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Dancing on the Edge of Tonality


The Grammy-nominated JACK Quartet performed six virtuosic  works―four by living composers, two of whom were in attendance Sunday afternoon—at a sold-out Calderwood Hall. The ISGM concert danced on the edge of traditional Western tonality, with pieces that blurred the microtones and meters to stunning effect.

Cellist, Jay Campbell remarked that microtonal music “starts to get nauseating—which we like,” eliciting laughter. But when the JACK Quartet plays with this much enthusiasm and vigor, a breathtaking, nauseous excitement may be the only option for the audience too.  

A world premiere composition, deepening paths of resonant light, by Jeffrey Mumford switched between plucked notes and sustained, broad phrases, with these movements constantly interrupting each other. The quartet created an off-kilter shimmering sound–chords glistening briefly before fraying into exciting staccato, plucked sections, and wide-ranging runs. Chords, with varying levels of traditional Western tonality, glistened briefly before fraying into exciting staccato, plucked sections, and wide-ranging runs. The paths ended with a plucked staccato on the cello and a held, bowed note on the viola; the two motifs of plucking and bowing finally united. The ensemble gave the work a vigorous purposefulness—every fray and unison sounding entirely deliberate.

JACK with cello (Shervin Lainez, photo)

After Miserere by the ensemble’s violinist Christopher Otto, JACK turned to John Zorn’s 2004 Necronomicon with a frantic sizzle. Repeated struck chords sounded like its title Necronomicon, a “book of black magic” over its brisk, fiery first and fifth movements and a pensive, quiet second and fourth. While other groups might have offered a slow, lilting, and monotonous piano movement, the JACKs rendered it with breathtaking dynamics; their slight crescendo from a pianississimo to pianissimo proved more exciting than many ensembles’ fortes.

The ensemble retook the stage with a surprise—the 16th-century madrigal, Musica prisca caput, by Nicola Vicentino. The Vicentino reaffirmed the JACK’s ability to execute period music with the same excellence as contemporary examples. Though the promotion for this concert seemed to play down tradition, it nevertheless implied “… how vital the string quartet remains some 275 years after Haydn defined the genre.” The ensemble’s take on the madrigal evidenced an ability breathe life into works from any century.

Tangled Madrigal by Amy Williams, picked up motifs from Vicentino, reworking them into a complementary contemporary texture.

Iannis Xenakis’s Tetras, showcased the JACK’s accuracy of pitch and ensemble precision. Tetras calls for the ensemble to play above and below the bridge, on the fingerboard, and on the wooden sides of the instruments, pushing the boundaries of propriety for the genre, begging the question as to whether there is a “right” way to play the violin or if any non-standard part of the instrument can be sounded with musical results. The strokes that came from below the bridge, sounding like radio static, eliciting chuckles. As the work furled its banner over the next 15 minutes, however, the laughter ceased, as amazed smiles saluted the polyphonies and exotic sounds.

In his pre-concert remarks, the Gardner’s Curator of Music, George Steel, described Iannis Xenakis as “one whose innovations we still have to assimilate.” With its depth of engagement and intentionality, the JACK Quartet breathed new life into both the traditional and the contemporary.

Jared Hackworth is an English graduate student at Boston College and a proud choral musician in the Back Bay Chorale. He studies the interconnections between cities, the arts, and humanities, and works with The School of The New York Times.

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