String trio Time for Three and choreographer and dancer Akram Khan have drawn from disparate cultures to create work of uncommon originality.
Time for Three is a genre-traversing string trio that blends classical music, bluegrass, jazz, and other musical styles.
The founding members of the band––Nick Kendall, Zachary DePue, and Ranaan Meyer––met while students at the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia and began performing for the public in 2003. They recorded two self-produced albums before releasing their record label debut 3 Fervent Travelers in 2010. Their eponymous fourth album (2014) featured guest performances by folk musicians Joshua Radin and Lily & Madeleine, jazz saxophonist Branford Marsalis, and others.
From 2009 to 2019, the trio performed as artists-in-residence with the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra. Founding member DePue left the group in 2015 to focus on his work as concertmaster of that orchestra. He was replaced by acclaimed improvisational violinist Charles Yang, a graduate of the Juilliard School. The group composed and recorded the music to the motion picture Land (2021) by director Robin Wright.
Akram Khan is a world-renowned dancer and choreographer, known for his work traversing Indian Kathak and contemporary dance styles.
Born in London, England, in 1974 into a Bangladeshi family, he started training in Kathak at age 7 and was cast in several major touring productions before the age of 15. He studied at De Montfort University and the Northern School of Contemporary Dance, then danced under famed choreographer Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker.
He founded Akram Khan Company in 2000 and presented his first full-length work, Kaash, in 2002. The company created a section of the opening ceremony for the 2012 Olympic Games in London, and continues to tour innovative, genre-blending productions across Europe and beyond. Khan is also an acclaimed choreographer of ballet, most notably his 2016 version of Giselle for the English National Ballet.
He was nominated for an Olivier Award in 2006 for Zero Degrees and won in 2012 for DESH. In 2005 he was appointed a Member of the Order of the British Empire, one of the UK’s highest honors.
Welcome to Articulate, the show that helps us explain who we are to ourselves and to others. And on this episode, “Crossing Cultures.” String trio Time for Three draws from classical, bluegrass, pop, and more to make music that defies classification.
Ranaan Meyer: There’s this old world that had handcuffs on so many different genres and artists. And then there’s this new world that is just inviting. And we’re like right there on the cusp, or like on the top of the mountain, you know. We can go either down the other way or go back home.
And dancer and choreographer Akram Khan has combined classical Indian and contemporary dance to create a new form of storytelling.
Akram Khan: We all know, have experienced, what it feels to feel grief or love or happiness. So those are universal elements that lie across all boundaries. And so I’m always in search of that.
That’s all ahead on Articulate.
By the time Ranaan Meyer was 11, he had already given up two musical instruments, the piano and the cello. Soon his mother, a concert pianist, had had enough.
Ranaan Meyer: My mom said, “Look, you spent the first decade of your life quitting. That’s not the way these next 10 years are gonna go. You’re gonna pick an instrument, you’re gonna play it. That’s the end of the story.”
It turned out to be just the start of his story. Meyer stuck with the bass and wanted music to become a core part of his life. But he knew there was an uphill journey ahead.
Meyer: When I fell in love with music, there were all these other bass players that had been playing and taking music very seriously from an early age so I had a lot of catching up to do, which meant I had to practice around the clock.
Meyer’s dedication got him into the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia, one of the world’s great conservatories. Once there, he began collaborating with two other students in what would become Time for Three. Self-described as a “classically-trained garage band,” the trio, with Meyer on bass and Nick Kendall and Charles Yang on violin, has played around the world, melding classical training with a wide spray of musical styles. Like Meyer, Nick Kendall also began playing music at the insistence of his parents and chose the violin. His early classical training made him want to understand all kinds of music.
Nick Kendall: My first non-classical sounds of a violin were on 88.5 WAMU. Every Sunday they had a bluegrass channel and I started hearing this music and I started hearing this violin sound so alive and fantastic and that really kind of captured an energy that I think was always within myself. And so I found high school buddies and we had, actually I had a street drumming, trash can street drumming band that would play on the weekends in Georgetown. All the way up until school I had folk bands, while I was at Curtis, actually the first summer that I moved here to Philadelphia, I actually street performed.
At Curtis, Kendall began seeking out other similarly inquisitive young musicians and connected with the jazz-obsessed Meyer.
Meyer: He found me and he said, you know, “Do you wanna jam?” And we had what I would call a very intuitive jam session. And I don’t know, because of the incredible chops that Nick brought to the table we were able to do some pretty magical things.
Eventually a third musician, violinist Zachary DePue, joined and the trio became Time for Tree. Their big break came in 2003. Meyer and DePue were performing as members of the Philadelphia Orchestra when the power failed. But instead of calling off the evening, the pair volunteered to entertain the waiting crowd.
Meyer: We played, you could hear a pin drop the entire time until they applauded. And after we did about a 20 minute set, they asked for an encore set so we came back out and we played the rest of our repertoire. We only had about 20 minutes left and that was it. That was the show.
A report about their impromptu performance made it into an international music magazine, and after that Time for Three was invited to perform at Carnegie Hall, the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, and on the TV show Dancing with the Stars. Time for Three became defined by a knack for genre-bending and improvisation. That flexibility also helped the group navigate its own changes. In 2016, DePue left the trio. Another violinist, Nikki Chooi, briefly joined the group, but soon after also left. Then came Charles Yang. Yang grew up in Austin, Texas, and began playing the violin almost as soon as he could hold one.
Charles Yang: My mom is also a violin player, fled the cultural revolution, came to the United States and joined the Austin Symphony. So I was born right after a show that she had, literally the next day and kind of forced to play the violin because my mom’s a violin player, gave me a violin at age three. I don’t remember a time that I didn’t play violin.
In high school, Yang started practicing guitar on his own and became the lead singer of a rock band. But these non-classical pursuits were the source of some tension at home.
Yang: They were loving parents. You know, they wanted me to succeed. And in Texas, at least it’s very hard, you don’t see an Asian blues musician, you don’t see many Asians, at least in my little town. You didn’t see many pop stars that were Asian or singers. What you did see were a lot of classical musicians. So it was a path for them to say, “Hey, listen, you can take this path. You can go to Juilliard and make a career out of doing this. Don’t take the risk.”
But Yang found a way to get the best of both worlds. He continued his classical studies at the Juilliard School in New York but he didn’t give up on his interest in other kinds of music. And when he joined Time for Three in 2016, he brought another element that expanded what the group was doing: singing. The change was evident from the first song the newly composed trio wrote together, “Joy”.
Yang: I’d just joined the band and we were just sitting at the piano, found this chord progression, transferred it over to the violin, bass, and then we just started literally yelling on top of this chord progression, which became the chorus. We decided to implement Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony in there, you know, “Ode to Joy.” Why not write a song about how Beethoven provided so much joy to the world but lived a tough life, no one really talks about that. And that became something that stuck.
Time for Three’s unconventional performance style has also inspired some of the greatest living musicians to write specifically for the group. In May 2021, the trio teamed up with the Philadelphia Orchestra to record two of these pieces. One, “Concerto 4-3” was created for the group in 2007 by the Pulitzer Prize and Grammy-winning composer, Jennifer Higdon.
Jennifer Higdon: First of all, this was an unusual thing. It’s a concerto for, three guys who want to do bluegrass but with an orchestra doing more traditional music.
Higdon had grown up listening to bluegrass music in Tennessee. Still, she was unsure she could write a piece that mixed bluegrass and classical styles.
Higdon: Which is what made me really stop and think, “All right, think about your past, think about what you know about bluegrass, what do you feel about it?” Which allowed me to go back and explore it and say, “All right, what properties does a classical piece have and what properties does a bluegrass piece have?” There’s got to be overlap, of course. And there’s more overlap than one would think. Bluegrass really thrives off the offbeat. We just don’t think about doing that that much. But you know, Beethoven, beats were an important thing, so I was surprised that it actually worked, like it worked out of the gate. I was shocked, let’s just put it that way. I wasn’t surprised. I was like, “Whoa, I can’t believe it worked.”
The other orchestra work made for Time for Three was “Contact” by Kevin Puts, another Pulitzer Prize-winning composer. From the get go, Puts wanted to really understand who he was writing for.
Yang: With Kevin, he came to many of our shows just to study us. It’s like, what is this band like? What kind of harmonies do they play all the time? What kind of techniques do they do? He really was hoping to push the edge there and really collaborate with us.
Kevin Puts: The wonderful thing about Time for Three is that they’re so intelligent. They can look at a full score and they say, “Oh, I see the woodwinds are playing here, and the violins are playing col legno you know, with their bow.” And we didn’t know what it was about. I started the piece, the one thing I had this idea for was that they might start the piece singing, which they do very well. So it begins with nothing else, just their voices. What would be inferred about our DNA? If some distant intelligence heard this, what would they think? What would it mean about us? Maybe that’s something that we care about, growth. We care about development, we care about not staying in the same place. I don’t know, I have no idea. But anyway, then we just started thinking, this is how we’ll frame this piece. It’s about contact, it’s about reaching out. And that’s how the title came about.
It’s hard to pin down exactly what Time for Three is. Their music isn’t defined by any specific style or sound. For them, it’s about breaking down any traditional ideas of genre, of who lives where, of taking us without prejudice to new and enlivening places and blazing a path for others to do the same.
Kendall: What’s so wonderful about this moment, being able to record “Concerto 4-3” with the Philadelphia Orchestra, is that it represents such a golden time in my life right at that cusp when I was finding myself as an artist after leaving Curtis into the big, vast world, not knowing if I wanted to be a soloist, or wanting to be in a chamber group, or how Time for Three would fit in. And then sort of taking time to figure all that out and then revisiting this piece with all of that time and experience in between under my belt, and then coming back to home in a lot of ways.
Yang: Every member in this band plays a unique role in this band. And you know, Ranaan from the jazz background, I come from this rock and roll blues background, and Nick has this sense of rhythm from when he used to play pots and pans out in Rittenhouse Square. You know, it works really well.
Meyer: There’s this old world that had handcuffs on so many different genres and artists. And then there’s this new world that is just inviting. And we’re like right there on the cusp or like on the top of the mountain. We can go either down the other way or go back home. And Nick and I at the birth of Time for Three were somehow in this very fortunate position where we had an opportunity to go down the mountain and explore all of the terrain.
After many years and iterations of who and what Time for Three looks and sounds like, the trio is energized for their next chapter. There’s no telling what that future holds, yet it’s probably a safe bet that, like their music, they’ll approach it with open minds, curiosity, and joy.
Akram Khan grew up with his hands full as a child who worked in his family’s curry house in Wimbledon, preparing food, serving tables, taking orders. He hated it.
Akram Khan: I had nightmares that I’m gonna end up working in the restaurant, taking over my dad’s business.
There wasn’t an easy way out. Akram’s family lived in an apartment above the restaurant, alongside their staff. His father wanted him to get serious about the family business, but Akram wasn’t interested. He wanted to dance and didn’t hide it. This made his father furious but his mother was more supportive.
Khan: I grew up with a father who used to whisper to this ear as a mantra every morning, not every morning but most mornings, that “You are a failure, you’ll achieve nothing.” And in the other ear, my mother would whisper, “You can achieve anything if you put your mind to it. And those who say you will fail are the ones that are afraid of your true ability.”
Akram’s family hoped that he would become more Bangladeshi but his heroes were Western: Michael Jackson, Muhammad Ali, Charlie Chaplin. Age seven, to bring him closer to Bangladeshi culture, Akram’s mother sent him for lessons in Kathak, the classical dance form of Northern India. Young Akram excelled, and by the time he was 13, he was traveling the world as a performer in Peter Brooks’ Royal Shakespeare Company adaptation of the epic Hindu myth Mahabharata.
Khan: I was a little bit nervous, but I had nothing to lose. I wasn’t a trained actor. So I wasn’t acting, I was just being present. So I didn’t have the skills and knowledge of that, but I knew how to…I was very comfortable on stage, because of dance. It was quite a life changing experience, I have to say.
After high school Khan left the family business. And by turning his back on the restaurant, he says that he rejected his father and his culture. He went to study contemporary dance at De Montfort University in Leicester in 1994 and began to blend his Kathak training with Western dance. He soon gained acclaim for his fusion of styles, and in 2000 started the Akram Khan Company. Finally Khan was in a world of his own making and with it came time that was under his control.
Khan: We’re living in a time where two approaches to time are clashing. One is the Western time, the Christianized time, the manmade time, the industrial time, the clock time. And then you have the other approach to time, which is Eastern time, spiritual time, life and death time, sacred time, ritualistic time. So in a sense, what dance allowed me to be aware of and conscious of is the importance of the spiritual time, the slowing down of time.
And along with that time came space to reflect on the culture he had left behind. In the company’s early years, Khan performed new versions of tales he had been told as a child, such as Hindu creation stories in 2002’s Kaash. By 2011, the work became more personal. Khan created DESH, an homage to his father’s past in Bangladesh and their shared search for belonging in England. Far from becoming the failure his father had predicted, Akram Khan has become a pillar of contemporary dance, well known beyond his field. He performed at the 2012 London Olympics opening ceremony and began choreographing for English National Ballet in 2014.
Khan: It was really interesting to experience creating work on a Western classical ballet form. The difference between classical and modern or contemporary is, in classical you’re given the rules, the boundaries. Those boundaries, the moment you step outside it, that’s wrong. And that applies to Indian classical or Western classical. The other thing is repetition to achieve a sense of perfection. You practice, you practice, you practice. You don’t achieve perfection. But the aim is to achieve perfection. The intention is to achieve perfection, that’s important. In contemporary there are boundaries, but you make those boundaries.
AJC: Right, they’re self-imposed.
Khan: They’re self-imposed. The other thing is the aim is not to achieve perfection, the aim is to reveal imperfection, the human. Classical is leading towards the God, contemporary for me is revealing the human.
And Khan has been well rewarded for sharing his humanity on stage with eight Critics’ Circle awards and a prestigious Laurence Olivier Award for outstanding achievement in dance. But he doesn’t see his success as a way to prove his family wrong or to please them.
Khan: I make the work for me, I’m the audience. 1,500 versions of me are watching the show if there’s 1,500 seats. When I approach any work, I don’t make it for a particular culture. What’s important for me is does it move me emotionally? If it moves me emotionally, then I feel it will move everyone because we all know, have experienced what it feels to feel grief, or love or happiness. So those are universal elements that lie across all boundaries and so I’m always in search of that.
By uniting the two cultures he was once expected to choose between, Akram Khan has created a unique language to tell his own stories through movement. And as he began to bring this to the stage, his relationship with his father changed.
Khan: When I started doing well, I think something switched in him. He’s very proud of me. I mean, to the point where he would call my office and said, “I need a few tickets for my friends, complimentary tickets.” And so we’re doing the dress run, and in the middle of the dress run I’m looking around and going, “This is very familiar. I feel very familiar.” And then I realized it was 200 people, who were all from our street so he had invited the whole community. So he’s proud and he shows it in different ways, I would say.
And while Khan’s mother has always been supportive of him, she has struggled with some of his dancing. While it’s still shaped by Kathak, it’s a far cry from the dances he performed as a little boy. But as Akram Khan has pushed traditional boundaries on stage and in his life, his parents have grown with him. And over the years, he’s grown to appreciate the stories they shared with him as a child.
Khan: You know, my parents came to London in the early ’70s and they’d just lived through a war, a civil war. They weren’t running away, but in a way they did want to start afresh in peace. I think the first thing that tends to happen generally with immigrant families is they bring this photograph of them in their head of the last image that they have of Bangladesh. And in that photo is their value systems, and they move to London and the first thing they do is they start downloading that photo to the next generation. We may not be conscious of it but it’s living through us. I became the conduit, if you like. They didn’t want the children to forget what they had lived through.
And try as he might in his youth, Khan hasn’t forgotten what his parents passed down and has honored them through dance, but it’s taken its toll on his body. Now age 47, old for a working dancer, Khan will soon retire from full length performances. In 2021, he gave his final solo performance in the United States at the Kennedy Center. In 2022 he will complete his final world tour as a dancer in Xenos, the story of a colonial first World War Indian soldier.
Akram Khan’s next chapter will see him fully dedicating his time to choreography and to parenting his two children, eight year old Sayuri and six year old Kenzo, and keeping alive in them an awareness of their family heritage.
Khan: I don’t have any expectations of do I want them to become this way or that way? I want them to follow their hearts, of course, but at the same time, I also want them to know the journey that, why they have arrived.
The spirit of Akram Khan’s youthful rebellion and cross-cultural upbringing is ever-present in him. And he understands that his stories, like those of his parents and grandparents, will help shape his own children’s lives, knowing that before long, they too will discover their place in the world.