“If you don’t know JACK, it might be time for an introduction.” So said the promotional blurb – and listed several of their achievements, including “at least a dozen major-media Best of 2009 lists”. The JACK quartet consists of Violinists Christopher Otto and Ari Streisfeld, violist John Pickford Richards, and cellist Kevin McFarland. My comment, after hearing them: if you don’t know JACK, then it's time you did.
JACK quartet; an image from their website.
Actually I hadn’t heard of them either until a friend of mine had a couple of free tickets. (Thanx, Tom!) He said that Ligeti and Xenakis were on the program, and that alone would have made it worth hearing. So I went.
The hall was packed (sold out, of very nearly so). An announcer from KING-FM introduced the quartet, taking a moment to inform anyone in the audience who didn’t know that his radio station had just converted to a listener-supported station. (To me this is hopeful – there might be more of JACK’s type of music on there now, along with several other seldom-heard styles – I’ll keep my fingers crossed.)
The quartet walked on stage, dressed formally as if to play Beethoven or Mozart, though with a decidedly informal demeanor. ‘Cellist Kevin McFarland introduced the first piece, which he had composed for his sister’s wedding. “My sister gave the additional restriction that the piece must be tonal (she knew me too well),” was a comment on the program notes that he repeated. (I’ll admit that an atonal piece would probably not have set the right mood for a wedding.) Then they played it; a relatively short piece (8 minutes or thereabouts) that sounded like “minimalist Beethoven” (as I said to another audience member later). Loops in different meters built up in complexity, then resolved into slightly tense classical progressions straight out of the Beethoven quartets. Quite an effective opener, both an homage to the classical roots of the string quartet genre and a statement that experiments are welcome.
They followed with one of the masterworks of the avant-garde quartet, the Ligeti Quartet no. 2. I’ve heard this piece before, on the old recording by the Arditti Quartet. That recording emphasized the shocking techniques and sudden shifts in timbre that pepper the music. JACK’s performance was different – the wild grittiness was still there, but they emphasized the atmospheric slow sections, the singing (non)-dissonances where nothing much happens and the music is content to settle into half-heard quietude before more action starts. The whole piece, of course, is a study in these contrasts: now wild and raw and explosive; now contemplative – but in this presentation the contemplative won out. I found myself thinking of the Shostakovich 15th quartet – a very different kind of piece, but with the same spacey, brooding near-silences. It was a beautiful performance.
After the intermission, JACK was joined by Joshua Roman, TownMusic Artistic Director and former principal ‘cellist with the Seattle Symphony. He gave a short talk on the differences between equal temperament and just intonation (which he defined as “playing exactly in tune”) and had the quartet give some examples. The five of them then played Joshua’s arrangement of three madrigals (c. 1610) by Gesualdo. These had the very sweet sound characteristic of much Renaissance music. I had always thought this sound was due to the difference in the construction of the instruments – but here, these modern instruments gave off the same perfumed notes. It turns out that it’s partially because of the tuning, though I haven’t heard comparable sounds in contemporary “just intonation” pieces such as those by Harrison or Partch. Whatever; the chromaticism of the music was also certainly interesting (adding an intellectual component to the prettiness), as was the tone-painting: Joshua had commented before playing that he’d arranged to have the instruments play with various techniques to imitate the voices’ drama. He’d also read a translation of the texts, so the audience knew roughly what sounds were to imitate what. There were examples of angst being played by scratchy sounds near the bridges of the instruments, and bittersweet lovesick sighs played on open strings – but the most striking bit of tone-painting was that of a mosquito, imitated almost painfully. These kinds of effects, of course, are attention-getters but become tiring quickly. In this case, though, there was enough interest in the music itself to keep them from becoming banal.
Chris Otto (violin), composed the next piece, Algol. This is the Arabic name of a supossedly baleful star in the constellation Perseus (also called the “demon star” – the name can obviously be picked apart to mean “al-gol – the ghoul”). However, astrological malevolence had nothing whatsoever to do with this music. This was a fifteen-minute drone-minimalist meditation. Comparison with the very similar but much more dramatic drone-minimalist piece (presented at the New Music Marathon two days earlier) shows the contrasts possible in this supposedly homogenous genre. Algol was a genuinely beautiful piece, an electronic drone that slowly faded into existence and then sprouted delicate webs of harmonics from the string quartet. These harmonics came in waves (appearing out of two different sets of just-intonation intervals based on two slightly different versions of the drone); each wave was different and presented its own sound-world before cresting and collapsing back into the pseudo-silence of the drone. Fantastic music.
The final piece was Xenakis’ “Tetras”. The title means “Four”, and it explores the possibility of sounds created by the four instruments of the string quartet. Mathematically based, but raw and primitive in effect, this is the antithesis of both the “classical” quartet and drone music such as Algol. The instruments rattle and squeak, whine and whistle, scrape and scratch and bellow, and occasionally lapse into melodic material – most of it at full volume. Crunchy scuffing noises (made by bowing parts of the body of the instrument) are passed from violin to viola to ‘cello as if they were "voices" in a classical fugue. Whistling glissandi materialize and then disintegrate into spasms of sawing-scrubbing sounds. What’s amazing is that all of this somehow still sounds like music, and still sounds organized. What’s even more amazing was a feat of musical technique I’ve never seen the likes of before: less than half-way through the tortuous piece, ‘cellist McFarland broke a string. It gave a loud “snap” and could be seen coiled around the decorative scroll atop his instrument. There was no time to fix it – when he got a chance he merely removed it – but the music didn’t sound any different. I’ve heard the piece on a recording, and I missed nothing in this performance! He was able to shift the whole clatter of notes over to the three remaining strings and play as if nothing had happened (one violinist gave a knowing smile a little later when it was obvious to him at least that one set of notes had been transposed down an octave, but this had no effect on the music). Bravo! Skill counts even when playing so heartily; but this was skill so advanced that it didn’t sound like skill – the music simply went on as if nothing had happened…
So that was that. A good program, and a good concert. If they play again in Seattle, I’d like to hear them (if nothing else to see if they can play “Tetras” with all sixteen of their strings). And, it turns out now that I do know JACK, at least a little.
Oh, where did their name JACK come from? Look closely at their names…
(This posting is on 5/4/2011; 16 days until the first performance of the complete "StormSound" Cycle.)
NOTE: A comment on this blog has noted a mistake. Ari Streisfeld arranged the Gesualdo madrigals, not Joshua Roman (as I wrote above). Oops! My mistake! The comment goes on to say that it isn't really a big deal -- but to me it is a big deal. I apolgize.