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Bay Area Beats: Musical Art Quintet

Freda Banks

In 2008, double bassist and founder of the Musical Art Quintet, SaschaJacobsen regularly attended the Sunday night chamber music jams at Cafe Revolution. But after his umpteenth time through Dvorak’s Opus 77, String quartet No. 2 in G major—one of the few chamber music standards that includes The double bass—he realized that if he wanted to play something else, he’d have to write it himself.

KALW’s Jayme Catsouphes brings us the story in this Bay Area Beats profile from our archives.

SASCHA JACOBSEN: The Musical Art Quintet formed at Café Revolution during the Classical Revolution jam sessions that are held every Monday night. When we first founded Classical Revolution, the idea was to have a weekly classical jam session where people could just show up and read through chamber music. And I would show up. I’m a bassist, so there’s basically one piece of chamber music in the standard rep that has bass in it, and we played that piece. And then the next week, we played it again. And the following week, I was like, “Well, I don’t even really like this piece. I’m gonna have to write some new material.”

I ended up writing a piece and I would bring it in to Café Revolution and we would – whoever was there – would sight-read through it. Then the following week, I would write up another piece. I would be furiously composing and I would print it out. I would run down to the café and we would just sight-read it.

Every piece that I write, it’s based on a rhythm. And then I carry that through the whole piece. For instance, the milonga rhythm, which is from Argentina and has African roots, is basically this rhythm – when they teach it to the dancers they say, “Francisco SAN, Francisco SAN, Francisco SAN.”

The Musical Art Quintet is a classical ensemble in the sense that it is a string quintet, string quartet plus bass. But the music we play is definitely heavily influenced by Afro-Cuban music, jazz, even electronica. A lot of the sound effects that I try to get my musicians to employ, a lot of them come from Argentine tango. I love the sounds and I think it really adds a new texture to the music. It’s not something that we do all the time, it’s just in certain key moments that we use them. And I always think, “Oh, the poor instruments.” If the instrument makers could see and hear what we’re doing to these instruments, they’d be rolling over in their graves. We’re playing these hundreds of year old instruments. My bass is over 150 years old. The violins can be over 200 years old. And we’re hitting them and we’re scraping them and scratching them and all these weird ways.

There’s a sound effect called “chichara” which means cicada, and it’s a really scratchy sound where they actually bow behind the bridge, and it goes “chicachicachhhhh.” It sounds like a giant insect is flying around or something.

My poor bass, we were playing this benefit for the Pakistani flood victims at Brick and Mortar, and I was doing some percussion on my bass and I slapped my bass with my thumb and the whole bass broke apart on stage. It just cracked open, like an egg, and I was just standing there in shock going, “Oh my god.”

I think sometimes people see the group and they go, “Oh, this is going to be boring. This is going to be classical music. It’s going to be lame.” And then we have this high energy style and we just start tearing into it and we’re not sitting down, we’re standing up and we’re moving around and we’re improvising, and so I think it kind of surprises them.

On this album, Nuevo Chamber, what we’re trying to do is bring new audiences into chamber music, to bring new life to chamber music, which is really just all about an intimate setting where people can get together and play music for their friends and their family and whoever is there. So that’s what it’s really about. And with this music, we do want to reach the younger audiences and say, “Hey this classical ensemble, these five guys playing string instruments can make this really vibrant, exciting music.” They might be used to going to rock clubs or whatever and they hear us and say, “Hey, this is pretty cool. I’m gonna check out some more classical music. And maybe I’ll check out Beethoven and find out that he’s just as rocking as any Metallica or whatever.” I mean Stravinsky is more heavy metal, for me, than Metallica, and Beethoven is more rocking than… well, maybe not than Led Zeppelin, but he’s pretty rocking. He’s pretty high up there.

Click the audio player above to listen to the interview.

Musical Art Quintet is playing a free concert at the De Young Museum in San Francisco on Friday October 25, 2013. For more information, click here.