So two violinists and a composer walk into a bar.
This is not a joke. It's the story of how Colin Jacobsen and Carla Kihlstedt, musicians who are performing at UNC-Chapel Hill Thursday, met.
Lisa Bielawa, the composer who arranged for the violinists to join a group outing, looked down the table and wondered what they could be talking about, incessantly, and how many drinks they'd had. She thought Kihlstedt and Jacobsen would hit it off, but she didn't expect they would get drunk and ask her to write a double concerto for them.
Which is what happened. Pretty much.
"We had one too many martinis," Kihlstedt recalled, speaking by phone from her home in Oakland, Calif., last week. "We started talking about what we could do together."
A year later, she and Jacobsen premiered Bielawa's Double Violin Concerto with the Boston Modern Orchestra Project. The 2008 collaboration - soon to be released on CD - was such a success that Kihlstedt and Jacobsen kept brainstorming. It was Emil Kang, executive director of Carolina Performing Arts, who offered them the ideal chance: a night in Memorial Hall and a commission to write and perform whatever they wanted.
"It's a wonderful opportunity," Kihlstedt said. "They put a lot of trust in us."
Thursday night, the audience will have a chance to judge whether the result was worth the open-ended investment.
The show will open with a set by Brooklyn Rider, Jacobsen's string quartet, followed by a set of songs from Kihlstedt's band, a cello-percussion-violin-guitar ensemble called 2 Foot Yard. Both ensembles will reunite for a few songs, and then after intermission, debut their new commission, "A Blue Hat Washed Up On Shore ..."
Talking about tempo
Kihlstedt describes "Blue Hat" as a 25-minute suite. Some movements will be sung or narrated, some are instrumental. The entire work is based on Alan Lightman's 1994 novel-in-parables, "Einstein's Dreams." Kihlstedt and Jacobsen were fans of the book and thought the subject matter - dreams that plague Einstein while he, in his waking hours, formulated his theory of relativity - could be easily transposed in music.
"There's no topic that is more suited to music than time" Kihlstedt said. "The stars aligned."
Walk into any rehearsal, and you'll hear players debating timing. Slow it down, speed it up. Start sooner. Get in sync. While writing "Blue Hat," these musicians have been thinking about tempo as metaphysical construct.
"Einstein was a violinist," Jacobsen said. "A very bad violinist, but an avid chamber music fan, and I'd like to think that he would like this concert. It's celebrating him in an abstract way."
Einstein might also approve of how the music has been composed. With Kihlstedt in California and Jacobsen in Brooklyn, they composed by sending each other mp3 snippets of the piece recorded using Garage Band, software included on any Apple computer. Some sections will be improvised, others written.
Now, on this point Kihlstedt and Jacobsen are quite clear: Not all string players should try this at home. Cross-country cyber composing only works because they "share an aesthetic."
"It's a small world of people who are functioning in the in-between world, the musicians who are performing between the worlds of classical and popular music," Kihlstedt said.
Both groups feature conservatory-trained musicians who are committed to writing and performing music that is tough to classify. The eight musicians in Brooklyn Rider and 2 Foot Yard studied at Curtis, Peabody, Oberlin and Juilliard, yet none aspire to sit in the second row of a symphony orchestra.
The string players in Brooklyn Rider - Jacobsen, his brother Eric on cello, violist Nicholas Cords and violinist Johnny Gandelsman - are best known for their work with the Silk Road Ensemble, a group that tours the world playing East-meets-West music with famed cellist Yo-Yo Ma. (They head for Asia in April.) The guys also play with Ma in smaller contexts, including a "Yo-Yo and Friends" performance at UNC in 2007.
An interesting mix
Brooklyn Rider has since become popular with presenters because the quartet programs progressive mixes of music, performing their own compositions alongside works by Philip Glass and Debussy. In late summer, the quartet will return to the Triangle to perform three concerts in one weekend as part of the September Prelude festival.
Kihlstedt is best known for playing so many side projects that she doesn't need a main gig; she works with groups such as Tin Hat and Sleepytime Gorilla Museum. 2 Foot Yard, a band she founded eight years ago, also includes Marika Hughes, Shazhad Ismaily and, occasionally, Kihlstedt's husband, Matthias Bossi. Earlier this month, Raleigh audiences heard her score to the dance-theater work "Wonderboy" when Joe Goode Performance Group came to N.C. State University.
As Cords, the violist in Brooklyn Rider, prepares to play with 2 Foot Yard, he's been thinking about who might attend the shows, here and at subsequent dates in Philadelphia and Minneapolis.
"The concert has the potential to bring in a really interesting mix of audiences, if it reaches the right ears," Cords said.