Identical twins Brad and Doug Balliett have more in common than genes and their trademark round thick-rimmed eyeglasses. Take, for example, at the ripe old age of 30, a love of Aesop Rock, better rap skills than the average Juilliard grad, bachelor’s degrees from Harvard, and former contracts with professional orchestras in Texas. After separately deciding to put their orchestra careers on hold to pursue alternative music projects, the two moved to New York and currently live a few blocks apart in Washington Heights, spending their days composing, playing chamber music, and, as of December, hosting the WQXR Q2 radio show The Brothers Balliett.
Brad, a bassoon player who served for a year as second bassoonist of the Houston Symphony, has lately been composing chamber music for winds for the Declassified, a group he plays in that is made up of alumni of the Academy, the joint Juilliard-Carnegie Hall teaching-performing fellowship program (Brad finished it in 2010). Doug (M.M. ’12, historical performance), the ex-assistant principal bassist of the San Antonio Symphony, enjoys through-composed hip-hop and claims he only wants to write rap cantatas on Ovid texts for the rest of his life. (He was first inspired to do so during Philip Lasser’s composition for noncomposition majors class at Juilliard; he’s now working on three commissions.) The two are currently working on their first classical piece together, a passion based on the gnostic text “The Acts of John” for Cantori in New York. “We’ve worked in bands before and on our hip-hop stuff together but we’ve never tried to write a serious piece of classical music together. It’s weird,” Doug said in a recent joint interview the brothers had with The Journal. “We each write skeletons or drafts and then hand them off and let the other change things. Or we’ll leave big sections empty, like if I don’t feel like fleshing out a harp part, I’ll just hand it off.”
A healthy dose of sibling rivalry and jealousy has played a role in the twins’ careers since the beginning. Doug remembers that the first time he wanted to compose was when he saw his brother doing so when they were 9 years old. “It seemed like we were too young to start writing music, but like most things in my life, the competition with Brad played an important factor, so I wanted to start writing music, too,” he said. “It’s mostly that if one of us does something then that’s just evidence to the other person that it’s very possible and can’t be very hard to do,” Brad added with a laugh. The two agreed that having some consistent competition is a good push to stay on track and focused when working. Doug’s decision to leave his position with the San Antonio Symphony and move to New York was partially brought on by an interest in projects that Brad had gotten involved with after moving to New York. And while Brad admitted he was tempted to one-up his brother by auditioning for a show on Q2 by himself, he eventually realized that their twin banter might make for a more entertaining pitch to the radio station.
The Brothers Balliett plays like a casual listening session with what Doug describes as “9 a.m. drive-time yammering.” It’s embellished with world premieres of commissioned fanfares and fun series like The Grown Person’s Guide to the Orchestra. Recent track lists have included Beethoven’s 10th Symphony (completed from sketches by musicologist Barry Cooper) and a Haydn string quartet with accordion accompaniment. “We try to start arguments as much as possible. It doesn’t feel like work—it’s fun and it’s more or less what we do anyway when we’re listening to music,” Brad said.
Doug and Brad’s interest in hip-hop and pop music manifests itself in Oracle Hysterical, a group they started with composer Elliot Cole that performs original works like a hip-hop retelling of the Grimm fairy tale “The Fisherman and His Wife” and a what they describe as a popera-seria called The Consent of Lucretia. “Elliot describes it as much book club as band,” said Doug, who has self-diagnosed sopranophilia (meaning he loves writing for sopranos and wants to meet all of them). In addition to singers, the group uses actors, drummers, string quartets, and electronics to create wild performances, which they’ve done at the Lucerne Festival Academy, the MATA Festival in New York, and, in 2010, on a living room tour of Texas. Outside of performing, the twins have a shared love of teaching and outreach; Brad is a New York Philharmonic Teaching Artist and Doug was a Morse fellow at Juilliard and is now in the Academy.
Why are they both following similar yet not well-trodden paths? Partly coincidence and partly the fact that they’re brothers with similar interests, they said. And while there is no sister Balliett there is indeed a third, older brother Balliett—an entrepreneur, who according to Doug, taught him and his twin, “if you want to do something, just do it and don’t think about it.”