Yonatan Gat tells us about the influences behind new album ‘American Quartet’
Yonatan Gat 's new album American Quartet is a reimagining of Antonín Dvořák’s classic chamber piece "String Quartet No 12," which the Czech composer wrote while living in the United States in the 1890s. For it, Gat worked with Deerhoof drummer Greg Saunier, Mdou Moctar bassist Mikey Coltun, and organist Curt Sydnor. “Since the first time I heard the American Quartet it sounded like rock’n’roll melodies," says Gat, who used to lead Israeli band Monotonix. "So on this record we took a stab at performing the 19th century string quartet live from start to finish on electric guitar, bass, organ and drums; adding some improvisation and vibe, but following the melodies and the harmonies quite truthfully. It might be ambitious but it’s also pretty thrashed out." You can listen below.
While Dvořák would seem the main inspiration for a project like this, Yonatan brought few other influences to American Quartet, including Alice Coltrane, St Petersburg Quartet, Serge Gainsbourg, Jaimie Branch and more. His commentary makes for a wonderful companion to the album and you can read that below.
Alice Coltrane - "Going Home"
This is Alice Coltrane’s interpretation of the second movement of Dvořák’s 9th Symphony, which he also wrote around the same time he wrote the American Quartet - his few years living in the US back at the very end of the 19th century. Alice plays the lead melodies and her own improvisations on an organ that has less dynamic range than strings, therefore so much of the beauty ends up coming from other zones - like the physicality of her playing, her choice of notes and just the wildness and freedom in the way she touches the keys.
2001: A Space Odyssey with its soundtrack performed by NY Phil
In the last few years I got to see 2001 performed live with the NY Philharmonic on two occasions and each of them was an amazing experience. Kubrick didn’t like to use film composers and preferred classical compositions, which he used extremely well. I think that makes watching that film with a symphony orchestra playing live the best way to experience it. Both Strauss’ pieces are obviously incredible in how they are used, but the Ligetti pieces are just as interesting and important for the film. During the vocal a-capella Ligetti moments the orchestra had the vocalists stand on the third floor balconies on both sides of the stage, turning on little clip lights on their sheet music and singing with the film playing in the background. It was gorgeous.
Another choice that is related to Kubrick, since WC did the A Clockwork Orange soundtrack. Everything about Wendy Carlos’ music and approach is inspiring.
Serge Gainsbourg - "Initials B.B." and "Jane B"
The chorus for "Initials B.B." comes from the same Dvořák 9th Symphony that Alice Coltrane interpreted, but Serge does it different by taking the theme from Dvořák’s first movement and turning it into a chorus hook. The lead vocals are kind of like a backing instrument in this part, and the Dvořák strings become the big killer hook.
On "Jane B" he’s taking a Chopin Prelude and turning it into a mysterious song where Jane Birkin describes herself physically, which could sound sexy but later you find out it's a police report of a missing person. Classic Serge.
St Petersburg Quartet - "American Quartet"
I randomly saw the St Petersburg Quartet play this piece at a venue in Brooklyn called Barge Music which is a boat docked on the East River that hosts chamber music. I used to live around there and would walk over to check out the sounds. I was given a CD of the St Petersburg Quartet version of the American Quartet which ended up being the version I listened to while I was learning the piece. This string quartet made some tempo and atmosphere decisions that for sure sipped into our version.
Dom Salvador playing piano at River Café in Brooklyn
For many decades now Dom Salvador, the incredible piano player from Brazil, keeps a regular daily gig under the radar at a yuppie restaurant in Brooklyn called River Café. My Brazilian friends told me to go check him out, and when I lived near there I used to go and just sit near the bar, which is next to the piano, order a drink and just hang out with Dom, listen to his piano playing, talk about music and hang out. Dom always paints the room with the deepest sounds - a combination of classical, jazz and just deep Brazilian vibes. It’s hard to believe he’s been playing in this restaurant every day for almost 50 years. It might sound like great background music to the customers eating $300 dinners there, but if you sit next to him and listen you realize this is more like a concert, and a humbling one if you’re a musician too.
I thought about this song because it has a part of the second movement of the American Quartet hidden in it, coming in a little over three minutes into the track. Curt, the keyboard player, was in my apartment in Brooklyn one day and we spontaneously recorded this version in my living room on an iphone. In the full LP version you hear it on organ, and on this version it's nice to hear it on electric piano too.
Medicine Singers - "Sunset" and Jaimie Branch - "Nuevo Roquero Estéreo"
The legend goes that Dvořák was listening to Native American music and spirituals while he was living in the States and that slipped its way into the American Quartet, 9th Symphony and all the other beautiful music he wrote in North America.
I don’t know if any of that is true, but in my personal experience meeting the Medicine Singers, learning from them and being in their orbit definitely inspired every musical project I was involved with since. One thing I can relate to is the respect Dvořák and other composers of his time had for oral folk music – whether it comes from Czech villages or powwows. They might have not had the tools (or interest) to collaborate with their influences in the same way we do now, but they definitely recognized the depth in these timeless melodies that get transmitted orally between generations.
"Sunset" is one of these super deep melodies. My friend Artie, who sings on it, told me he learned it from a singer called Bright Canoe 50 years ago, and Bright Canoe, in turn, learned it from his own ancestors. That song is very old. You can hear that weight as soon as the melody starts. It’s as deep, beautiful and moving as anything any composer ever wrote - anywhere and at any time.
When we were working on the recording of "Sunset" with Jaimie Branch, we all talked about how a trumpet intro might add even more weight to the song, having something lead up to that melody. It made me remember the first time she played me that "Nuevo Roquero Estéreo" track, which connected her to her family's roots in South America. Jaimie was one of the most unique trumpet players to ever pick up the instrument, and a friend. We lost her this year and I’m still trying to wrap my mind around that.
When we recorded "Sunset," she played her trumpet intro from a cabin in Alaska where she spent time quarantining in 2020. The recording was already finished and mixed, which normally wouldn’t work for overdubbing an intro, but Jaimie was one of the only musicians who could simply jump on a preexisting recording and redefine it with her own improvisation, making it sound as if she was physically with the band playing it live with us in the room. That's how much of a presence Jaimie was. And I still feel her presence in the room when we play.