This is a recording of the JACK Quartet live at Wigmore Hall in London on July 30, 2011. It's a spectacular performance and a brilliant program of modern string quartets! This young American quartet is a great addition to the contemporary music scene, continuing the modernist avant-garde tradition in the face of the prevailing retreat into less challenging sonic fare.
JACK comes from the musicians' first names -- John Pickford Richards on viola, Ari Streisfeld on violin, Christopher Otto on violin, and Kevin McFarland on cello. They met at the Eastman School of Music in Rochester, New York, and are now based in NYC. According to Streisfeld, "[w]e studied the repertoires of both [Arditti and Kronos] quartets and found very little overlap. We play stuff from both sides and try to show the whole spectrum of modern music" (NYT 9/2/10). "Both sides" refers to the post-serialist European avant-garde and the post-minimalist American avant-garde. This Wigmore Hall program leans toward the European side, with John Cage representing the American side.
The program is:
"String Quartet No. 2" (1968 -- 20'38)
"Study IV for Treatise on the Veil" (2009 -- 17'09)
"String Quartet in Four Parts" (1950 -- 18'12)
"Tetras" (1983 -- 16'18)
The Ligeti and Xenakis quartets are two of the great modern classics, two of the most powerful quartets of the post-serialist European avant-garde. Pintscher's quartet is a striking contrast, a very detailed piece demanding great concentration as it is played at very low volume. Cage's light and charming quartet also stands in great contrast to the European bookends, one of his last compositions before turning to chance procedures.
Ligeti's great quartet is a major statement of micropolyphony, the novel approach he pursued throughout the 1960s. According to the composer from the liner notes to the Sony recording of the Arditti Quartet, "[e]ach of its five movements is a different realization of the same basic idea, namely, the generation of different types of movement resulting from bundles of polyrhythmic voices. There is no longer any motivic writing in this music, no contours, only sound textures, which are sometimes frayed and almost fluid (as in the first and last movements) and at other times grainy and machine-like (s in the middle pizzicato movement)." This new recording does not surpass the Arditti Quartet, which remains the standard by which others are measured, but it is a fine, energetic reading.
Matthias Pintscher is a leading German composer now based in NYC. He is on the board of the JACK Quartet organization. His "Treatise on the Veil" series is inspired by the series of Cy Twombly drawings and paintings of the same name. It utilizes retuned and prepared strings. According to the liner notes by John Fallas, "[p]erspective is evoked by whispering scurryings set against magically sustained harmonic tones, the constant hyper-detailing of very quiet, mobile sounds given extra depth by the 'extended' playing techniques..."
Cage's well-known quartet depicts the seasons, beginning with Summer (Quietly Flowing Along), then Fall (Slowly Rocking), Winter (Nearly Stationary), and finally the lively dance-step of Spring (Quodlibet). Cage's idiosyncratic language is deceptively simple, sounding like folk-inflected early music, and has absolutely nothing to do with the other three pieces. He was influenced by Indian and Zen ideas at the time, and pursued the goal of "quieting the mind so it opens to the divine."
"Tetras" is one of Xenakis's absolute masterpieces. Dedicated to the Arditti Quartet, it is one of the composer's most effective chamber works, bringing to the quartet the level of complexity, energy, and audacity that marked so many of his works for large forces. As James Harley says, "In 'Tetras,' Xenakis's abstract thinking had evolved into a nonlinear, multi-dimensional web of formal and sonic relationships." The title is Greek for "four." According to the Montaigne liner notes for the Arditti Quartet recording by Harry Halbreich, the piece is divided into nine sections, and throughout the four players mainly play as a sound mass rather than polyphonally: 1) glissandi, 2) percussive & pizzicati effects, 3) glissandi, 4) pointillistic sounds, 5) sustained chords to runs to glissandi, 6) harsh double-stops, 7) a violin & viola duo, 8) a metrically complex tutti, and finally 9) strong tremolos subsiding into pianissimo glissandi. This is far more schematic than the piece actually sounds -- it sounds exhilarating, phenomenal, and totally amazing!
This is the JACK Quartet's second recording of "Tetras" following their Xenakis: Complete String Quartets disc for Mode (see my review). This live recording shaves a minute off the time, and both are superb performances.
The JACK Quartet has recorded Helmut Lachenmann's three string quartets, a good sign that they are committed to the modernist vision.
This live recording is a great showcase for modern string quartets, and I look forward to much more from this young group, whose sonic adventures have just begun!