To listen to the pieces the JACK Quartet played Friday night at Studio 2 at EMPAC required more than a little curiosity from the dedicated bunch of listeners.
Except for a few tones here and there, almost all the sounds the quartet created were string effects. Even for avant garde music, which is the genre these composers would probably fit into, that’s stretching a point.
But violinists Christopher Otto and Ari Streisfeld, violist John Pickford Richards and cellist Kevin McFarland couldn’t have cared less. Their commitment to these sounds, to finding new techniques to render even more effects and to finding a way through the works — one of them was 30 minutes long — was as focused and respectful as any quartet rehearsing a Beethoven quartet.
What’s puzzling is how these composers hear what they put on the page. It’s one thing to hear rhythm or even unison, but how do they hear harmonics, bowing on the wrong side of the bridge, brushing the bow’s hairs along the strings or retuning the strings to produce microtonal or quarter tones?
The JACK began with Earle Brown’s String Quartet (1965), a sequence of 18 sections of self-contained units written more or less in conventional musical notation with more or less precise pitches. Starting from a barely-there dynamic level, the volume grew with scratchy tones interspersed with a pure tone.
There was some sense of flow but no climax. It was more like doors opening and shutting quickly. Some passages were virtuosic with their mix of harmonics, real tones and inconsistent rhythms.
Peter Ablinger’s “Wachstum und Massenmore” (2010) was interesting in that the “performance” was more a rehearsal of several snippets until they reach performance level, then it ends. Along the way, the audience, which becomes part of the piece, gets to hear how “music” like this is put together and how the players hear it.
Ablinger was looking for spontaneity and requests that the musicians do not rehearse the piece beforehand. A program note that this was the reality would have helped, otherwise it seemed like an indulgence.
To date, the JACK has performed it as requested five times. This was the first time they made it to the work’s second page — it’s that hard.
Alex Mincek’s Quartet No. 3 “lift-tilt-filter-split” (2010) had more harsh squawks, harmonic glissandos and sounds like wind in the eaves, but there was a direction to the work, and its rhythms were effective. It was the best written of all the works performed.
The final piece, Horatiu Radulescu’s Quartet No. 5 “before the universe was born” (1995) was 30 minutes of continuous sound filled with harmonics in a muted cacophony, although the low cello and low viola drone throbbed in a mysterious way that made them sound like pulsars.
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