crumb’s Black Angels) garnered critical accolades.

They’ve earned praise and attention for commissioning 43 new works among 80 world premieres, nuanced performances of masterworks from the classical repertory, award-winning appearances at competitions and festivals, and interactive music programs that have the quartet involved in San Francisco Symphony’s Adventures in Music program, Young Composers and Improvisors Workshop, and presentations at Oakland public schools through KDFC’s  Playground Pop Up program. A short documentary, Friction, made in collaboration with Meridian Hill Pictures, profiles their early educational outreach in Washington D.C.’s Mundo Verde Public Charter School. A full-length debut album, resolve, was released in 2018, through Bandcamp. 

Friction is definitely hip: they have an active social media presence, blog, online videos of covers they play of pop songs by The Beatles, Lady Gaga, Radiohead, and others; they play concerts in clubs and nontraditional venues; and they’ve done gigs like an Intel event earlier this year and the Google holiday party on Dec. 7. (Machiz says about Google: “They found us on the internet, probably through a Google search on string quartets? We don’t have an “in” with them. It’s a mystery to me how people find us.”)

Inarguably, what grounds the group are Friction’s two commissioning initiatives and interconnected educational outreach programs. Commissioning Initiative I results in new works from composers around the world. Initiative II offers young American composers ages 16 to 21 opportunity to create a five-to-10-minute piece. Each composer receives a $750 fee; private workshop session with prior Initiative composer Mario Godoy (on fashioning a score and parts); professional audio and video recordings of their work; and a world premiere in the Bay Area.

The initiatives may provide emerging and young composers a career-launching experience, but the musicians are even more excited by the diverse audiences they encounters at outreach activities held at schools and community centers.

A program scheduled to commence in fall 2020 is designed by composer Danny Clay. The project is designed to be accessible and sensory-friendly for people with developmental disabilities and will launch at the Pomeroy Recreation and Rehabilitation Center in San Francisco. “This a learning experience for us,” says Machiz. “The challenge is balancing our adventurous spirit in sound, which can be abrasive or high energy, with listeners who are sensitive to jarring landscapes.” Clay is inventing games and workshops that include visual signals ahead of loud sounds, less-bright lighting, reduced sound amplification, and space for audience members to get up and move. “It’s exciting how Danny finds new, participatory sound worlds,” says Machiz. “It’s an incredible opportunity to build community.”

Likewise, performances and workshops at schools in underserved communities bolster Kobza’s interest in tailored programs suitable for the quartet’s diverse audiences. “We just had workshops about how to design our programs to each age group,” she said. “For young children, we do that by not using words they don’t know yet, or by tying in subjects students are working on in classrooms to classical music. It would be great to have resources, like instruments. Get instruments into their hands, you get kids to play.”

Rogers identifies three elements as most critical for reaching audiences in communities where barriers prevent entry: offering far-reaching digital content; having face-to-face interactions and performances; establishing community-supported instruction. For people encountering new music for the first time, Rogers says “recognizing the externalities” is essential. “Young audiences are unique in that their biases are less firm, so they listen to music in an unhindered way.” This means coughing, wiggling, even talking during a demonstration must be welcomed.

Addressing the ways that Friction’s school repertory reflects contemporary culture, he says the most powerful content is “created by someone in our time and influenced by the same externalities that the listener would be engaging with.” One example: recordings and works adapted to shorter attention spans. “(Today’s) album tracks are around three to four minutes long on average,” he says, “and then a new song comes on. In comparison, one movement of a Schubert quartet could be as long as four tracks on an album. Whether intentional or not, that [shorter] attention span is something we share, determined in part by the storage ability of the media. Stravinsky would write pieces so they would fit on one side of a record. Contemporary composers share the same background of attention and media formats as their audiences.”

Composers today also grew up listening to jazz, rock, and other forms that feature a strong drum beat or distorted electric guitar, a sonic world unknown to Mozart. “The emancipation of timbre is a similar musical revolution to the emancipation of harmony that emerged from the Second Viennese School,” adds Rogers. “This brings me back to the poignancy of artists creating art in our time. The music that is being created now is wearing the influences of our time. The music that will survive will be the works that speak to something that transcends the context it was created in.”

While its perspectives and explanations of how the quartet contributes to the future of classical music are admirable and well-made, being a musician is still a job. It’s a position deserving of equity in pay, individual agency, and input into organizational order, and professional and personal artistic reward.

Machiz says the quartet has administrative meetings one or two times a month. Managing Director Samantha Godoy (also a classically trained vocalist) joined the group in 2016 and handles booking, contracts, invoices, social media, website, travel itineraries, press materials, graphic design, merchandise, and grant writing. Members of the quartet lend a helping hand on various tasks: Machiz, with finances, project development, and emailing; Harriel with archiving, Google Drive, and Dropbox organization; Rogers leads community-outreach program development; Kobza schedules rehearsals.

Challenging repertory provides essential artistic rewards. Asked to identify a work that tested their technique, confidence, artistry, or another aspect of life as a musician, their answers display a shared enthusiasm for risk and mastery achieved through unflagging hard work driven by curiosity.

Walter Boudreau’s Le Grand Méridien stands out as a work that tested Harriel. “We played this 35-minute monster of a piece in Montreal last March. Walter [a saxophonist] writes devilishly fast, loud, and rhythmically complex music. It only lets up about every minute and you switch to playing incredibly beautiful Renaissance music. It was so hard to stay together and effectively switch between these crazy characters.” Realizing that Boudreau cared more about commitment than accuracy in tempo and other details, Harriel says, “At a certain point before a performance it seems helpful to almost forget those things you have learned and simply play by intuition. You trust that all the work you’ve done will show in your playing without trying to force it. When we played the piece for Walter the last time before the performance, not worrying about those details seemed to actually make them better than they were before.”

Machiz names as most challenging composer Anne Sophie Andersen’s String Quartet No. 1. The piece required vocalizing independent of playing his instrument. “I’ve always been self-conscious and the cello has given me a shield, a filter to hide behind,” he says. Machiz spent an entire summer singing scales, hearing intervals in a new way, even screaming. “We were at Interlochen and Luke Randall, a vocal coach, broke singing down into basic elements. He said we had to feel like we were screaming in our heads for the sound to sound warm to audiences. That was mind-blowing to me. If it sounds warm to your ear, it will sound weak to the audience. You have to go out on a limb when singing, so it was going out on stage and shouting to the world. It’s helped me amplify everything I’m playing on the cello and makes for maximum performance.”

Kobza says the audition for Friction was most fearsome. “They picked Sphere, by John Halle. It’s mostly the rhythm that’s hard. The viola gets mostly triplets, the second violin gets something else. The meters are layered so it’s hard to feel any pulse. I didn’t know how it fit together but in the rehearsal process, I got to know how the three guys work. They were patient and matter-of-fact; drilling the passages until they were completed.” Unlike in other groups she’s worked with, Kobza says as the only woman in the quartet, her input is always heard and respected.

Rogers faced a trove of troubles in the experience he highlights. “The Ysaÿe Solo Sonata No. 3 (“Ballade”) was a pivotal piece in my playing. It is the work that inspired me to be a violinist, the piece I played to earn my bachelor’s degree, the piece I played to get into the San Francisco Conservatory, and the work that contributed to my injury of extensor ulnar tendinitis. Doctors initially told me I may never play again.”

It took a teacher, Bettina Mussumeli, and changing a mindset that dictated the violin be played in only one way, the instrument immobile, a stable platform on which to play. “Bettina could see that [belief] emerging in my technique via my locked left shoulder and rigid posture. So the first thing she did was to have me “fly” my violin around the studio. This meant just swinging it in the air. On the surface I felt sheepish, but it was accessing something important, namely motion.” Circular motion allowed Rogers to abandon his shoulder rest and develop a technique that feels natural and does not cause injury.

Freedom to dream is the final factor that fuels Friction Quartet’s expansive aspirations. Next season, each member will curate an entire performance. Machiz says that, instead of group-decided programs selected from repertory or prepared for a competition or a new commission, “anything goes” in the new structure. Kobza’s program will take place in 2021 and center on composers who wrote music while in prison or were in prison during their lives. Harriel wants to present classical music in venues with variable formality and to increase the diversity of the organization as it shifts from a sole-proprietorship (fiscally sponsored by Intermusic SF under Machiz’s name) to nonprofit status.

Godoy hopes to expand and continue the special projects and commissions but can’t resist a flight of fantasy that taps into the group’s multimedia and interdisciplinary capabilities. Integrating classical and contemporary string quartet repertory with arrangements of pop music, digital processing, percussion, amplification, movement, and additional media, she says a revival of their Space-related commissioning might result in work with a visual artist/ animator to make a “stunning, immersive planetarium concert.” Rogers, wrapping his dreams around a philosophy, speaks as an individual, but sums up their collective vision. “I firmly agree with the philosopher [John] Rawls that we owe a duty to provide the most benefit to those with the least. The way I can provide the most benefit is sharing music and its ability to connect us as a community and empower us as individuals. My job is to find a way to make those things happen.”

Lou Fancher is a San Francisco Bay Area writer. Her work has been published by WIRED.com, Diablo Magazine, Oakland Tribune, Contra Costa Times, InDance, East Bay Express, Oakland Magazine, SF Weekly, and others.  She is a children's book author, designer and illustrator, with over 50 books in print. Also a choreographer, ballet master and teacher, she coaches professional ballet and contemporary dance companies in the U. S. and Canada.  Visit her website online at www.johnsonandfancher.com.