Austin’s Invoke isn’t your average string quartet. Not content to limit themselves to the typical pair of violins with a viola and cello, they’ve explored the sounds of banjos and mandolins and even their own voices.
But their expanded instrumentation has created a new challenge for the group: there is a lack of repertoire for string quartet with banjo, mandolin, and voice.
Adding new instruments to their group was originally an inspiration for writing their own music. Instead the foursome decided that they wanted to increase the music available to their ensemble by commissioning new works from other composers. With support from the Rainwater Fund for American Music at the University of Texas’ Butler School of Music, where Invoke is Young Professional String Quartet in Residence, the musician set about searching for composers that they wanted to work with.
After narrowing down a list of potential collaborators to four people, everyone jumped on a conference call to discuss ideas about how all the commissions might fit together. The goal that emerged, as Invoke violinist Zachariah Matteson put it, was to explore uniquely American experiences of days gone by that could be shared by everyone at a time when our country felt divided. Each composer chose a place that was important to them and crafted a piece that reflected on a moment in time there.
David K. Garner began with a recording from the Southern Mosaic archive of an African-American choir singing a communion hymn and overlaid the sounds of the quartet, exploring the influences of folk and gospel music on modern American music.
Takuma Itoh, who lives in Hawaii, wanted to tell the story of Japanese “picture brides” who came to the United States in the early 20th century in search of a better life, taking a leap of faith based only on a photograph of a potential husband. For this piece, Invoke added the ukulele to the list of instruments they play.
Steven Snowden’s “Tent Revival” explores the charismatic performances (sometimes charming, sometimes more sinister) of evangelical preachers from Austin in the 1950s.
Finally, Ian Dicke’s piece follows a cross-country journey that comments on American consumerism and its pitfalls, and finds its conclusion on Los Angeles’ famous Sunset Boulevard.
Since they premiered “American Postcards” on The Southern Exposure Series in Columbia, South Carolina in October 2017, the quartet has been performing it as much they can. But they’ve also decided that these four commissions are only the beginning of a project that has resonated so strongly with their audiences.
And the next step for the series?
“Maybe postcards from all 50 states,” Zach said.
Editor’s note: A version of this story was published on the blog KMFA, 89.5, Austin’s classical radio station, and a media partner of Sightlines.