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Modern Mandolin Quartet Grammy Interview

By Mandolin Cafe
February 3, 2013 - 10:45 am

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Modern Mandolin Quartet - Americana - nominated in three Grammy categories. Modern Mandolin Quartet - Americana - nominated in three Grammy categories.

I like saying that shortly after the turn of each century, the mandolin is poised to become the instrument of the day. We're arriving once more. With Avi Avital being nominated for a Grammy last year, our dear friend Chris Thile being given a McArthur Grant, and now my old buddies in the Modern Mandolin Quartet being nominated in three Grammy categories, we're in the thick of it!

To say I feel like a proud papa would be an understatement and when I heard the news of the nominations it was cause for a celebratory night out on the town!

As co-founder of the Quartet in the mid 1980s and de facto leader of the ensemble in the early years, two of our members didn't even own their own instruments. In spite of humble beginnings we spent the next 10 years touring across the U.S. and Europe, recording four albums for Windham Hill and two more on independent labels. In the process we somehow managed to carve out a living as a mandolin quartet. How often does THAT happen?

When I left the group in the mid 1990s I told them they would never be allowed to quit making music in this configuration. Since that time, a number of fine young mandolinists have come through the Quartet: Chris Thile, Dave Peters, Radim Zenkl, and now one of the truly great young mandolinists of our generation, Matt Flinner.

Their Grammy nominations are proof the mandolin family of instruments deserve a place alongside other chamber music ensemble settings. Matt, Dana, Paul and Adam, my hat is off to you for a job well done and for the marvelous project you created. Dress to the nines for the red carpet and know that I'll be rooting for you with pride.

  — Mike Marshall

Modern Mandolin Quartet

Listen to Anton Dvorak's String Quartet No. 12 in F major, Op. 96, B. 179 - I. Allegro ma non troppo from the recording.

Mandolin Cafe: Congratulations on three Grammy nominations for your recording Americana: Best Chamber Music/Small Ensemble Performance, Best Engineered Album and Classical Producer Of The Year.

Dana Rath: We're exhilarated and really pumped about this nomination and I feel safe to say it was totally out of the blue and unexpected. Our new record company Sono Luminous was excited about the project and submitted it to the Grammy committee, but we really didn't give it another thought. That's like saying "hey, I bought you a $1 dollar lottery ticket." Odds may only be slightly better, especially if you play mandolin.

Paul Binkley: I had the same reaction as Dana, I didn't believe the first email which I received late at night. It wasn't until the next morning when I got several more that I actually took it seriously. But yes, we want to give a big shout out to Sono Luminous and Dan Shores for a great surround sound recording, Victor and Marina Ledin who produced this project and the fabulous Skywalker Ranch. For those who aren't aware it's a state of the art recording studio owned by George Lucas of Starwars fame located in Marin County, California.

Modern Mandolin Quartet

Modern Mandolin Quartet, L-R: Dana Rath, Adam Roszkiewicz, Paul Binkley, Matt Flinner.

Mandolin Cafe: How was news of your nomination received?

Matt Flinner: My wife Wendy and I were driving overnight from Colorado back home to Nashville. She was doing the late night/early morning shift when I groggily woke up to check my email on my phone. "Holy #%&*!, the Modern Mandolin Quartet got a Grammy nomination!" Then I tried to get back to sleep but wasn't able to for a few more hours. Very exciting, and very much a surprise.

Adam Roszkiewicz: I was at home. It was pretty late and I was about to go to bed when I checked my email which is not always a good idea before going to bed! It was a very unexpected and very nice surprise.

Dana Rath: I was in New Jersey at the time coming off of several days of dealing with a family death and memorial. When I opened my email I thought it was joke, so I had to read it several times. I was even more surprised to find out it had received three nominations. We are truly grateful for the recognition.

Paul Binkley: When you sign onto the Grammy site to make sure you're nominated, the site says "If you think you're a Grammy nominee, put your first name here," and then you see a list of nominees by first name. About five names down from mine was Paul McCartney. I can't really describe the feeling of seeing your name on the same list as his. Must be what skydiving is like.

Mandolin Cafe: The categories for your nomination, like many, won't be part of the live televised broadcast but it's our understanding there are events to attend where announcements are made. Is there a plan to attend the announcement ceremonies?

Dana Rath: Never say it can't happen again, but this is a once in a life time opportunity. Ya, you betcha we are going, red carpet and all. Bummer is I'm probably going to have to buy some new threads, and I have more expensive tastes that I can afford. You are correct that there is a pre-ceremony where a large percentage of the awards are given. Then there is the televised portion that you watch on TV. Afterwards is the Grammy awards party which is probably a major schmoozathon. In addition there are nominee events to attend February 9, the day before. We will probably catch some of that also.

Matt Flinner: I believe we are all going to attend the events around the awards. There will be a "red carpet" event on the day before the awards, plus a reception or two. I think we all feel lucky to be able to be part of this, so we'll probably try to soak in as much of it as we can.

Paul Binkley: Yeah, time to do some serious clothes shopping and whenever I go to LA I get a haircut first. It's going to be really fun.

Modern Mandolin Quartet

Mandolin Cafe: Do you foresee a change in recording or touring plans in the future as a result of the nomination? What opportunities would a win in the Best Chamber Music/Small Ensemble Performance bring?

Dana Rath: Whether we win or not, I'm sure this will give us opportunities that we may not otherwise get. Up until last year when we recorded this CD we had taken several years off. We had been at it over 20 years. The break solidified in a way what this music means to us and has drawn us back to really wanting to get out there and tour again. I feel there is a lot left to explore. There are some exciting players out there expanding the realm, particularly Chris Thile with the Punch Brothers, a short time member of the Quartet before he was whisked away to fame with Nickel Creek and beyond.

Paul Binkley: Already there's a whole lot of interest as well as a good feeling of inspiration within the group. Hopefully we'll be doing some good touring this summer, including Europe.

Matt Flinner: I can tell you that communication with our agent, Craig Knudsen, has increased quite a bit! We had taken some time off from touring but were looking to get out more now that we had a new CD. The nomination has given us a jump start for getting dates on the calendar into 2014. I suppose if we did win, then we'd be pushing that much harder to get more and better gigs. I think being nominated will probably inspire us to try to do even better on the next recording. I feel like we now have a higher reputation to live up to, and we'll likely work harder to keep that and hopefully surpass it.

Mandolin Cafe: Most of the selections credit all four members as arranging the pieces. Take us through that process since the group is separated by Matt being in Nashville and the rest in California.

Paul Binkley: I do a lot of the arrangements using Sibelius notation software. Some the pieces on Americana were originally arranged by John Imholz our original mandocello player. Dana and Adam contribute as well. The process is generally that someone cooks up the arrangement, then we try it out and find the mistakes and the places where some idea that seemed brilliant at the time ends up not working, so you go through a couple of versions based on rehearsals before you settle in to a final arrangement. Of course the Dvorák we played right off the page like a string quartet, just using techniques as necessary to facilitate the music on mandolins.

Dana Rath: We all contribute during rehearsals to bring the music alive. I have arranged some of the pieces and Matt and Adam are starting to bring music to the group, also I believe Matt is writing some at this moment for the group.

The Americana Video

Mandolin Cafe: The sound quality captured on the recording is truly first-rate. What can you tell us about the recording and mastering process?

Dan Shores (Sound Engineer): The album was recorded at the Skywalker Sound in California, and mixed and mastered at Sono Luminus Studios in Virginia. The approach to recording this album was very minimalistic. It was always intended to be a surround sound album and to achieve this we went with a 1/1 microphone approach, meaning one microphone for each speaker. We set up seven Schoeps microphones in the middle of the ensemble, each corresponding to one of the seven speakers in a 7.1 surround setup. The players were positioned at the four corners of the setup putting them in line with the Left, Right, Left Surround, and Right Surround speakers. The additional microphones provided the room ambiance. We then worked to find the exact position for the players and angles for the microphones.

There were no additional EQ or effects added in the post-production to any of the individual tracks. It was a very light handed approach to the mastering aspect as well.

The album was recorded using the Metric Halo ULN-8 preamps and digital conversion, tracked in Pro Tools, and mixed and mastered on Legacy Audio monitors.

Modern Mandolin Quartet

Mandolin Cafe: This was a monumental project. Taking on works of some of the most famous composers has a certain element of risk. Was there ever a time when you questioned the scope of the project or was this simply one of those recording you just had to make as a group?

Paul Binkley: You know, I felt pretty good about the whole thing all the way along. I knew all the music would work and I was jazzed about doing the Dvorák. It's a long, rich piece of music which makes extreme demands on the players but we had performed it enough that it was kind of internalized. Shenandoah was a last minute addition because I felt we needed a quiet, intimate piece to balance everything out and when I heard Keith Jarrett's version on YouTube it just felt perfect so I arranged it couple of weeks before the sessions.

Adam Roszkiewicz: The whole process felt pretty natural. I think we were just focused on making the best album we could. Personally, the recording sessions were some of the most demanding I had ever been a part of but I think that makes sense considering the scope of the project. I'm really glad I got to be a part of it! Luckily, working with Paul, Matt, and Dana is really great. They are so committed to the music and very supportive and encouraging, so that helped a lot.

Matt Flinner: There may have been times where it seemed like a lot of material to do well, but we did spread some of it out over time. We had been playing the Dvorák Quartet off and on for a few years, so that helped. And it helped having Victor, Marina and Dan in the studio to give us their perspective on how our recording might relate to previous versions of the same pieces. Dan was there in the same studio when the Kronos Quartet recorded the Glass piece, plus they just helped get the best out of us. Trying to play classical music as a mandolin quartet is intimidating in one respect — that you're going to inevitably be compared to other more "legit" ensembles like string quartets, but perhaps freeing in another — that you are not limited to the page in the sense that the originally intended instruments might be expected to be, and you can try to shape the piece in the best possible way to suit the sound of the mandolins.

Dana Rath: All of the above. You can always run a risk when you step outside of what instrumentation a piece was written for, especially such a great work as the American String Quartet by Dvorák. That work we have been performing and it was a "had to record it status" because we knew it just screamed to be done this way.

quote...finding the particular compositions that will work for plucked string is one of the harder elements. Adapting our sound and limitations, to make a piece come alive and at best the listener can hear it in a completely new way.quote
 —  Dana Rath

I've talked about this before, but finding the particular compositions that will work for plucked string is one of the harder elements. Adapting our sound and limitations, to make a piece come alive and at best the listener can hear it in a completely new way. Speaking for me, I will listen to music with mandolin ears.

Once in a while something will jump out and grab you, and you just know. Having said that, we still spend a lot of time trying to make it all work and sound natural, or like it was just written for these instruments.

Mandolin Cafe: The Philip Glass compositions are particularly strong in this format. That was a bit of a surprise to us which probably says more about our experience and tastes than the selections and arranging talent of the quartet. How long had your Glass arrangements been on paper before recording?

Dana Rath: We finally decided to base the theme of the CD on American composers or American influenced music. I found the Glass when researching all of his works and this one really connected. Also this piece was the most difficult to pull off in some ways. At one point in the recording process we almost decided to not do it. The flow of the piece was not right. We went home after a long day recording and reworked all of the fingering and picking to incorporate a lot of hammering on and pull-offs. The next morning we sat down and played it through. Both Victor and Marina Ledin and Dan Shores (the engineer) came out of the recording booth and couldn't believe the change in what was happening. After that it really fell in place.

Paul Binkley: I don't remember how long the Glass pieces were in the mix before we really committed to them but I could see early on that they were going to be effective. I wish we could have done the whole set but there wasn't room so we settled on the pieces we felt were the most effective for our group. There wasn't really any arranging involved because we just played them off the page, but there's always a process where you have to distill the music to make it work on the mandolin family.

Adam Roszkiewicz: There are technical elements in the Glass that make it an obvious choice for the mandolin. I don't remember how long that one was percolating for, but I remember we spent a while investigating whether the mandolin could bring something new and/or interesting musically to the work.

Modern Mandolin Quartet recordings

Mandolin Cafe: Do you know if he (Glass) is aware of your recording of his compositions or has he heard it? Any plans to send him a copy?

Dana Rath: I believe that Sono Luminous did send him a copy, although we haven't heard anything yet.

Matt Flinner: Maybe we should start with Ira Glass and see where that goes... I think he's Philip's nephew?

Adam Roszkiewicz: I don't know if Glass is aware of the recording, but I'd love to be on This American Life!

Mandolin Cafe: Were Bill Monroe alive, what would his reaction to hearing Rawhide as part of a recording nominated for a classical Grammy?

Modern Mandolin Quartet

Dana Rath: I couldn't even begin to know, especially from someone who said "If it ain't bluegrass, it ain't music," or so I heard. I'd think we would have to ask one of the pickers that were in his band like Peter Rowan. However on one or two of his later recordings I think he did some arrangements with strings or small orchestra which suggests that he may get a kick out of it and not be rolling in his grave, may he rest in peace in Bluegrass mandolin heaven.

Paul Binkley: My friend Matt Eakle who plays flute for David Grisman and hears a lot of Bill Monroe stories told me that Monroe's favorite quote when he didn't like something was "That ain't no part o' nuthin'!" I sure hope we're part of something as far as his spirit is concerned. That's as far as I can go with that, other than to say it's always a blast to do that medley, and thanks to Mike Marshall for showing us all the parts.

Matt Flinner: I assume Bill would be happy to hear about other people recording his music and getting some recognition for it; he certainly must have been happy when Elvis Presley recorded Blue Moon of Kentucky. I'm not comparing us to Elvis, by the way. Hey, maybe we could get him into the Classical Music Hall of Fame! Is there such a thing?

Adam Roszkiewicz: I think he would have said "see, if you can play Bluegrass you can play anything." And I would have said "yes sir, Mr. Monroe."

Mandolin Cafe: Congratulations again on your nominations and we'll be watching on February 10.

Selections from Americana

1. "Hoe-Down," from Rodeo - Aaron Copland
String Quartet No. 12 in F, Op. 96, B. 179, ("The American") - Antonin Dvorák
2. I. Allegro ma non troppo
3. II. Lento
4. III. Molto vivace
5. IV. Finale: Vivace, ma non troppo
6. "Cool," from West Side Story - Leonard Bernstein
7. Shenandoah
Three Preludes - George Gershwin
8. Prelude I: Allegro ben ritmato e deciso
9. Prelude II: Andante con moto e poco rubato
10. Prelude III: Allegro ben ritmato e deciso
11. Bill Monroe Medley - William Monroe
Philip Glass: from String Quartet No.3 "Mishima"
12. I. 1957 - Award Montage
13. II. November 25 - Ichigaya
14. III. 1962 - Body Building
15. IV. Mishima/Closing
16. Irish Roots Medley

Primary instruments

Matt Flinners plays a 1993 Gilchrist Model 5.

Paul Binkley plays a Monteleone mandola, one of the matched set that John originally made for the quartet in the late 80s. His guitar is a Michael Thames classical from 1986.

Dana Rath plays a Monteleone Grand Artist mandocello (used exclusively on the recording), a Lyon and Healy symmetrical long scale Grand Artist, and a Gilchrist H5 style mandola. Dana's note: "I have commissioned an octave mandolin soon to receive from Rosta Capek with an oval sound hole and scroll. Also I occasionally play a Paddy Burgin (New Zealand) Cittern."

Adam Roszkiewicz played a Gibson Super 400 that David Grisman converted to a Mandocello (on loan for the recording). For live recordings he uses a Randy Wood Mandocello.

Discography

Americana - 2012
The Nutcracker Suite (re-recording) - 2011
Interplay - 1999
Pan American Journeys - 1993
The Nutcracker Suite - 1991
Intermezzo - 1990
Modern Mandolin Quartet - 1990

The Modern Mandolin Quartet also appear on a number of samplers from various labels. For a complete list please refer to the list on their web site.

Additional information

© Mandolin Cafe

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