I arrived at last Sunday evening’s concert following a three-day fever-induced stint in bed, but boy, did I wake up! The Jack quartet is well known as an up-and-coming ensemble devoted to contemporary music, and it is a reputation they deserve. John Pickford Richards, Ari Streisfeld, Christopher Otto, and Kevin McFarland are all accomplished composer-performers independently, and got together to spell JACK just a few years ago. They have quickly established themselves as heavyweights in the new music scene with residencies at major Universities and summer festivals such as Lucerne and New Music on the Point. You can follow their work and travels on Twitter (I can personally recommend it!) at: http://twitter.com/jackquartet
Sunday’s concert at Riverside Recital Hall concluded their week-long residency at the University of Iowa. Throughout the week they collaborated with the UI dance department, composer Payton MacDonald and choreographer Trisha Brown to present a stirring program at Space Place Theater. They also read the works of graduate student composers in the School of Music, giving students a useful forum to hear their own new compositions and the work of their colleagues. At the end of the week was a program all their own consisting of Ives’ Second String Quartet, Jason Eckardt’s “Subject”, and Horatiu Radulescu’s Fifth String Quartet,”before the universe was born”.
The Second Ives’ quartet is a personal favorite of mine. Although I’ve heard recordings, this was my first opportunity to experience the music live. It is a thorny, complex work, aptly described in JACK’s program notes as, “typical Ives rage against what he perceived as the effeminacy of standard string quartet performances.” The three movements are subtitled “Discussions”, “Arguments” and “The Call of the Mountains”, and Ives’ notes in the score that the piece is, “for 4 men–who converse, discuss, argue … then walk up the mountain side to view the firmament!” It is precisely that argument that first possessed me with this quartet. It is guttural and physical in its relationship between layers of quotation, conflict and resolution. The JACK quartet played the work with expertise and confidence. I got the feeling they knew it very well and had a profound intellectual understanding of the music. They work almost effortlessly, an incredible quality of their music-making, but I wonder if seeing them sweat a little would have made the performance more effective.
Eckardt’s “Subject” is a new work commissioned just this year by the Quartet. It is an interesting study in sensory perception and the effect of alternating sound deprivation and overload on the audience. In contrast to the Ives, there was almost no traditionally-informed tonal narrative on which to hang one’s hat. In this piece sound is explored as a weapon. For me, the experience bypassed cerebral activities entirely and hit me with instantaneous reflex. The players were cool and collected throughout, like an impersonal narrator.
In the Radulescu I discovered a composer who’s works I’d like to spend more time with. The piece calls for all four players in scordatura (the tuning of strings to pitches different from the standard stacked fifths) and it is based on spectral transformations of the cellist’s lowest string. The work abounds with extended techniques that expand the timbral palate of the string quartet medium. At no point in it’s 30+ uninterrupted minutes of music did I hear a sound that, if blind-folded, I would have recognized as a string quartet! It was a beautiful journey in sonic environment I’m not likely to forget.
This is not the first year the JACK Quartet has been in residence at the University of Iowa, and I sincerely hope it will not be the last! Their virtuosity is impressive and they perform fresh, engaging works begging relevant questions about the history and future of the string quartet as an expressive medium. You can learn more about the ensemble and hear clips of their work at: www.jackquartet.com