- Tremolos – I. Allegro ma non troppo
- Slow American Movement - II. Lento
- Joke – III. Molto vivace
- Rondo – IV. Finale: vivace ma non troppo
Yonatan Gat's American Quartet is a reimagining of Antonin Dvořák’s famed string quartet, one of the most popular works of chamber music in the classical repertoire, written while Dvořák was – like Gat – an immigrant living in New York City. But, as one might expect from the fiery Monotonix guitarist, Gat’s reimagining – a collaboration with Greg Saunier (Deerhoof), Mikey Coltun (Mdou Moctar) and Curt Sydnor – offers a completely sui-generis interpretation of the music, imbued with the slash-and-burn energy of punk rock, combined with the unrestricted creative spirit of experimental musicians like Alice Coltrane, who also interpreted Dvořák’s music.
Unlike Dvořák’s string quartet (written for two violins, viola, and cello), the instruments featured include drums (from Deerhoof’s Greg Saunier), bass (played by Mikey Coltun of Mdou Moctar’s band), organ (from composer Curt Sydnor) and electric guitar played by Gat. After a series of live performances, the group entered the studio to record American Quartet. “Recording took place in a day,” Coltun shared. “We set up all together in one room and played each movement once or twice. Very little overdubs and editing occurred on this record as we wanted to capture the piece as the band intended, live and raw.”
While there is a freewheeling spontaneity to the recording, Gat’s first album since 2018’s David Berman-produced 'Universalists', reconceptualizing American Quartet took years, requiring a long, disciplined process, particularly from Gat, who does not read sheet music. Learning by ear also freed Gat’s playing from a strict interpretation of the score, allowing for the wild and unpredictable performance captured on this recording. This adventurous approach extracts electrifying new textures and emotions from this staple of 19th century classical music. In turn, Dvořák’s complex writing pushes the dynamic boundaries of Gat’s guitar, from bursts of howling psychedelic noise, to extended elegant lyrical passages. Saunier’s drums, loosely following the cello, provide a breathtakingly expressive rhythmic interpretation to the piece, while Coltun and Sydnor each bring their unique versatility transcribing the viola, cello and second violin parts to organ and bass – with Sydnor bringing the approach of a classical musician, while Coltun lending sensibilities he developed during years as the touring bassist and producer of Mdou Moctar's legendary live band.
"Brahms would instruct those brave enough to seek his compositional advice that no matter how long or sectional a piece of music it must be “singable” from beginning to end. Dvorak was one of those seekers and my feeling is that Yonatan in turn absorbed the lesson by memorizing the entire melodic thread to Dvorak’s American Quartet before contacting Mikey (who then brought me in and, finally, Greg) about filling in the accompaniment— at times doing more— always arranging our parts in a manner that suited the instrumentation of a surf rock quartet. After a few sessions in Yonatan’s Joralemon St attic studio it was too late to turn back from the task at hand. Once we had the notes in place it was Greg’s motivic and melodic approach to the drum part that added the final combustion. The arrangements were still somewhat fluid until the recording date— we were finding new ways for the drums to enter the counterpoint, for Mikey's bass, or my organ to take those crucial melodic turns. I still find it so refreshing how we were able to interact with the string quartet score, hewing closely to it at times and at other times taking the opposite improvisational approach, which we really developed by performing the quartet at music festivals in NYC and Canada for a beautiful brief period of time. In those settings, we had no choice but to make the music and the arrangement totally convincing. One thing that I would like for listeners to understand is that these are live studio recordings. Yes there are overdubs here and there to add certain colors but really what is being presented is faithful to how we played it that night in Big Indian, NY. Old school classical (before tape splicing or digital editing) and punk ethos therefore converge. Most early attempts to reconcile European classical to American/British rock music failed because of prog tendencies which rendered the musics to alike to one another and therefore effectively neutered each to each. I think like Dvorak before him Yonatan with this project has truly tapped into something of the American mythology where ambition is all, nothing is sacred, and competition is fierce. Like Doc Holliday taking in a Shakespeare production in Leadville, CO. Or the tragic career of Junius Brutus Booth. Knut Hamsun. Bob Marley. Mark Rylance. Those who got lost here for a while, but made their way back out." -Curt Sydnor
"The promotion of favorite European composers to God status by 20th Century academia and the marketplace have not done those composers any favors. Treating their work as sacred objects to be revered, rather than living provocations to inspire play, has robbed them of any emotion other than gravitas and any mood other than somber. Sorry but Dvorak was a human being like the rest of us, capable of humor, capable of revolutionary spirit, capable of violence. For the four of us, playing the string quartet as we would play a rock song did not deface the piece, but revealed it to be something bigger than the stifling box into which it normally gets put. As we struggled to wrap our heads and bodies around it, the piece kept yielding new surprises and ever more complicated feelings. My bandmates surprised me not by straying from the piece but by plumbing its depths." -Greg Saunier
"Playing with Curt, Yonatan and Greg is a dream come true. This is the dream team group to go on this journey of learning, memorizing, and then eventually deconstructing a string quartet to be played at very loud volumes. Although we only performed the piece live together a handful of times each time was different from the last and was better and better until finally we got to record it. Recording took place in a day. We setup all together in room and played each movement once or twice. Very little overdubs and editing occurred on this record as we wanted to capture the piece as the band intended, raw and live. Mixed beautifully by Greg Saunier." -Mikey Coltun