“Explosive virtuosity”, indeed.

The Boston Globe hit the nail on the head with their review of the JACK quartet.  This dynamic group has a unique mission with an educational emphasis— to promote new music, expand the string quartet repertoire, and broaden and diversify the potential audience for new music.  In my opinion, Mission: Accomplished.

The quartet began their concert with Georg Friedrich Haas’ String Quartet No. 5, performed with the members of the quartet stationed in the four corners of the hall.  After attempting to crane my neck to watch the performers, and unable to decide whom to focus on, I resigned myself to let go of my visual sense and focus on the aural effect of work.  The setup produced a “surround sound” effect.  The four parts are similar in register and feature frequent shimmering tremolo, pizzicato, harmonics, and chromatic figures as well as extended bowing techniques.  The similar registral placement make the listener crave the rare cello moments in the low register that add some depth and bass to the sound.  This is the type of music where the cracking of knuckles, the rustle of programs, and the sighs of the audience cease to be a distraction and become a welcome addition to the music.  While program notes may have been helpful for the audience to understand this music, I believe that the JACK achieved their desired effect— for the audience to let go of their preconceived notions and enjoy a unique, strictly aural experience.  The quartet’s exceptionally clear tone and flawless intonation were essential in executing this effectively.

not forgotten is a set of six movements built on solos.  The first and last movements are always Giverny and Now.  The middle movements, however, vary in order by performance.  As Reynolds writes in his program notes, “Why should music not be, as life is, not entirely predictable?”  I believe that this philosophy adds a Cage-like aesthetic to the work due to its sampling in indeterminacy.

Iannis, centered around the second violinist, was the first middle movement to be performed.  This movement, based on Xenakis’ Second String Quartet, is also influenced by the Aegean Sea and sounds reminiscent of the “glittering wave patterning of the waters that surround Greece.”  I particularly admired Ari Streisfeld’s great physicality in this movement, which made his extended techniques appear natural.  Ponticello and playing without full pressure into the string produced a Doppler-like or whale song effect, which reminded me of Hovhaness’ And God Created Great WhalesRyoanji is centered around the cellist.  It is almost devoid of pitch and utilizes 9 noise sources, including bowing the bridge, tailpiece, peg box, col legno, vertically rather than horizontally down the fingerboard, and percussively rapping against the instrument.  This movement is inspired by the raked sand of Zen gardens.  Toru features the viola’s sweet, mournful sound and is the first movement to utilize its C string.  Inspired by Takemitsu’s film scores, its lyricism is punctuated by “startling interruptions in the form of auditory wasabi.”  The final solo movement, Elliot, features the first violinist.  This movement emphasizes string crossings and is inspired by Elliot Carter’s “riotous” third string quartet.

John Cage’s Four emphasizes silence.  The very quiet dynamic range, long bows, and pauses create a sense of stasis.  The prevalence of the open D string creates a sense of tonal centricity around D.  Between movements the artists trade music across the quartet.  This music is an additive, rather than developmental, form.

Lachenmann’s third string quartet contrasted with Cage’s work by featuring extremely fast bow speeds and follow-throughs to project the variety of harmonics and false harmonics.  I particularly enjoyed the cello part in this movement.  This work also featured glissandi and mutes and produced an airy, static-y effect similar to white noise.  Vibrato speed was instrumental in building intensity.  This quartet demanded incredible bow control in all aspects, including distribution, speed, placement, and sounding point.  It also featured extended bowing techniques including bowing diagonally across the fingerboard, peg box, and tailpiece.  A purposefully slightly out of tune octave places Stravinsky-esque plucked chords place the audience in a state of discomfort and unease.

The quartet’s standing ovation for this performance was well deserved.  Even for those that are not familiar with or particularly fond of new music, it is clear that the JACK quartet’s technical and communicative skills are exceptional and that they have a great passion and dedication for their repertoire.  I sincerely believe they may have changed a few minds about new music along the way.

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One response to ““Explosive virtuosity”, indeed.

  1. caseyrafn

    I agree, I think they change a lot of people’s minds about “new” music, they’ve definitely changed my opinion. Random thoughts: I wonder how each of them sees music when they see it (I should’ve attended a Q&A session) — all that exposure to “irregular” rhythms (e.g. tuplets within tuplets, unique beamings) would have to affect a musician’s way of seeing, say, a Brahms score, I imagine. Also, looking at their repertoire page (http://www.jackquartet.com/rep.html) is fun and revealing/intriguing. I would really like to see a mission statement (if that’s not too cheesy) on there because I would like to know how they pick new works. Do they pick works that are less known? By composers who are less known? Do they even want, at all, to advocate lesser known things? They seem to shy away from the (more-)tonal composers who have had some success (except for the Glass quartet they have there). The two times I’ve seen them live now, I can just feel their dedication and intention and I wish I could bring that to all my music, new and old. So admirable.

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