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Squid Inc.: Quartet Off the Cuff

March 10, 2014

Freight and Salvage Coffeehouse

Squid. Inc.String quartets and squids seem to make, at least at first, unlikely bedfellows. But, as the ensemble Squid, Inc. explained during their concert at Berkeley’s Freight & Salvage this past Monday, the playful moniker encapsulates a performance philosophy. Squid is (currently) an acronym for String Quartet In Denial. These four, young players comprise a traditionally trained string quartet, though their repertoire is anything but. Rather than weighty selections from the classical canon, Squid, Inc. presented an evening of arrangements including songs by Amy Winehouse, Romeo and Juliet — filmic as well as orchestral iterations — and Jeff Buckley. Their energetic concert showcased not only their talent as performers, but also their versatility as musicians.

The casual venue proved an excellent complement to Squid, Inc.’s infectious vivacity. In lieu of tickets, audience members received a treble-clef stamp on the arm, allowing them reentry if they chose to partake of the Freight’s selection of beverages and snacks. There was no program; instead, the evening’s host introduced the ensemble, who marched on stage and plunged into an unannounced piece that was ear-ticklingly familiar. Stylized exoticism plus catchy pop melody equals…? Here, the correct answer was a mashup of Britney Spears’ “Toxic” and snippets of Bizet’s Carmen (two more unlikely bedfellows).

A headlong dash through a collage of Coldplay’s “Viva La Vida” and “42,” a slinky tune by Rindt titled “Blue,” and a Slavicized, irregularly-metered version of Justin Timberlake’s “What Goes Around Comes Around”

The ensemble’s violist, Darcy Rindt, satisfied the audience’s palpable curiosity when she revealed the arrangement’s component parts. Rindt served as the ad hoc emcee for the rest of the evening. She also prepared many of the arrangements on the program, demonstrating her particularly varied musical skillset. The rest of the first half consisted of a headlong dash through a collage of Coldplay’s “Viva La Vida” and “42,” a slinky tune by Rindt titled “Blue,” and a Slavicized, irregularly-metered version of Justin Timberlake’s “What Goes Around Comes Around,” among other generic oddities. The appealing quirkiness of these selections helped to mitigate the often unvaried sound palette and extensive deployment of extended techniques.

Audience members had a chance to ask Squid, Inc. about those techniques during the question-and-answer portion of the evening. The interlude was a refreshing opportunity to engage with the ensemble’s members individually. Beth Vandervennet, the quartet’s cellist, gracefully fielded a concern about her instrument’s continued health, given the large amount of slapping and tapping it undergoes during each performance. Rindt clarified the way Squid, Inc. chooses the songs it transforms and arranges. (In her estimation, a good melody and a good bass line are paramount.) Violinists Hrabba Atladottir and Jory Fankuchen left much of the speaking to their colleagues, though each one’s commitment to the performance and the ensemble’s mission was always apparent in their playing.

After a brief trivia contest, “Mozart and Madonna,” won by a charming young seventh-grade student in the audience, the quartet retook the stage to conclude the evening. They collaborated with vocalist Carrie Katz for the second portion of the program, which offered them an opportunity to demonstrate the subtler side of their playing as well as, in the case of Rindt and Vandervennet, their own vocal talents simultaneously. Weaving in and out of accompanying textures around Katz’s vocals allowed the quartet to gradate their sound more carefully. There were also greater harmonic risks, which harmonized with Squid, Inc.’s own penchant for exploring the possibilities outside of conventional quartet repertoire. As bedfellows go — Spears and Bizet, classical and popular, string quartet and vocalist — the evening was an education in the pleasures and rewards of unorthodoxy.

Rachana Vajjhala is a PhD candidate in Music History at UC Berkeley, where she is completing a dissertation on modern French ballet.