JACK Quartet Premieres Three New Works at Merkin Hall

JACK Quartet left the audience awestruck by the complexity, layers, and ideas of truly innovative music at their April 21, 2022 performance at Merkin Hall. Presented by Kaufman Music Center and Montclair State University’s John J. Cali School of Music, the concert featured three world premieres by composers Patricia Alessandrini, Khyam Allami, and George Lewis. The thinly padded stiff seats and cold cement floors separated the audience from the warmth of the lighting onstage. Aside from the quartet — violinists Christopher Otto and Austin Wulliman, violist John Pickford Richards, and cellist Jay Campbell — the stage was bare, and the stark emptiness carved a silhouette for the bubbling intensity that would fill it.

Patricia Alessandrini’s quasi-anthology piece A Complete History of Music (Volume 1) set up the transformation happening in the hall. It opened an Alice in Wonderland-esque concert, each work being an experience evoking visceral distortions. Alessandrini placed the quartet in the middle of electronics both musically and spatially, the quartet becoming part of the electronics in how they played their instruments to pull surprising sounds out of them. It wasn’t immediately clear where these sounds came from — they weren’t manipulated on stage for the eyes to “see,” but rather manipulated by how the ears could hear them, interacting with the musicians as they played in real-time.

The relationship between live performers and interactive electronics was on full display in the fourth movement, “Appendix 2,” which carries an absence of time the way an appendix of a timeline book stands still. As the quartet lightly drew their bows over the strings to create whispery, ghostlike tones, sounds of industrial suspensions emerged: a train easing into a station with faint screeches as it comes to a stop; the slight creaks of a ship swaying on water. Throughout, the strings and electronics created sounds like those heard in the “industrial” opening of a concert where musicians tune, empty their valves blowing air through the instrument, and click their keys against wood and metal. Throughout, JACK Quartet seamlessly showed a sonic understanding of the piece’s inner-workings.

Khyam Allami--Photo by Johanne Issa

Khyam Allami–Photo by Johanne Issa

Ma-a a-ba ud me-na-gin M-a di-di-in by Iraqi-British composer Khyam Allami was commissioned by JACK Studio, which provides opportunities for composers to premiere new work, receive feedback and mentoring, then record and get assistance with releasing their work. Through an exploration of Arabic music, Allami challenges the understanding of equal temperament tuning being the prism we must look through by composing in the tuning systems of Eastern musical practices and cultures for Western classical string instruments.

Ma-a a-ba ud me-na-gin Ma-s di-di-in lilts and tilts with slow, stacked intervals between steady silences rather than silences between intervals. These intervals aren’t dissonant in the technical use of the word in Western classical music; they are neither diminished nor semitone clusters. They are microtonal, or more closely layered than the equally-spaced semitones of a Western octave. As JACK Quartet stayed in tandem, the meshing of these micro-related pitches managed to slither so slowly they seemed to be falling off the stage, like oil slicking down from each instrument. Longing, even yearning, lonely, contemplative, meditative — each sensation grabbed another part of the body, both internally and externally.

JACK Quartet--Photo by Joan Jastrebski

JACK Quartet–Photo by Joan Jastrebski

The closing pace of Allami’s piece created the space for String Quartet 4.5 by George Lewis. Lewis’ opening and sustained frenzy jerked the audience into another dimension with fast moving pizzicato on violins and viola mingled with solo features on the cello. The sounds coming from the quartet were only slightly discernible through observing them. The visual trick being played on the audience was like the whistling of wind, heard yet not verified as coming from any direction, creature, or instrument. Tiny staccatos pecked from the instruments, continual legato notes exchanged in different rhythms, and light harmonics on violins and viola accompanied the cello playing slides up and down the fingerboard that resembled what television shows often use to depict UFOs. Lewis gave JACK Quartet an endless variety of experimental techniques to move through, but the brilliance of this work is that even when the sounds of each instrument were light years apart from each other, the quartet still managed to hold hands throughout.

JACK Quartet illuminates music that so much of the Western music canon doesn’t know. In its neglect of contemporary, somewhat “classical” music, these categorizations only attempt to define what has no musicological vocabulary. Everything new is assigned to the broad “21st century music” and “contemporary” labels because it is foreign to Western classical music; challenging due to sanitized techniques in Western music; obtrusive because it doesn’t follow an established music theory. Composers, musicologists, researchers, and instrumentalists will all benefit from the work and mission of JACK Quartet and JACK Studio as they prove the necessity of their presence and help create new vocabularies.


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