Tuesday 28 January 2014

JACK Quartet experiment with strings

JACK Quartet
JACK Quartet: The Wigmore Hall
Reviewed by Hilary Glover on Jan 24 2014
Star rating: 4.0

Not for the faint hearted, quartets by Seeger, Trapani, Ferneyhough, Anderson and Rădulescu

The Jack Quartet are not afraid of trying new things and I spent an interesting and thought provoking evening at the Wigmore Hall (24 January 2014) listening to them play a variety of music from the late 20th and into the 21st century. All the pieces performed utilised extended string techniques, including scordatura, and tended to focus on rhythm, harmonics, and sound rather than melody. 

The quartet (JACK= John Pickford Richards on viola, Ari Streisfeld and Christopher Otto on violin, and cellist Kevin McFarland) all met while studying at the Eastman School of Music in New York. Since then they have forged a name for themselves as experimenters and champions of new music, winning the 2013 New Music USA Trailblazer Award to help support them in this endeavour.

They have a fiendish sense of pitch and rhythm, both of which are a necessity to play this kind of music without it becoming lost and meaningless. They also had the stamina to maintain high energy essential in ensuring that the music was interesting from the beginning to the last note of the performance.

Ruth Crawford Seeger’s (1901 -1953) string quartet was written in 1931 and supported by a Guggenheim scholarship. Musically this pre-war era was a time of relearning and investigation. American populism and nationalism became culturally more important during the Great Depression, and composers investigated experimental and ultramodernist ideas to find a new identity.

Seeger was interested in modern techniques, such as dissonant counterpoint and rhythmic freedom, but was also interested in serial techniques and extending them beyond pitch. Each of the movements of the string quartet explored a different compositional area. During the first movement the counterpoint was separated between the instruments so that they remained independent, the themes being passed around. Contrasts in sound quality abounded, creating characters, such as a peaceful theme on violin sliding over guttural viola, or scratchy glass-like high harmonics with accented pizzicato. The first movement ended on section which reminded me of Stravinsky’s Dumbarton Oaks which would not be written for another six years.

The second, hypnotic, movement began with viola and cells exchanging notes. As it gradually got louder and faster the central motif was developed with changes in accent and meter. Its climax occurred when everyone was in rhythmic unison. Based on serial techniques, the third, slow, movement was also ground breaking. Here she used dynamics to create phrases out of long held tones. ‘Solos’ were similarly highlighted by dynamic, and only together do these solo notes form a melody.

The final movement was more folk sounding; however the techniques were still serial. The violin began with one note – the others responded with 20 notes from a 10 note series with fast octaves – then the violin played two notes – the others responded with one note less - and so on to 21, with the violin getting quieter and the others getting louder. At its completion the set was played in retrograde up a semitone.

Written more than 80 years ago this work informed the rest of the evening performances. This was the world premier of ‘Visions and Revisions’ by Christopher Trapani (1980 - ). Written last year this work used extended string techniques with lots of glissandi, pizzicato, mutes, spiccato, sul tasto, and con legno and, like the Seeger, contrasted different rhythmic styles between the parts. Based on circles, of music getting stuck, the end result was haunting and skeletal and gave the impression that there was a ghost left where a tune has been.

Brian Ferneyhough’s (1943 - ) ‘Exordium’ was written in 2008 for Elliott Carter’s hundredth birthday. Fitting 53 different fragments into a seven minute piece means that each was fleeting. Despite the transitory nature and same physical string techniques the piece seems much more solid. Each section nicely contrasted with the one before in some way, for example: long smooth notes following a scrabbling guttural flurry, and the whole thing ended with long descending glissandi fireworks before fading out.

The point of this concert was to showcase the Wigmore Hall’s composer in residence Julian Anderson (1967 - ). His 1984 string quartet ‘Light Music’ was composed when he was only 17 but was only performed, for the first time, in 2013 by the Arditti Quartet. In the programme notes Anderson explained that his main influence while he was writing this first string quartet was Ruth Crawford Seeger and spectral music, and that this work explores the colour of sound.

Similarly to the Ferneyhough this is a work of contrasts of playing techniques but all the instruments played all of the time and there were no breaks between sections. Pitches used were derived from the inharmonic resonance of a metal plate and from the acoustic spectral of difference bow positions and pressures, for example overbowing produces a resultant tone a major seventh below the played note.

 The final work String Quartet No. 5 ‘before the universe was born’ by Horaţiu Rădulescu (1942-2008) extended the evening’s exploration into harmonics by requiring the ensemble to retune their instruments following the harmonic series of the cello’s bottom C. A Romanian-French composer, Rădulescu was interested in spectral theory but ,by the 1990s when this was written, was also interested in the Tao te ching of Lao-tzu (hence the title) which he used to define the form and structure.

The notes played were all open strings or harmonics, but the performers used different bowing techniques and rhythms to differentiate sounds. The result was a conglomerate of strange sounds, from glass mice squeaking, and hollow metallic sounds, via church bells and bold open string moments (which had the essence of an orchestra tuning up). Despite its nature it was almost possible to hear hidden snatches of melody – or perhaps that is human nature forcing order on disorder. The whispering, repetitive sections were soporific, but it ended on a challenge of long, loud, high repeated notes.

Not for the faint hearted, this concert consisted of music stripped of all classical conventions. Each questioned different aspects of what music actually is – it is for the performers and audience together to find relevance and meaning within the sounds and rhythms presented by the composers. There will be a world premier of Anderson’s Second String Quartet at the Wigmore Hall in May.
Reviewed by Hilary Glover

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