Of all the arts, music is the most difficult to write about. Maybe because it exists only through time — only in the moment that you hear it? Maybe because it has no verbal or visual dimensions?
What I can say is that the Ying Quartet — one of the leading string quartets in the world — plays as if it’s a single performer. That togetherness among the four musicians is astounding. I don’t mean just that they hit the right notes at the same time; any professional string quartet does that. I mean I witness, when I watch them perform, an extraordinary togetherness of interpretation.
This togetherness is all the more remarkable because the Ying is no longer composed of the four siblings who first created the quartet: Timothy and Janet on violin, Philip on viola, David on cello.
I’ve followed the Ying Quartet since their founding in 1988, when they were doctoral students at the Eastman School of Music in my home town of Rochester, New York. After graduation, on a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts, they moved to the tiny farming town of Jesup, Iowa, for a two-year residency. They say now that this experience inspired their mission ever since: to bring classical music to communities that might otherwise never experience it: to schools, hospitals, the workplace, juvenile prisons.
In 1997, only five years after their graduation from Eastman, the Ying were appointed Faculty Quartet-in-Residence at the Eastman School of Music. I remember how thrilled we Rochesterians were to have them back home. They’ve been with us ever since. They travel the world giving concerts, but they always make sure to perform two or three concerts a year right here at Eastman. I try never to miss one.
Why? What makes the Ying so special? Was it their being siblings that made their performances so profoundly together? And yet the togetherness remains, even after Timothy Ying’s departure in 2009. The group went through a couple of first violinists before settling in with Robin Scott. This transition must have taken great courage. A first violinist sort of leads a quartet; to welcome a new one must have taken remarkable openness and flexibility. But fearlessness is a Ying Quartet trademark.
There’s the active search for unusual venues that I’ve already mentioned. There’s an active search for unusual collaborations: they’ve chosen to work with artists from a wide range of disciplines — including dancers, actors, musicians from folk or jazz backgrounds, even acrobats. “We’ve tried some musical experiments that we’ve discarded,” says David Ying, “but when there’s gold to be mined, we don’t let the fact that we’ve never done it before, or the notion that ‘a classical string quartet doesn’t do this,’ or a ‘classical string quartet doesn’t play there’ — we’ve never let those questions stop us.”
David attributes this creative fearlessness to the Yings’ curiosity: “An incredibly important part of becoming an improving and successful musician… is not just your talent, but just as important is your level of curiosity. About music itself, but the world the music resides in, and drawing connections about everything in music. If you don’t have curiosity, you could develop technical skill, but maybe not have anything to do with it! That’s sad.”
He continues: “curiosity is what fuels us, musically speaking.” A goal for the Quartet “is that we remain as curious as we ever have been about music, and about what is out there, and what we have still to learn, not just the ground we’ve already trod. I think that attitude towards our work has helped us a lot over the years.”
Fearless curiosity also drives the LifeMusic project that the Ying Quartet has established. In a sense, it’s another of their collaborations — this time with American composers. Each year, the Ying commission two new works for string quartet: one from an established composer and one from an emerging one.
Here’s how they imagine this project: “Each composer is asked to write a quartet that is inspired by some dimension of the American experience — perhaps a literary, historical, or musical source, or a significant and enduring issue. With these commissions, we seek to produce an ongoing series of works from living American composers that are not only inspired somehow by life in America, but also reflect the highest standards of musical excellence. The idea of LifeMusic grows directly from the experience of the Ying Quartet.”
This vision of outreach also informs how they perform. I want to return to my attempt at the start of this essay — to find words for my experience of their concerts. First let me just say that, in general, I much prefer chamber music to large orchestras, because I like to be able to hear each voice and the interactions among them. So the very small chamber ensemble of a quartet is, for me, ideal.
I was pleased to hear Robin Scott express this from a musician’s viewpoint: “Being able to play with just three other people in an intimate setting is something that’s very special… as opposed to, for instance, orchestra, and also as opposed to solo playing, where it’s easy to be sort of isolated. It’s a very special medium, I would say — quartet playing.”
A couple words come to mind as I recall Ying concerts. One is humility. Other string quartets I’ve seen pull out their bows dramatically, move a lot in their chairs, play fast and forte as much as possible. None of this is for the Ying. When I characterize their performance as humble, I mean that their goal seems to be to let the music get inside of them and then just be the very best conduits they can. Their goal, that is, is to communicate. In a video made by the Eastman School of Music when Robin joined the Ying, Janet says “I hope that our music-making continues to have a lot of vitality. I think people connect with that sense of communication.” Later she adds: “I think we always want to be relevant to wherever people are. The kinds of music that we choose to perform and share with people are things that people will be able to find parallels with in their lives.”
Philip agrees: “My vision for the Ying Quartet has always been to push ourselves — and to look for opportunities to learn to communicate in a deeper and deeper and more effective way.”
I began by musing on the difficulty of describing music — because it only exists through time’s passage. I want to end with David’s helpful terms for this phenomenon: for the unique transience of music as an art form. In a video made when Robin’s predecessor as first violinist was leaving the group, David muses about the passing nature of all things, which music perfectly exemplifies. “Some of the beauty of being a musician is built into its transience — the fact that it’s an ephemeral art. A performance only exists for a moment. The way I made this one note only exists for that moment. And that’s kind of its beauty, too. It helps you appreciate life, in a way.”
I love that, for him, the very transience of music is the source and essence of its “beauty.” He even expresses a sort of awe at the wonder of making music: “I’ve got to remind myself that this is amazing, this is a special thing — these four people in a room — these three people with me, making music in a totally committed and passionate way. That’s something to treasure, and it’s not meant to be permanent, it’s meant to be these moments.”
“Music only exists for the moment,” David adds, “and we try to enjoy every moment.” As I try to do as a receiver of each moment enriched by the Ying Quartet.
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Written by: Peggy Rosenthal
Peggy Rosenthal writes widely on poetry as a spiritual resource. Her books include Praying through Poetry: Hope for Violent Times (Franciscan Media), and The Poets’ Jesus (Oxford). See her Amazon Author Page for a full list. She also teaches an online course, “Poetry as a Spiritual Practice,” through Image’s Glen Online program.