GP has had Supernova on our stage before, but it’s been quite some time since the ensemble has even played together. Before you see the quartet onstage Aug. 12, learn a little about Supernova through this quick interview with quartet member Jacob Szekely.

Supernova is Jacob Szekely (cello, electronics, sound design), Miguel Atwood-Ferguson (viola), Paul Jacob Cartwright (violin) and Robert Anderson (violin).

How did the ensemble come together?

We met when Miguel and I were attending USC. I was in my first year of grad school, Miguel was in undergrad, and we discovered our mutual love of improvising and jazz. We were passionately, seriously living double secret agent lives as jazz musicians, not telling our classical teachers for fear of being kicked out of school. We eventually formed a group, and found Robbie and our original violinist Ludwig, and that was Supernova. He was one of the great violinists of his generation, but three years later was hit by a drunk driver and suffered severe brain damage. The group stopped at that point.

Miguel went on to have a major career as composer, arranger, and this is something like his twenty-second show at GP. He’s played with Thundercat, Anderson.Paak, Flying Lotus, and just did a huge thing with Questlove and Common; he also scores the show Luke Cage.

Robert and I founded String Project LA, the first school in America dedicated to creative/ improvised string playing, and now he’s a professor at USC.

I toured with Rush, Jay-Z, Justin Timberlake, and have a couple of my own groups that tour internationally, including my group the Jacob Szekely Trio.

Paul was touring violinist with Father John Misty, and now is an arranger with Portugal the Man and a member of the group.

The idea for this concert was that it be a special reunion concert of Supernova, because we haven’t played together as Supernova in years. We just want to honor the time we had together, and we thought it would be really cool to create a new piece called Suite for LA. It features a piece by each one of us—each movement is a new premiere that showcases our unique style.

Supernova as a group, as well as the individual musicians, each have a relationship with Grand Performances. Can you tell me a little bit about them?

Supernova performed at GP in one of our last public performances before Ludwig’s accident—a very fond memory for us. Since then, as members of groups or as leaders, we have logged safely 40-50 performances at GP between us. Grand Performances has a special relationship with String Project LA, the school that Robbie and I founded. They’ve also helped sponsor and been part of the LA Creative String Festival I created, and this year was this sixth annual festival. We’ve been part of GP family for a very long time, and we’ve also known Leigh Ann forever.

We’re also expecting some electronic elements. Tell me how you incorporate those into your writing and improvisation.

You’ll hear them in a couple of different ways in this particular performance. We’re all going to be using different types of analog effects when we play: something that we kind of pioneered when the group started. In order to use these types of effects in an ensemble setting in a compelling way, you need commitment. You’re gonna hear us using all kinds of effects to alter sound, change pitch, and modulate our instruments. In my piece in particular, you’re also going to hear me using a laptop, Ableton, and floor bass expression controllers to sample the group in real time and manipulate that as we play—its own type of improvisational process. I’ll be using things like the harmony engine and vocal synths on the string instruments and control them in real-time. Basically, I’ll be up there with a laptop and a bunch of glowing crazy pedals that make sounds.

Now for the important part—you’re composing a brand-new Suite for Los Angeles. How does the city speak to you musically? What did it inspire in the composition, and what can the audience look for?

We each have our own distinct relationship with LA. Miguel grew up in Topanga Canyon, this beautiful little house. His stepdad wrote the movie The Sting starring Robert Redford and Paul Newman, and won an Oscar, and that’s what bought him that house. When he won that, he wound up living in that house and grew up right next to Stanley Clark. Miguel kind of grew up in the musical scene of LA.

I came here like most artists do; I love the romantic notion that most people in LA aren’t from here. It’s this city of dreamers, full of people here to create something new. The possibility means so much to me, has a big impact on my outlook and my music. Paul is from Bakersfield, comes from a musical family and commutes here. Robbie is from South Carolina—so we all kind of have a different view.

Each of the pieces are based off of a certain community in LA, the cultural and aesthetic vibe of that place. Starting with Miguel. In Topanga, you’ll hear pastoral, wind blowing through trees. It’s a waltzy, cinematic thing and feels like you’re driving up to his treehouse. I live on the west side. Robbie lives in Reseda. Paul writes a street scene from a hood he used to live in, the Latino rhythms in his piece create a dance based off of those rhythms. My Scenes from Downtown are a hip-hop exploration of rhythms and beats and grooves indicative of downtown. The first part is an R&B, soul/hip-hop feel, then a dream scene, then a battle scene that uses our instruments to replace scratch pads and drums through Ableton, a church scene—like a gospel sample—and a reprise. The transitions are very much influenced by hip-hop music and hip-hop albums. Kendrick is someone who Miguel’s worked with a lot, and Kamasi, so there are a lot of connections to hip-hop in our group.

There’s a theme in the movement titles. How did that come about?

Miguel’s piece is called Topanga – orchestral, cinematic, jazzy vibey ethos.

Rob’s piece is called Reseda—funk/jazz fusion string quartet piece.

Paul’s piece is called Gracia del Mar (grace of the sea)—it’s about a lady who runs a hot dog cart in east LA and was also a drag performer in the Yucatan.

My piece is called Scenes from Downtown–an electro-hip-hop piece using our unique ability to groove and improvise, with emphasis on electronics, plus Ableton and sound design. Mixed-media in a way.

All feature improvising in a way that I think only we can.

What message do you ultimately want to convey with the Suite?

The piece is a sketch of different parts of LA, a love poem about who we are as artists in LA through the lens of these four different places.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.


By Celine Kiner