As the newest member of Quadre, French horn player Adam Unsworth may jazz things up a bit when it comes to the Mountain View-based horn ensemble's repertoire. Unsworth is also a composer who primarily writes jazz works — though it's a genre that typically doesn't offer much for French horn.
"I just happened to pick an instrument that's not a common jazz instrument. French horns are not included in jazz ensembles very often," he said.
Unsworth officially joined Quadre in February. The group's three other members, Amy Jo Rhine, Lydia Van Dreel and Daniel Wood, invited him to join them last summer, following the retirement of longtime member Nathan Pawelek.
Unsworth had a musical upbringing. His father was on the faculty of the Crane School of Music in upstate New York, where, as a child, he was able to attend concerts and began studying the horn with a professor at the college.
"I definitely had advantages in that way. And I loved playing the horn, from the first day I took it home from school in fourth grade," he said.
His family also helped instill a love of jazz. With his father playing jazz piano, and his older brother a jazz bassist, it was the music he grew up listening to.
From middle school through college, in addition to French horn, Unsworth played the electric bass, an instrument more at home in a jazz ensemble. In grad school at University of Wisconsin, Madison, he eventually sold his bass in order to have the money to start taking auditions.
"I started playing jazz on the horn in my Master's degree and then kept going," he said.
Unsworth is now a professor of horn at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, where he lives with his family.
With Quadre's members based in different parts of the country, in some ways, well before the pandemic the group was already doing a lot of work remotely. The group talks for a couple hours each month, making decisions about repertoire and planning for future seasons, and then comes together throughout the year for performances.
The model seems well-suited for the work-from-home world, with one significant exception -- virtual rehearsals aren't possible.
"There's what they call latency, where there's a delay. And so to actually play together is quite difficult," Unsworth said.
And due to the pandemic, in-person performances are extremely limited at the moment. Since accepting the invitation to join the ensemble last summer, Unsworth has had a chance to play with Quadre only once, last October.
"Because of COVID we weren't really able to perform. We played at a couple of food pantries outdoors, but otherwise we mostly rehearsed. It was a chance for us to play together and just get to know each other a bit," he said.
Quadre emphasizes social justice in its programming, with themes for each season that highlight key issues facing our society. For its 2020-21 season, "Homelessness: Hope, Humanity and Heart," Quadre is exploring the meaning of "home" in our community and has commissioned composers Nina Shekhar and Ben Shirley to create works on the theme.
Unsworth is writing a piece for Quadre's 2021-22 season, which will delve into environmental issues and climate change. In writing the piece, he said, he's trying to evoke a sense of clean air and clean water in the music.
With his compositions focusing on jazz, Unsworth said "composing for a horn quartet is something that will be different for me. (Jazz) is just a very different musical world where there's a lot of improvisation. The structure is a lot more sparse by design, because you want to leave room for the improvisation."
While he might leave a bit of space for improv in the piece, Unsworth said he's also looking at bringing in a jazz influence in other ways, possibly through a collaboration with a percussionist, noting that the group often collaborates with other musicians.
In discussing the ensemble's social justice mission, Unsworth pointed out that French horns, in the time long before phones, were used as "calling instruments" — a way to send signals across long distances, or more metaphorically, in this case, sending a call to action.
While the idea of signaling by horn may have a particularly quaint appeal in this era of Zoom, Quadre is using its instruments to send some calls that listeners will want to answer.
The ensemble is planning a series of in-person performances of its "What is Home?" program June 21-27, including a June 26 concert outdoors at the Mountain View Center for the Performing Arts.
The June 26 performance will feature work by multimedia artist Kristopher Grant; visual artist collective Allied Artists West; Monday Night Poets; and new works by composers Nina Shekhar, Ben Shirley and Michael Kaulkin.
Leading up to the group's June performances, Quadre will host two virtual conversations in April and May about the artistic process and collaborations behind the "What is home?" program.
For more information, go to quadre.org.