Fort Worth — We often talk about groups that are difficult to pin down to a specific genre or style. Usually that means that the combo has a broad and varied repertoire, but their individual pieces still can be easily classified. In some very rare cases, the combination of styles, techniques and skills is so complex that even an individual work defies any kind of typing. One such group, the accomplished and world known string ensemble Time for Three, appears this weekend with the Fort Worth Symphony Orchestra.
Time for Three is no stranger to the Metroplex. They have played at events ranging from park and gallery openings in Dallas’s Arts District to mainstage appearances with the FWSO, with whom they recently performed and recorded a commissioned piece by American composer Jennifer Higdon. But Nick Kendall, one of the group’s two violinists, points out that the circumstances are very different this weekend. “Before, we were slotted in with the FWSO as part of a larger program. But in these performances we are central for the whole time, accompanied by the orchestra.” Consequently, he explains, it will be almost a Time for Three “juke box.” “We’ll be playing some familiar pieces as well as our own surprising mashups and reworkings of pop tunes. But we are also including a number of the works that were written or commissioned expressly for us.”
To call Time for Three a string trio is a vast oversimplification. To be sure, Kendall and his colleagues, Charles Yang (violin) and Ranaan Meyer (double bass), are all virtuoso string musicians. But the intricacy of their arrangements and the complexity of the rhythms and voicing that they use give the music a depth beyond the usual sonorities of the traditional instruments that they play. “We constantly challenge ourselves and our instruments to find new voices in our songs. That gives a much fuller and richer sound than is typical. And the compositions and arrangements are often set up to add some tension and dissonance which is then resolved in the beauty of the primary melodies and harmonies. That juxtaposition makes the beauty of what we are playing more prominent.”
There is a great deal of experimentation in Tf3’s music, but this should not be confused with true improvisation. “When we first start working on a song, we will go all out to experiment and try new approaches to how we are using our instruments. It’s almost like, ‘I did this, show me what you can do.’ But the improvisation is a tool. It allows us to develop a conversation and to have fun with a song, but the performed or recorded product is a reflection of that conversation.”
The group’s ability to move into novel interpretations is a product of their comfort and trust in their own instruments and their partners. “We have all played music for a long time. And in addition to conservatory, all three of us have been very involved in other creative projects with bands and other types of group. By now, we trust what we can do with our playing and what the others are going to do as well. In fact, we are constantly pushing each other musically to try new things. Sometimes they are effective and are incorporated into a performance or a recording. Sometimes they are too far out. But we always learn something about the song and ourselves when we do so.”
The conversational nature of Time for Three’s work has made them very attractive to young composers. They have had many pieces composed for them or even commissioned for them is association with larger musical organizations. “The process starts with an extended dialogue between us and the composer. We listen to their ideas and talk about what kind of sound works with us. The composer will then write a portion of music and bring it to us to work though. But we always include the composer in this phase of the writing so that we can continue to give and take. In this way, we become a part of the composer’s tool chest and the composer is part of the creation of the living performance. Some of the composers, like Jennifer [Higdon] and Kevin Puts, seem to really enjoy this sharing, exploring and challenging. This is a much different process than in the old days where the composer would finish the commission and then send in off without necessarily ever meeting the intended performers. Now we are able to ask questions like, What was the meaning of this portion? And can we try this interpretation? It makes the music much more alive to all of us.”
Kendall feels that there is a new attitude among instrumentalists in small groups like his. “There is a new level of wanting to own and perform something that feels uniquely your own,” he says. This type of attitude has led to a resurgence of acceptance and interest in ensembles playing traditional instruments. Time for Three in addition to sought after concert performers are also a YouTube sensation.
In recordings and past performances, the rich variety of music and the unexpected spin of their tone and harmonies lend Time for Three a magnetic quality—their music is sonorous and warm with enough complexity to ask questions and keep the audience engaged. If the “Juke Box” being performed in Fort Worth captures a portion of this flavor, then it will be a compelling concert indeed.