Arts & Culture

Houston Music Highlight – Axiom Quartet Releases Debut Album And Tours China

The Houston string quartet shares tracks from its genre-crossing debut album and describes its first international tour.

HPM’s Houston Music Highlight Series features performances that have local connections – whether spotlighting music by Houston composers, commercial recordings by Houston musicians, or performances by local or visiting artists recorded at Houston Public Media.

The Axiom Quartet was formed in late 2012 by two friends, violinist Dominika Dancewicz and cellist Patrick Moore, both graduates of Rice University’s Shepherd School of Music

Over time, the quartet has become known for its passion for performing classical repertoire, new music, and arrangements of rock, electronic, indie, jazz, and pop music – or as they put it, music “as diverse as its native city.”

In 2017 Axiom was named Quartet-In-Residence at the University of St. Thomas. They have also signed with Parma Recordings, which released the group’s debut album, Axioms: Moments of Truth, this past spring.

The album features violinists Dominika Dancewicz and Ingrid Gerling, violist Nina Bledsoe, and cellist Patrick Moore.

Meet the Axiom Quartet, and hear tracks from their new album below.

 

As a quartet, you’ve been creating programs that mix musical genres, from Baroque to present-day pop. Your new CD is also a reflection of that.  Has that always been your programming approach?

Axiom Quartet: Although we did not necessarily start out being completely aware of wanting to include more diverse programs in our concerts, even the earliest Axiom performances aimed at more diverse interests. For example, in 2013 we paired Bach’s “Kunst der Fuge” with Philp Glass’ String Quartet No. 2, and instead of performing both pieces consecutively, we would mix the fugues and movements to create this vivid juxtaposition.

The adventure with ambitious, well-arranged, and original pop and rock music began when we started thinking of our individual concert programs as broad palettes, where everything was allowed as long as it followed certain themes. One of our most memorable concerts was the “War and Peace” program, in which we presented Shostakovich’s 3rd Quartet together with “Zombies” by The Cranberries, bound together by the theme of senseless violence in the time of war. Since then, we’ve abandoned any kind of classical vs. pop boundary, and we enjoy finding music that fits the idea we want to communicate regardless of its genre.

LISTEN: Axiom Quartet plays “Little Lies” by Fleetwood Mac:

Does that eclectic and inclusive love of music speak to your diverse backgrounds? Where did you each grow up and how did that affect your musical tastes and approaches?

Dominika: I grew up in Poland. My formative years, the 80s and even the 90s, bore the shadow of the communist era regime. My childhood (as much as I was aware of it) was completely permeated with all sorts of political dramas, food shortages, strikes, protests, but with a very strong sense that the artists were the beacon of hope. My parents are both classically trained musicians – my mom is a cellist, my father a violist – and as such the love for classical music brought by my upbringing determined who I am now.

Patrick: I grew up in West Texas in Midland, surrounded by lots of country music. However, my parents noticed that I would keep quieter as a small child if they played classical music in the background. This strategy left me with a love of classical music from a very early age. I didn’t particularly care for country music until much later in life when I found myself in situations where I was playing country music. I was on stage playing a slow ballad with a bittersweet slow fiddle melody, and I instantly knew how to make the right sound. I became nostalgic for my childhood and realized I loved country music. However, I’ve made it a personal mission to listen to as much music as I can. 

Nina: I grew up in Marietta, Georgia. My musical taste and approach was influenced by both of my parents and by my music education. As a beginner, I was introduced to fiddle music and the Suzuki Method at the same time. Both traditions of fiddling and the Suzuki Method encourage students to learn by rote. The ability to play by ear and the ability to read music and appreciate multiple genres at one time influenced my taste in music.

Ingrid: Yes, I think do think the diversity of our quartet members is a huge part of what makes Axiom so unique and has a great influence in our programming. I’m originally from Brazil, and I am absolutely obsessed with Brazilian bossa nova and American jazz. I grew up listening to both classical music and bossa nova, so mixing the two things to me seems totally natural. As a result, the quartet has programmed quite a few Brazilian and jazz tunes in our past seasons.

 

Who are some of your favorite bands, singers, and/or composers at the moment?

Dominika: I’m so busy preparing for concerts that most of my time is occupied by getting familiar with the music I’m currently learning. That being said, my little record library is very diverse, and I pull it out occasionally when I know I have a long drive ahead: Marrillion “Fugazi,” Pink Floyd “The Wall,” Deep Purple Greatest Hits, A. L. Weber’s “Jesus Christ Superstar,” but also Canteloube’s “Chants d’Auvergne” for mezzo-soprano and orchestra, Tchaikovsky’s 6th Symphony, Beethoven Quartets, Nat King Cole, Frank Sinatra, Harry Nilsson, James Taylor.

Patrick: As mentioned earlier, it’s my personal mission to listen to as much music as I can. Houston’s long commutes help me with this endeavor. Some of my favorite Pandora stations are: Radiohead, Tori Amos, Björk, Cornelius, and Elliott Smith.

Nina: My favorite artists and bands at the moment include Sylvan Esso, Andrew Bird, and Chris Thile. In the classical realm, I listen to Phillip Glass. His String Quartet No. 3 and Aguas da Amazonia are both on my playlist. Both of those works I find hopeful and calming.

Ingrid: What I mostly listen to is Brazilian music, jazz, and classical music. I also love to listen to Latin music, particularly salsa because it’s so energetic. One of my favorite aspects of Latin music, including Brazilian music, is the poetry in the lyrics. It is often very telling of the culture and the artist’s own history, similar to jazz.

 

Congratulations on your debut album! Can you explain the meaning behind the title “Moments of Truth”? Did you come up with that title first, and then choose selections inspired by that theme? Or was it the other way around?

AQ: The title came some time within the process of getting a clearer idea of what music we want to put on our first album, but it certainly wasn’t our “topic” when we started thinking of recording our first CD. We knew it had to contain meaningful music, but we were not quite sure what would be the “glue” binding it all together. Eventually we realized that our proposed selections could be all fitted into the multifaceted idea of truth, be it the presence of it, or the lack of it, or just an expression of some kind of real, truthful human emotion.

 

Did all of you contribute to the piece/song selection? What was that process like?  Did you nominate pieces and then vote on them, for example?

AQ: The process was much more organic than that. We didn’t have “nominations” or “voting,” it was rather a natural stream of propositions that we all had to think about and accept. Most of the ideas came from Patrick – his diverse tastes in all kinds of music were very helpful. His idea, for example, was the Charles Ives “Piano Sonata,” a piece that some of us originally didn’t believe could be transcribed for a string quartet! But it works quite beautifully, thanks to our incredibly talented arranger Karl Blench, of course. Dominika contributed the idea of betrayal, the denial of truth in Bach’s “Erbarme dich.” Nina is a lifelong fan of Elliott Smith, so “Everything Means Nothing to Me” was her contribution.

LISTEN: Axiom Quartet plays “Everything Means Nothing to Me” by Elliott Smith:

I love that you kind of became your own “DJs” on this album, in the sense that that you created an album where the music never stops! Between each selection is a short “Transition” piece composed by Karl Blench, which blends and blurs the boundaries between the selections – almost like a DJ beatmixing between songs.  How did you come up with the idea to present the album in that way? 

AQ: We knew that playing one piece after another would be too simplistic. We didn’t want the album to function like a Pandora playlist, we wanted to create a meaningful cycle of music that presents a kind of a story within itself. The “Transitions” help with propelling that story – you’ve noticed wonderfully that they blur and blend the boundaries between the pieces using some of the elements of the previous song to carry into the “prediction” of the next song. Also, the story never ends: it loops onto itself, because the last piece “Axiom,” the original composition by Karl, is followed directly by Haywyre’s “Insight,” the album’s first piece, in one smooth swoop.

 

Tell me about your arranger, Karl Blench. What do you enjoy about working with him, and what do you admire about him as a composer?

AQ: Karl is an extraordinary composer and a wonderful human being. Our group has a personal connection to him, indeed, as he is the husband of our cellist, Patrick, but the essence of our collaboration lies in his immense talent and understanding of what our album was to be. He immediately understood the idea of “Transitions,” for example, and skillfully crafted every one of them to create that idea of propelling, blending, drawing from the past piece, and pushing into the future piece, that we were interested in. The main body of Karl’s work on our CD was of course the actual arrangements of the chosen pieces that he created for us. I’ve already mentioned the almost impossible task of transcribing the Ives Piano Sonata, which he accomplished. We were particularly concerned that the arrangements should sound as rich and virtuosic as the originals, which is so often lost in simplified transcriptions. With Karl’s touch, every single piece becomes a little masterpiece.

LISTEN: Axiom Quartet plays “Insight” by Haywyre + “Transition I: Hindsight” by Karl Blench + “Pur Ti Miro” by Claudio Monteverdi:

You just returned from a tour in China! Did you perform selections from this album there?  How did audiences respond?

AQ: Yes, our big China tour has just concluded! What an incredible adventure it was! We performed most of our album repertoire, as well as selections from Beethoven and Mendelssohn string quartets. We also did a movement of a contemporary American string quartet by Michael Cunningham. The audiences in China, as we were told, are generally still in the process of opening themselves to the new/modern music of the western hemisphere. They were reacted strongly and enthusiastically to the classical music, as it was definitely more recognizable for them. However, they also really seemed to like Karl Blench’s composition “Axiom” and, no big surprise here, they simply loved hearing a famous Chinese pop song called “Manual of Youth,” which we played at the end of each concert we gave.

 

You were in China in late July through early August. Can you give the basic rundown of your trip?  How many days and concerts?  Which cities did you visit?

AQ: Our first international tour was huge! We were in China for almost 3 weeks, and gave 11 concerts in 11 different cities. We visited places like Shijiazhuang, Nanchang, Liuzhou, Nanning, Dalian, Mudanjiang, Pingxiang, Daqing, Changchun, Baoding. If you look at the map of the country, we were all over the place – from the south, which is close to the Vietnam border, to the northeastern tip close to Russia. Although not the biggest cities in the country, they still are homes to millions of people, and our venues were spectacular city theaters that housed between 1500 – 2000 people. We definitely enjoyed huge exposure, and were very lucky to experience such a diversity of geography and history in each of these cities.

 

How did your China tour come about? Where would your next “dream tour” be?

AQ: The tour was initiated and proposed by our record label, New Hampshire-based Parma Recordings, which is an affiliate of Naxos. The representatives of Parma felt that our album was truly unique, and presented a great opportunity to introduce music that’s beyond the usual classical fare to the Asian audiences.

We loved exploring the opportunities in Asia, and would love to come back. We are certain that our future endeavors will take us all over the world! We are definitely not limiting ourselves to any particular continent. Let the opportunities come, wherever they are!

 

I understand that your China tour was also a farewell project with your violist, Nina Bledsoe, and that you’re welcoming a new violist this season – Laura Krentzman. Can you tell us a little more about that change?

AQ: Nina Bledsoe was our violist since 2016, and her immense talent contributed to the development of our group tremendously. She participated in the recording of our debut album and went on the album-promoting tour of China, which was indeed her farewell project with Axiom. Nina’s goals came to clarification some time ago, and she is embarking on her adventure of delving deeper into the world of academia (she is Adjunct Instructor of Viola at Sam Houston State University). We wish her best of luck in pursuing her goals and dreams. Axiom is very excited to welcome violist Laura Krentzman into our ranks! A consummate musician, incredible professional, and a wonderful human being – she is a dream-come-true for our quartet!

 

Getting back to your new album, there is beautiful sense of journey – a journey of finding truth and meaning, and oneself – on this album. What is your “moment of truth” at this point in your journey as the Axiom Quartet?

AQ: The Axiom album is definitely a milestone for us, and indeed a very important step in our journey as a group. We have a vision of Axiom growing and becoming certainly a national, and hopefully international, act that bends the boundaries of what a traditional string quartet can do. We believe that we’ve already achieved some of that with our debut CD, but there is much more to explore. We will be experimenting with creating shows that are not just concerts but auditory and visual experiences, and we will be bending our own limitations by introducing creative elements to our process. These are just visions for now, but we are determined to keep pushing on. Let us keep breaking boundaries!

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