It’s easy to think of a string quartet as being the sum of four superb musicians performing together as one. Actually, though, a string quartet performance involves an indeterminate number of participants, depending on how many people turn up to listen. But the essential number engaged, almost without fail, is five—the four ensemble members, plus (usually) a composer.
That equation has been integral to the work JACK Quartet has pursued from the very start, whether it was wrangling intently with the music of an iconic (if possibly deceased) composer like Iannis Xenakis, or working hand in hand with a contemporary like Hannah Lash.
JACK Frontiers, a new two-night event JACK Quartet is presenting as part of its ensemble-in-residence engagement at The New School, makes the group’s extended mathematics explicit. In two concerts, presented free of charge at Tishman Auditorium on Dec. 17 and 18, the group will present new pieces by Catherine Lamb and Lester St. Louis, as well as recent works by Clara Iannotta and Tyshawn Sorey—the through-line being a close collaboration between composer, interpreters, and, ultimately, audience members.
To set the stage for JACK Frontiers, National Sawdust Log asked the members of JACK Quartet – violinists Christopher Otto and Austin Wulliman, violist John Pickford Richards, and cellist Jay Campbell – each to say something about one of the pieces on the programs. We asked each composer, in turn, to say something about the prospect of working closely with JACK Quartet.
Catherine Lamb – divisio spiralis
I’m very excited to perform Catherine Lamb’s new piece, divisio spiralis, which I think has the potential to be a truly unique and mind-opening experience. Retuning our instruments to create new patterns of resonance, we slowly descend for over an hour, journeying through harmonic landscapes that can be crystalline and fuzzy, throbbing and placid, using microtonal tunings based on the overtone series of a 10 Hz fundamental.
I believe Marc Sabat first suggested that we work together, since he knew JACK was interested to work with more composers writing in rational intonation (Christopher Otto being himself such a composer!). When we first began to discuss together, it was immediately clear to me that this would be a sympathetic ensemble to work with and the more I have gotten to know them, the more I feel this way. I am continuously surprised by their positive and progressive attitudes, their commitment/attention to the material, and the phenomenal musicianship they all possess while fusing into a total sound! Because of this, I was able to push past some previous limitations I had imposed upon myself as a composer and enter into more expanding and challenging dimensions.
Since I was a child I have possessed a kind of synesthesia with numbers. Rather than light/color phenomena association, this has generally regarded forms, shapes, and structures. When I first began to count, I imagined a long thread extending upwards and when looking up, at some point I began to see a curve forming in the line until eventually the line transformed into an infinite spiral, with my foot planted at the number one. The first time I discovered Erv Wilson’s 1965 organization of the overtone series as a logarithmic spiral, the image immediately resonated with me as a lucid means to describe harmonic space as numbers in repetition and interaction, generating/blooming outwards with each new prime and composite. I absorbed this image while working on the piece for JACK, and after applying a 29-limit reductionist omission to the tonal palette and situating the four string instruments inside it as distinct resonating chambers, I utilized this image as an inspiration for the total piece.
Clara Iannotta – dead wasps in the jam-jar (iii)
John Pickford Richards
This is one of three works we’ve developed with Clara, all of which JACK will be recording in Berlin in January of 2020. Fun fact: an earlier version of this piece involved us blowing air through long tubes wrapped around our bodies, and I drooled all over my viola. It was a mess. Clara has a way of being imaginatively flexible without losing her vision.
Writing for JACK is the dream. They are some of the most curious musicians I’ve ever met, and what is extraordinary is that they are committed and defend your music whether you are a super famous composer or a student experimenting with things that might not work. Their sound is unique, as well as their attention to detail. I know that when I write for them, I can push the boundaries of my imagination, as there is almost nothing they cannot do.
I am finishing my fourth string quartet, dedicated to JACK, at the moment, and having the privilege of meeting them and working with them on several occasions helped me to really shape the idea of my piece around their sound, discovering a new approach on these instruments, which are so dear to my work.
Lester St. Louis – Metonymic principles: colourway
I love spending time talking about and making music with Lester. His deep intellectual engagement with the materials of sound and the dynamics of music-making together (socially and aesthetically) are always stimulating. What’s more, this inquiry serves a sense of playfulness, joy in mutual exploration of musical concepts and sounds, and a warm-hearted humanity, which are ever-present as we work toward this premiere in December. I’m eager to share where we are in that creative journey together!
Lester St. Louis
This excerpt is one layer in the larger whole of this string quartet work. I am calling these excerpts principles, for they highlight fundamental aspects to the piece. Part of this title highlights the idea that in many design processes, elements that make the whole become broken down to be recollected for the final works. This colourway shows the listener the textures and orchestration that are immovable in the metonymic syntax, or meaning-making process.
In making works, the question of what medium is appropriate to translate the meaning and ideas of the work, while having it function as more than a singular item. Many times, especially in composition when building a piece with an ensemble, you can discover their idiosyncrasies and find ways to involve their interest in the work; the ball often stops there. and discovering a transformative potential that does something to everyone involved’s lives falls short. In this concert, this is solely an excerpt to allow more time to develop this notion, and to find ways that the sound picture and performativity of this work sparks enough interest in the viewer to dig deeper and search for participation in the larger ideas. In the genesis of this piece, it was and remains of high importance to develop a practice as well as a piece.
I am excited to be embarking on building a practice and system with JACK Quartet that allows them to enter my position, and for me to enter theirs. As important as it is to create works that codify ideas, building practices that offer mobility of the ideas to others is equally important. A string quartet was not a piece I would have thought to write, because as a performer, I can do much of what I can imagine. So when it came to this, it had to be for the right reasons—not only the extraordinary opportunity to work with these world-class minds.
The most important thing for me in this work is to develop ways that the context allows myself, John, Jay, Austin, and Chris to maximize our potential by working together. The circumstance allows pushes at all of us in ways that require strategies, language, notations, and so much more to take on elements greater than ourselves.
Jay Campbell Everything Changes, Nothing Changes is a quietly intense, glacial unfolding of harmonies and durations derived from sudoku puzzles. While it is mathematically conceived, the effect of the piece is a perceptual one. Our sense of time warps beyond recognition; pitches no longer register as discrete musical objects with individual identities, subsumed as subtle variations in harmonic intensity. All at an extremely quiet volume, forcing us to activate and enter an entirely different mode of listening.
Tyshawn is a master musician and understands all that, of course. He immediately made drastic changes to get closer to those goals, like nearly doubling the length after we first played it for him, among countless other little tweaks. He’s made different versions for different occasions, reorganizing material to dig deeper toward what the music itself – not the score or the concept, but the real time wiggly air hitting our ears – needs to be the best version of itself. That engagement with the materiality of sound is deeply satisfying to me as an “interpreter” of written music, but I think this music demands that level of engagement of you, whether you are writing it, playing it, or listening to it. And rewards in equal measure.
Commissioned for the JACK Quartet and premiered at the Banff Festival last summer, Everything Changes, Nothing Changes was inspired largely by sudoku puzzles and the time spent with visual artists during [a] retreat at Robert Raushenberg’s former studio in Captiva, Florida. The piece derives its formal structure from a grid consisting of 14 sections that contain 16 permuted rhythmic units over time, though the tempo is so slow that they will likely be imperceptible to the listener.
Amid seemingly endless shifting harmonies, one of the constants is how the quartet functions as a unit without featuring single voices throughout the work’s entirety. When two or three voices are playing a given sonority (an event), the ear tends to go horizontally towards the arrival of a new voice that enters. In other words, when one or two voices arrive within any event, the sonority then intensifies so that the resulting harmony is perceived more quickly than the way in which the voices move within that event.
Steve Smith is director of publication at National Sawdust, and editor and lead writer for National Sawdust Log. He contributes regularly to The New Yorker, previously worked as a freelance reviewer for The New York Times, and was an editor at the Boston Globe and Time Out New York.
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