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New Music’s New Pundits


Those new music pundits constituting the Jack Quartet returned Wednesday with an exhibit of four contemporary works that made the Boston University College of Fine Arts School of Music Concert Hall vibrate, judder, and throb. All of this due to their uncanny clutch on works the likes of Iannis Xenakis, Erin Gee, Julia Wolfe, and Roger Reynolds. If the pieces themselves may have left you wondering in some way or another, the performances given them could have left no doubt. JACK Quartet is something to hear in the performance of “new” music.

During the entire evening, the serious four young string players (Christopher Otto and Austin Wulliman, violins; John Pickford Richards, viola; and Jay Campbell, cello) put music first going all out to the very perimeter of sonic imagination magnificently carrying this listener all the way with them.

Unconcealed devotion marks this foursome’s distinctiveness. And that is revealed in their delivering those nanoseconds of music making demanded by contemporary composers. JACK also exposed its command of the extraordinary ranges of string techniques, both traditional and extended that have been and are still becoming integral to these same composers’ vocabularies.

JACK had to surprise last night, but how? Three compositions occupied the first half taking up 45 minutes. That was just the right amount of time, which passed unbelievably fast—and virtually free of pain.

Tetora (1990) by Iannis Xenakis took up 13 minutes. Having heard this quartet only once before, I was taken by how much I could have remembered it, not at all unlike hearing a Beethoven for only the second time. The magic number being three for this and other earlier masters now has been changed to two by the Greek composer (1922-2001). Two makes for dissonance not consonance.

Though Xernakis composed it in 4/4 or common meter, you would not have guessed it by just hearing it for the first time. Organized on scales, or what Xenakis called “sieves” (think of Greek modes), past and future merged dramatically in a strangely wondrous continuum. While JACK promoted the composition’s clear structures and textures, these four string players created a sense of rare dedication that hovered like a halo over this awe-struck composer’s creation.

Taking up 7 minutes, Mouthpiece XXII (1990) by Erin Gee (1974) literally whistled by. Here, JACK’s foursome slid fingers up and down their fingerboards. At times the players actually whistled also in glissando-style making this a most enjoyable encounter. Its cartoon-like conversation eventually got you under its skin. And it being light and fanciful, Mouthpiece was a clear breakaway from Tetora. My impression from the applause was that it was also enjoyed by the hundred or so in attendance.

Jack Quartet (Shervin Lainez photo)
Jack Quartet (Shervin Lainez photo)

Again, thinking of how time passes when in the act of music listening, especially to “new” music, a huge shift followed with the penultimate item, Roger Reynolds’ Flight (2016), written for the JACK. In four movements, IMAGINING, PREPARING, EXPERIENCING, and PERSPECTIVE, a restless, ever-changing stream-of-conscious affair took up a half-hour. Where it was going or coming from finally became impossible for me to fathom. Appearing plotless and too personal, Flight left me wondering. Reynolds (1934) was present. Several rounds of appreciative applause saluted the composer and the players.

Early that summer (1993) by Julia Wolfe (1958) went on a bit too long though taking only 12 minutes. The overly long sustained, gradually fading, barely unresolved harmony at Early that summer’s end and a mid-late insistent ecstasy-searching passage marred an otherwise imaginative hypertensive echo of John Adams’ Shaker Loops. High speed, high energy tremolo-like bowing called for virtually the entire work would suggest fatigue. Not to happen for both listeners and performers, the faint rebounds of both sounds and rhythms of square dancing would be charged with electric modernizations, even originalities. JACK’s unyielding power and amazing stamina cannot be overstated on this page.  

David Patterson, Professor of Music and former Chairman of the Performing Arts Department at UMass Boston, was recipient of a Fulbright Scholar Award and the Chancellor’s Distinction in Teaching Award. He studied with Nadia Boulanger and Olivier Messiaen in Paris and holds a PhD from Harvard University.  He is the author of 20 Little Piano Pieces from Around the World (G. Schirmer).

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