Symphonic Side Gigs: Stephen Bryant and String Quartet River Rafting

River Rafting Quartet Stephen Bryant Courtesy of Stephen Bryant

Stephen Bryant has played violin with the Seattle Symphony for thirteen seasons, but he’s got another gig he’s been doing even longer. Every summer for the past 26 years he leads a string quartet into the wilds of the Grand Canyon where they play concerts on a river rafting tour, hiking into a different side canyon each day to perform in sublime natural amphitheatres. The work of the great composers mingles with the sounds of wind, water and wildlife.

I spoke with Bryant about his interesting side gig.

I’d imagine your colleagues are used to playing in the completely controlled, acoustically perfect environment of a place like Benaroya Hall. Here you’re going into the wild and presenting the same music. Does that give you any insight into the music, playing it in different settings?

Absolutely. I gotta say, Mother Nature is intelligent. For example, there’s a side canyon called Black Tail that I like to play Shostakovich in because there’s a darkness to it. It was an Anasazi site. It happens to sit right on the Great Unconformity—geologically there’s 800,000 years of rock missing—and all of this comes together to form the most perfect concert hall.

I’ve had experiences with, shall we say, ghosts in that particular canyon. I’ve seen things that defy conventional explanation. This particular side canyon, whenever we play Shostakovich it gets incredibly quiet; the birds stop chirping, the frogs stop. It becomes really quiet, and always after [we play] there’s this incredible assortment of natural sounds. I bring a recorder along and record an hour or two just to listen to the music of nature.

Conversely, if we’re playing Mozart, for example, I find there are certain birds, like the canyon wren, who love to participate. The ravens really like Beethoven. One of the side canyons has a creek right below the “stage” making a burbling sound, and what I’ve discovered with playing in that environment is that your diminuendos disappear completely into this natural sound, and when you play very softly it’s like the music comes right out of the sound of the water.

Most of the concerts happen early in the morning because these are summer trips and they get very hot. By nine or ten in the morning we’ll be playing a concert, and after lunch we’ll go rafting and do the rapids.

Then you get into another spectacular campsite. There are beaches all along the Grand Canyon where the side canyons empty in, and we set up camp in those places. After we get our camp set up the quartet will play a different kind of music than we would in the morning. In the evenings we’ll play popular music, cocktail music. The guides prepare hors d’ouevres and it’s a magical time on the river.

For me to play this great music in that environment—there’s nothing better. I get goosebumps just telling you about it.

River rafting string quartet

It’s the most amazing place. What it gives is so much; a chance for reflection, for solitude, a chance to appreciate beauty and let the mind subside. You listen—really listen—and that means you’ve gotta stop thinking.

The intellect wants to cut in: “Oh, I hear the ‘A’ theme there, and this is a reference to that, and that’s a little out of tune.” Are you listening or are you busy thinking and critiquing?

I teach people how to listen by simply putting their attention on their breathing. Once you put your attention on the breath, the mind has to follow and all of a sudden you notice a lot more because your senses fully open up. That’s the time to look at the [canyon] walls and listen to the sound of the wind or perhaps the sound of Beethoven or Stravinsky.

I’ve seen the amazing power this music has in so many places. The Seattle Symphony has sent me to a dementia and Alzheimer’s facility—these people are in rough shape, but by the end of a Beethoven string quartet they’re so focused and cheerful. They’ve forgotten their troubles.

Last month we played at Monroe [Correctional Complex] and the prisoners loved it. One asked me if I’m ever afraid coming there and I said, “The first time I was, then I met you guys and realized that here is an audience that really knows how to listen.” They love doing the breathing. You can get a little bit of freedom from the constant flow of thoughts.

Is there any place you haven’t played yet that you’d like to play? Any setting or environment?

There are a lot of those. Every time I’m looking at National Geographic and I see their gorgeous pictures from wherever—could be an ice cave, an underground cavern. I’d love to play in Carlsbad Caverns.