Unbound: Jasper String Quartet Features Post-Minimal Composers

In the past decade, Jasper String Quartet have made a name for themselves as masterful interpreters of repertoire both new and old. While their previous discography has focused primarily on the work of American composer Aaron Jay Kernis, their fourth album, Unbound (the first New Amsterdam Records/Sono Luminus co-release), features premiere recordings from seven of today’s most celebrated post-minimal composers. Jasper String Quartet demonstrates expertise and sincere love of the genre in both their curation and performance of this album.

Caroline Shaw’s Valencia sets the tone for the album immediately and definitively. Shaw combines and rearranges judiciously-selected sonic spaces in a simple, yet captivating development, successfully imitating the bright citrus and satisfying sweetness of a Valencia orange. Her mastery of timbral development is on full display, inspiring joy and intrigue in equal parts.

In contrast to the spritely pizzicato at the end of Valencia, the opening chords in Missy Mazzoli’s Death Valley Junction are sublimely haunting. Depicting the emptiness of the desert landscape near the town of the same name, Death Valley Junction evolves into an edgy-yet-uplifting dance before returning to sparser textures. Mazzoli’s knack for melody shines in this piece, and though there are a few unfortunate moments where the melody is buried under the texture, Jasper String Quartet performs this work with exceptional emotional vulnerability, speaking convincingly through their instruments as if these melodies had text.

Missy Mazzoli - Photo Stephen Taylor

Missy Mazzoli – Photo by Stephen Taylor

The Blue Horse Walks on the Horizon by Annie Gosfield occupies a space between relaxing and fiery, providing the most substantial listening experience of the album. Based on the coded broadcasts between the British and French Resistance during World War II, this quasi-improvisatory quartet is fascinatingly unpredictable. The listener is never quite sure where this surreal piece is going, but never upset with the path it takes. Gosfield artfully combines a relentlessly recurring theme (the message) with disparate surrounding textures (its coding), maintaining the listener’s drive to “crack the code” and enjoy the process throughout. As the sole piece on the album written originally for Jasper String Quartet, The Blue Horse Walks on the Horizon simultaneously showcases the individual personalities of the quartet and their superb connection as an ensemble, and their attention to detail and the bigger picture come to the fore in the recording. Where a lesser ensemble may peak too early in a piece so complex and expansive, Jasper String Quartet’s hard work and tact have earned them a captivating recording from start to finish.

Jasper String Quartet sounds to be on the same page as each of the composers on the album, but their performance of Judd Greenstein‘s Four on the Floor deserves special commendation, for they sound to be on the same line, word, and syllable as the composer. Greenstein’s rhythmic organization is virtuosic, exciting, and ironically irregular for the title, yet tactful and subtle throughout. Together, he and Jasper String Quartet deliver an adrenaline-filled joy ride.

Jasper String Quartet--Photo by Dario Acosta

Jasper String Quartet–Photo by Dario Acosta

After two highly directional pieces, David Lang’s almost all the time acts as a palate cleanser, but it should not be mistaken for an inactive listening experience. Within the context of the album, almost all the time gives the listener time to process the sonically expansive first half, and as a piece in isolation, invites the listener to explore their innermost self. Lang delivers a sublime exploration of time and sound, and the quartet performs it with an intoxicating meditativeness.

Following almost all the time, Donnacha Dennehy’s Pushpulling is exceptionally sobering and visceral. A foundation of thin, oscillating harmonies leaves the listener feeling almost dizzy, making the expansive melodies and harsh interruptions especially powerful. Jasper String Quartet rightfully interprets this piece with minimal respite, making the eventual arrivals truly cathartic. While some moments feel too dynamically linear, their overall performance successfully conveys Dennehy’s pushing and pulling to great effect.

Donnacha Dennehy--Photo by Britt Olsen-Ecker

Donnacha Dennehy–Photo by Britt Olsen-Ecker

Perhaps the most fascinating moment in the album comes at the end of Pushpulling into the first excerpt from Ted Hearne’s “Excerpts from the middle of something” (from Law of Mosaics). Dennehy’s unassuming ending in Pushpulling emphasizes the intended lack of context of Hearne’s excerpts. The organization of the album helps thrust the listener firmly into “the middle of something,” and Jasper String Quartet stays true to this context by maintaining commendable dynamic subtlety without creating a beginning or an end in any of the excerpts. Ted Hearne delivers with convincing execution of a highly conceptual piece, and his middles make for a fascinating ending.

From top to bottom, Unbound is a fantastic album, and an excellent choice for any listener looking to explore 21st-century post-minimalism. The experience of this album is ceaselessly captivating and continues hours after the last track ends. Jasper String Quartet has proven that they deserve to be at the forefront of the new classical music conversation.