Jordan Bak Creates Immersive, Multi-Dimensional Soundscapes on “Impulse”

One of my favorite pieces written for viola and piano is A String Around Autumn by Tōru Takemitsu. It’s…openly present in every moment…with harmonics like glowing embers in a fireplace and pianistic raindrops through the window; it exists patiently, delicately.”

This quote from violist Jordan Bak encapsulates his approach to music-making. His interpretations are three-dimensional, conjuring color, texture, and atmosphere. A self-described “new music advocate,” Bak packs his programs with works that show the breadth of the viola repertoire and new music. Bak’s recent achievements and accolades – 2021 YCAT Robey Artist; 2020 Sphinx Competition top laureate; 2019 John White Special Prize in the Tertis International Viola Competition; an Artist Diploma from The Juilliard School – reflect a musician secure in his artistry yet always challenging himself. And Bak’s debut album Impulse, out May 13, 2022 on Bright Shiny Things, centers his relish in evocative musical ideas, technical challenges, and immersive listening.

Excluding one work by Rebecca Clarke, each composition on Impulse was written in the last four decades. All but two written for solo viola, pianist Ji Yung Lee joins Bak on Clarke’s Untitled and Toshio Hosokawa’s arrangement of Takemitsu’s A String Around Autumn. On the surface, many of the pieces seem too similar in character, but after deeper probing and multiple listens, they illustrate what Bak wants to achieve with this album: to showcase the viola’s sonic capabilities, where sound and silence are equally essential.

Bak’s curation of Impulse centers the here and now, a characteristic that has grown to define a lot of contemporary music. And though no two composers are featured twice on this album, Impulse is best experienced as a whole, because while the pieces themselves may be unconcerned with a linear narrative, that doesn’t mean a story isn’t being told.

Jordan Bak--Photo by Dario Acosta

Jordan Bak–Photo by Dario Acosta

Untitled by Rebecca Clarke was likely composed during the British violist–composer’s 1918 US tour. Bak and Lee make full use of the piece’s lack of a descriptive title: bringing out light and dark, glimpses of brilliance and subtle shadows through timbre and texture. Leilehua Lanzilotti’s ko’u inoa (2017) emerges from the silence of Untitled. The piece is built on the “Hawai’i Aloha” anthem and bariolage, the alternation between open and stopped strings. The result is a deep, echoing resonance that collapses as it also extends time, made even more significant with Bak’s vocals that enter the texture in the piece’s final section.

Tyson Gholston DavisTableau XII (2021) is energetic, skewed, and prickly. Short episodes ranging from grittily virtuosic to lyrically atmospheric sit between silences of varying lengths. Meanwhile, Joan Tower’s Wild Purple (1998) juxtaposes the internal and the external; the uncertain and the confident. Wild Purple is episodic but relies on aural connections instead of silence between sections. Eventually reservation is entirely replaced by a ferocity that Bak deftly shades and colors, a skill that is not always easy amid virtuosic gymnastics.

In Memory by Quinn Mason (2020) is just as the title describes. The viola slowly emerges and grows, the memory becoming more distinct. The strained quality of the viola’s timbre, whether forte or pianissimo, are put to evocative effect.

Quinn Mason--Photo by Allison Slomowitz

Quinn Mason–Photo by Allison Slomowitz

wending by Jeffrey Mumford is the most esoteric work on this album. The tonality is serialist; the character dark and morose; its direction contained. From the most intense motives to the lightest dynamics, Bak is completely immersed and dedicated; this is meditative work. As the penultimate track, wending slows the album’s narrative down, in some ways setting the stage for the even longer, more immersive piece that brings the album to a close.

A String Around Autumn by Tōru Takemitsu (1989), arr. by Toshio Hosokawa for viola and piano, functions as a culmination of the visual capabilities of sonic expression. Bak moves quickly between different timbres and characters in a matter of seconds: harmonics, grit, slides, lyrical motives. He makes Takemitsu’s soundscape multi-dimensional and bodied; nearly made flesh.

Impulse is a stunning example of interpretive skill and artistic fidelity. This collection of works creates a powerful, immersive experience, even if it’s less successful in reflecting the stylistic diversity of new viola repertoire. This is an album to be repeated: subtle similarities and contrasts between each piece become clearer with each listen. Impulse reflects Bak’s creative interest in the physical properties of sound and his fellow composers who explore that arena – it shows new music can be programmed as naturally as canonical works, and it proves Bak is an exciting new voice in classical performance.


I CARE IF YOU LISTEN is an editorially-independent program of the American Composers Forum, funded with generous donor and institutional support. Opinions expressed are solely those of the author and may not represent the views of ICIYL or ACF. 

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