Invoke is a classical/bluegrass quartet, where not only do the members play string quartet instruments, but also double up on bluegrass elements such as banjo, mandolin and vocals. The group comprises Nick Montopoli, violin/banjo/vocals; Zach Matteson, violin/vocals; Karl Mitze, viola/mandolin/vocals and Geoff Manyin, cello/vocals.

This work Burlywood features on Invoke’s upcoming album Evolve and Travel. Its origin stems from the Covid-19 pandemic, when the group were doing weekly livestreams that included a programme curated around a chosen theme.

’The title comes form the actual colour, burlywood, which is a sandy brown, or the colour of the inside of a tree,’ says Karl Mitze, who plays viola, mandolin and provides vocals. ’I thought that colour was super evocative of tone and energy of our wooden instruments so I wanted to find a way to replicate that with melody and sound.’

The main theme, which returns in canon throughout the work, was an improvised fiddle lick that was transported to the mandolin. Strumming and ‘grassy’ accompaniment surrounds the theme, calling back to the theme of woodiness and trees, suggesting Appalachia, where Mitze has spent a lot of time.

’The middle section gives the bowed instruments a moment to shine in a sort of Bach, organ style chordal build as an homage to the tone and beauty of wooden stringed instruments before the piece returns to the opening material. It’s one of our favourite tunes to open up our shows,’ says Mitze.

Invoke’s members describe the transition from string quartet instruments to bluegrass instruments as a very natural progression, citing influences from the 2011 album The Goat Rodeo Sessions and artists such as Edgar Meyer, Mark O’Connor, Bela Fleck, Yo-Yo Ma, Chris Thile and Stuart Duncan.

In looking for ways to expand the quartet’s skill set, the members realised that violist Mitze had started his musical journey on the mandolin, an easy pivot as its standard tuning is in fifths like the violin. ’The banjo was a little trickier - Nick [Montopoli] had access to his mother’s tenor banjo but had never before played anything like it.’ In order to ease the process, Montopoli tunes the banjo in fifths to GDAE.

’It’s been a long process of trial and error and hours of practice and rehearsal to really incorporate the two sounds into the “string quartet” - a process that we think is very much worth the undertaking.’

Invoke was chosen to be the Young Professional String Quartet in Residence at the University of Texas at Austin from 2016 to 2018. The group also participated in the Emerging String Quartet Program at Stanford, and was selected as an Artist in Residence at Strathmore, the Emerging Young Artist Quartet at Interlochen, and the Fellowship String Quartet at Wintergreen Performing Arts. In 2018, Invoke was named a winner of the Concert Artists Guild Victor Elmaleh Competition in New York, NY, received First Prize at the M-Prize International Chamber Arts competition in Ann Arbor, MI, and received First Prize in the Coltman Competition in Austin, TX.

Evolve and Travel is out on 27 October 2023 on Sono Luminus.

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