Hail to the Thieves: String Quintet Sybarite5 Tackles Radiohead, Led Zeppelin, and More; November 10 at Augustana College Print
Music - Feature Stories
Written by Jeff Ignatius   
Thursday, 31 October 2013 05:54

Sybarite5

It likely seems a minor thing, but most of the tracks on Sybarite5’s 2012 album Everything in Its Right Place clock in within a few seconds of the corresponding Radiohead versions.

The string quintet – which will have three public performances as part of its Quad City Arts Visiting Artist residency from November 4 though 10 – is by no means the first classically trained ensemble to tackle the songs of Thom Yorke and company. But it’s certainly the most faithful, and the song lengths are actually telling.

The eight arrangements by Paul Sanho Kim (on the 10-track album) are striking in matching each song nearly moment-for-moment and part-by-part. This includes lush, thick, slow pieces such as “Everything in Its Right Place” and “Pyramid Song” but also explosive rockers such as “Paranoid Android” and “2+2=5.” Crucially, neither the arrangements nor the performances castrate the songs, retaining their dynamic range and energy without drums, electric guitars, or amplification.

Kim has “created a new repertoire for effects on string instruments,” explained violinist Sarah Whitney in a phone interview last week. For example, players hit their strings with spoons or pens, she said, “all essentially to imitate the electronics on the recordings. So it’s become much more than just a string cover. It’s become a much more creative project. ...

“It was fascinating to see how closely Paul could replicate every single sound. ... When you have everything written on paper and you’re playing every little effect in the song, you definitely have a much deeper understanding of the song. ... We really know every little second of that music.”

“The most compelling thing about the [Radiohead] songs are the ... rich harmonies, and a lot of the songs are almost symphonic in nature,” added cellist Laura Metcalf in a separate phone interview. “There are so many layers and so many textures, and so many really elegant sounds in the songs. There are things in the songs that are kind of rough and a little bit rock-and-roll, but if you really, really listen [to the original versions], there’s a lot of beauty there. I love hearing it on different instruments. ... It brings out different things within the music.”

Kim’s arrangements and Sybarite5’s performances make Radiohead sound natural on string instruments, which disguises the enormity of the task – something the quintet learned firsthand when it tried to arrange “No Surprises” the day before a recording session. “We didn’t even really have a lot of time to set up expectations of how difficult it was going to be,” Metcalf said. “We just had to do it. ... It was not an easy process. It was the first time we ever attempted something like that. We managed not to kill each other, and we think we got a pretty good arrangement out of it.”

The blog New York Music Daily made a compelling case that Sybarite5’s versions are “better than the originals. As much as the layers of electronic effects in Radiohead’s music can sound completely random, they’re meant to create a dissociative, disquieting effect. But they can be distracting. Sybarite5’s no-nonsense arrangements for the most part steer clear of that side of Radiohead, putting the melodies front and center and reaffirming just how strong they are.”

Started roughly a decade ago, Sybarite5 initially featured a rotating cast of musicians, performing annually on street corners at the Aspen Music Festival. A few years later, founder and double-bassist Louis Levitt decided to make the group a more serious endeavor with a stable lineup, and its current members have all been with the ensemble since at least 2009.

Metcalf said she was drawn to Sybarite5 in part because she had “never played music that was not immediately categorizable as classical at a really high level and as an artistic statement. I was drawn to the fact that this group plays really every kind of music you could possibly think of ... .”

Sybraite5 won the Concert Artists Guild Victor Elmaleh Competition in 2011, which carried with it a management contract. Next year the ensemble will present its inaugural Forward Festival, a “portable” event that the quintet hopes to bring to various communities after its first run in Sarasota, Florida. The concept, Whitney said, is to collaborate with other artists in the community in each city.

But the biggest hook for Sybarite5 is its Radiohead project, which started with a Kim arrangement of “Packt Like Sardines in a Crushd Tin Box.”

“Radiohead has always been a band that we all love,” Whitney said. “We loved it [the first arrangement] so much that we decided to make a project out of it. ... And once we accumulated enough, we realized, ‘We’ve got to put an album together. We have to release this.’”

But Sybarite5 is not a Radiohead cover band. Its repertoire ranges from Mozart to Samuel Barber’s “Adagio for Strings” to tango composer Ástor Piazzolla to Led Zeppelin’s “Stairway to Heaven” and “Heartbreaker.” Its 2010 EP Disturb the Silence featured Piotr Szewczyk’s “The Rebel” and Dan Visconti’s “Black Bend” – two commissions for Sybarite5 that remain staples of its live sets. The group’s Quad Cities performances might include a portion of another commission, Daniel Roumain’s Parks – about the famed civil-rights figure Rosa Parks.

Metcalf said work is beginning on arrangements of Daft Punk and Aphex Twin, and Sybarite5 would also love to adapt Björk for string quintet: “Her stuff, like Radiohead’s, is so textural and full and symphonic in a lot of ways.”

Because of the composition of the group – a traditional string quartet plus the double-bassist – there is no standard repertoire, and “we play what we love,” Whitney said. “We’ve commissioned so many things, had so many things arranged, just because the repertoire simply doesn’t exist.”

“We are completely free to play whatever we want,” Metcalf said. “A lot of string quartets have the very daunting task of interpreting standard repertoire in a fresh, new way – of perfecting it to the level that they’re going to stand out from all the other people playing the same music all the time. ... We were right away able to find our voice through the repertoire that we played, and construct our own personal style and canon of repertoire ... just by choosing very, very carefully the works that we were going to play and the works that we were going to commission.”

Metcalf added that the quintet format means greater variety for her – “I’m not confined to the bass line all the time” – and that Kim is particularly adept at making arrangements that are compelling for both the players and the audience. He’s good at “keeping the arrangement interesting. They’re not repetitive.”

The five instruments, Metcalf said, are essential to reproducing Radiohead. The double bass, she said, “opens up a huge range of possibilities in terms of range and timbre of the songs that we can get. And also percussive effects and sounds we create using only our instrument.”

Levitt, for example, can hit his bass. “It’s not like a bass drum, but it really gets that depth and that effect,” Metcalf said. Meanwhile, the cello can hold down the song’s low end. If the group were a string quartet, she added, the arrangement could include only one of those elements: “I think that since ... we have that added instrument ... [and] that added range, we’re able to capture a lot of the different sounds that are in the songs.”

And while Sybarite5’s versions of Radiohead aren’t radical deconstructions, she said, the group is adventurous in trying to reproduce the breadth and depth of the songs. “We’re not exactly experimental in a way that you would think of experimental, but we definitely want to explore every possibility of sound that can be created by our instruments,” she said. “I think that the sounds make sense for us. They’re not ‘other’ for us.”

Metcalf stressed that Radiohead is not meant as a novelty. “It’s very easy to cover rock tunes on string instruments, and very hard to do it well,” she said. “It’s easy to distill a rock tune into its most simple parts – the bass line, the percussion, the voice, the guitar parts. But to make it really interesting and something that we feel comfortable presenting on a concert stage is much, much more difficult.”

As for Led Zeppelin, she said that it’s a great way to connect with younger students, few of whom have ever rocked out on classical instruments. (Much of Sybrarite5’s residency will be spent in area schools.)

But Metcalf admitted that she had no affinity for Led Zeppelin before joining Sybrarite5: “It’s not of my time, let’s say. But neither is Mozart.”

Sybarite5 will close its Quad City Arts residency with a full-length public concert on Sunday, November 10, at Augustana College’s Wallenberg Hall (3520 Seventh Avenue, Rock Island). Tickets to the 3 p.m. performance are $25 for adults and $10 for students and can be obtained by calling (563)322-0931 or visiting QCSymphony.com.

Other public performances are scheduled for 11 a.m. on Thursday, November 7, at Black Hawk College (Room 115, Building 4, 6600 34th Avenue, Moline) and 3 p.m. on Friday, November 8, at the Deere-Wiman House (817 11th Avenue, Moline).

For more information on Quad City Arts’ Visiting Artist series, visit QuadCityArts.com.

For more information on Sybrarite5, visit Sybarite5.org.