The audience is "graying," and Balakrishnan says there's a need in the chamber music community for music with more contemporary appeal.
Turtle Island String Quartet, which will perform at 8 p.m. Saturday, Oct. 11, at Hagerstown Junior College's Kepler Theater, is filling that need.
A Windham Hill retrospective CD - called a "greatest hits" album by Balakrishnan - is an example of the rich variety of the quartet's music. Jazz, bluegrass, bebop, blues and traditional forms are represented.
The classically trained quartet plays original compositions and arrangements of music by Miles Davis, Dizzy Gillespie, bluesman Robert Johnson and a variation on "Winter" from Italian composer Vivaldi's "Four Seasons" in its own style.
Quartet members wanted a name that would express something of what they do.
Turtle Island is a Native American name for North America - the whole world for the original inhabitants of the continent. American music is a melting pot of music from all over the globe, Balakrishnan says.
"American music is really the music of the world."
Balakrishnan has academic degrees in composition and violin. He says he had fantasized about a string quartet that didn't exist - not until he teamed up with violinist Darol Anger and cellist Mark Summer in 1985. Together they formed Turtle Island String Quartet.
Balakrishnan says he found a kindred soul in Anger, who played acoustic music that "cooked." Anger's intuitive knowledge complemented Balakrishnan's composing training. Together, they developed a rich partnership, becoming "bookends for each other," Balakrishnan says.
Summer also was on a musical quest. When the three played together, they found what they were looking for.
Turtle Island String Quartet is blossoming, Balakrishnan says. Despite personnel changes - Anger recently left the group - the quartet thrives.
Balakrishnan took a break from 1993 until January of 1997. Touring four months a year is difficult, and Balakrishnan says he "ran out of juice."
Balakrishnan says he's back "with a full head of steam."
Performances include dates in the U.S., and in Germany three or four times a year. The group's been to the Far East, and plans a trip to Brazil in March.
"It's all a juggling act," Balakrishnan says.
Well-established in the musical community, Turtle Island auditioned players from as far away as Germany.
Danny Seidenberg, on viola and violin, joined the quartet in 1993. A Julliard graduate, Seidenberg has a vast range of performance credits - from American Ballet Theater and New York City Opera to James Brown and the Village People.
The newest and youngest quartet member is Evan Price, who grew up playing folk, blues and traditional jazz while studying classical violin. He has won several fiddling championships, and Balakrishnan describes him as a "monster bebop player" at ease with nontraditional forms of violin playing.
In the '70s, jazz violin was an unknown commodity, Balakrishnan explains. Price, 25, told quartet members he went to sleep listening to tapes of their music. He represents the next generation.
Things go in cycles, and Balakrishnan believes that you have to keep reinventing. The turnover is keeping Turtle Island String Quartet alive.