'We Are the Knights': A Q&A with Eric and Colin Jacobsen

Michelle Michalos | September 8, 2011
Colin and Eric Jacobsen perform with The Knights (Photo courtesy of The Knights)

Inside Thirteen recently spoke with Eric and Colin Jacobsen, founders of the New York-based orchestra, The Knights, featured in THIRTEEN‘s documentary, We Are the Knights.

Consisting of a group of friends from Julliard, The Knights collaborate on traditional and original music, and are known for their vibrant and eclectic performances. Here, the Jacobsens discuss what inspired them to start the group, and their unique approach to playing in an ensemble.

We Are the Knights airs Thursday, September 8 at 8:30 p.m. on THIRTEEN.

Inside Thirteen: What inspired you to start The Knights?

Eric Jacobsen: When we started The Knights, we didn’t set out with the goal to form an orchestra. Actually, what we set off of with was having fun with friends and colleagues – people that we loved playing music with. We started sort of as a garage band starts; we’d get together after school and loved playing together, and out of that grew a group of people that found a style, a love for music, and that morphed into wanting to play concerts together. From that grew The Knights.

Colin Jacobsen: As Eric said, friendship and shared musical values. Trying to reclaim a lot of the music that we’d grown up studying in school, but at some point you want to find your own way with it, you want to seek it out with friends who share similar ideas. So, for us it was about exploration of a lot of the inherited tradition that we had, but also making music new and fresh.

IT: How did your musical upbringing influence your decision to work in music as adults?

CJ: In a way it was a very natural thing, we had two musician parents who had very social musical lives outside of their work – our dad played in the Metropolitan Opera, and our mom taught flute, but they would invite friends over on weekends sometimes and have music reading sessions. When we were very young, we were allowed to stay up late and listen to them. I think we both loved the music and saw that they had a good time doing what they did – it seemed like a good lifestyle.

IT: How do you think classical musicians have changed over the years – are contemporary musicians more versatile than in the past?

CJ: I think so, for sure. In our parents’ generation, a life in music was more rigidly defined – you were either a soloist, or an orchestra musician. There were a few quartets. Thanks to the explosion of chamber music in America, there are a lot more chamber musicians, and a lot more people float fluidly between those three things and even beyond that. We also see a lot of people in the classical world who are performer/composers who are writing and arranging their own music. There’s also the bigger picture industry thing – even in the pop world, the recording industry has changed so much. In some ways, it’s harder to make a life in music, but in another sense, there’s more fluidity and more possibility of creating your own thing if you care deeply about it.

IT: How do you choose your repertoire? What attracts you to music for The Knights?

The Knights (Photo courtesy of Keith Lew)

CJ: We have a programming committee, with people who have brilliant ideas. It depends on the project that we’re doing – sometimes we’re asked to do a particular piece from the outside, whether it’s a Beethoven symphony or whatever, but we try to contextualize it. If it’s an old piece of music, we try to find relevant connections to music from our time. Sometimes it’s venue-driven, if we’re playing in a particular place, sometimes a particular kind of programming suggests itself. I think the projects we’ve had the most fun with and that have been the most fulfilling for us as a group are when we’ve been able to sink our teeth into a big, older piece like a Beethoven symphony or a Schubert symphony, but to also do something from our time or by one of the Knights. This spring, we played Beethoven 5 along with the world premiere by Lisa Bielawa, and we’ve recorded Schubert’s symphony along with Morton Feldman and Philip Glass. Whenever you play together, it informs the other thing that you’re doing, so it’s always connected.

IT: In the film, Colin says: “You have to play without ambition” – what do you mean by that approach?

CJ: I think in terms of any ensemble, it’s really finding out what your role is and giving yourself fully over to that and not speaking to music in terms of your perspective, but really trying to grasp as much of the whole as possible and to find your role in it. So, it’s not actually taking away your ambition to be great at what your doing, it’s sort of channeling your energy.

EJ: There’s something about actually contributing to other people’s abilities – yes, looking out for yourself, but being able to foster good feelings with other people while you’re playing so that they also perform to their highest level.

IT: What has it been like collaborating with Yo-Yo Ma?

EJ: For many of the people in the group, their relationship with Yo-Yo goes way back a number of years in the context of the Silk Road Ensemble. There was trust already there, and I hope and I think he did have a great time playing with The Knights because we were like a school of fish, we turn on a dime with him as a soloist. I think as a soloist with an orchestra, you sort of feel like you’re tugging at a huge troika of horses. But I think we hopefully gave him a good feeling so that he felt free to do whatever he wanted in the moment.

IT: What’s next for The Knights?

CJ: This season, two big things that we’re really looking forward to are going back to Germany for a tour of about six or seven cities in March. After that tour, we’ll be doing our first full-fledged U.S. tour in 10 cities across the South, Midwest, and East Coast.

For us, playing one program five to ten times is really a great place to be, because we spend so much time rehearsing, to actually spend so much time onstage performing is really a pleasure. We learn much more on stage than we do in the rehearsal room, so it’s exponential how much we can grow from those performance experiences and touring around playing to different audiences and bringing what we hope is our message to those places.

EJ: Also, in early 2012 our Schubert album is going to be released, so we’re excited about that!