The JACK Quartet Decodes Xenakis At Mobtown Modern Season Opener
The name doesnâ€™t come from the phrase: â€śYou donâ€™t know Jack!â€ť Itâ€™s an acronym from the first letter of each playerâ€™s name. But these knockout young performers may relish the association. After all, theyâ€™ve made it their game to advocate challenging repertoire: stuff thatâ€™s hard to play and sometimes hard for audiences to take. But there was no audience revolt the night Mobtown Modernâ€™s series opened at 2640 Space on St. Paul St. on Sept. 14. Ovations came easily from a mob of 200 or so, young and old packed into raggle-taggle rows of couches, armchairs, and plain, hard seats.
On Wednesday evening, JACK presented an all-Xenakis program of complete string quartets. Composer Iannis Xenakis could be called an architect who stumbled into music or a composer who happened to be an architect–under Le Corbusier, no less. So scholars and reviewers will tell you heâ€™s all math. They consider his intellectual structures first and foremost, aural excitements aside. A scan of reviews and blog posts reveals a dense underbrush of musical jargon overpopulated with the word â€śabstruse.â€ť (This is a favor, as in the past not a few might have called it obtuse.) JACK blows this stuffy attitude to bits.
Thereâ€™s nothing hard to comprehend by ear in JACKâ€™s presentation of Xenakis. Thatâ€™s why itâ€™s so great that theyâ€™ve also made the first complete recording of Xenakis quartets on surround-sound DVD and compact-disc, and why Baltimore was lucky to hear them all last night.
Xenakis is really a humanist composer doing much by ear. “ST-4/1,080262″ was the only work on the program that completely owed its existence to IBM computer-generated stochastic action, explained cellist Kevin McFarland. To help us out, he gave us an example of such patterns out of chaos: droplets in a rain storm making up a weather system. In the case of this early work of 1956 – 1962, 10 parts were condensed down to only four. Droplets indeed! Here we find explosive pizzicato, as lively as a popcorn kettle bursting with heat. Fingers of left hands whip out long, sliding down the strings, bows tap on the body of the instruments. The cello gives off a siren wail as the viola gives us the sense of creeping down a hallway, deeper and deeper into the Xenakis oeuvre.
“Ergma,” from 1994, powered on with a hum of motherboard drones as thunder clapped around 2640 Space. Taunting tangles of sharps and flats muster and march almost like a Shostakovich waltz.
JACK saved the standout for last: “Tetras”–Greek for â€śfour.â€ť Christoper Otto on first violin began, his sound darting like a bee around the church before John Pickford Richards joined him on the viola. Thereâ€™s grit here, plenty of effects, similar to what you hear in Gyorgy Kurtagâ€™s Microludes, but with a mono-focus. A hive-collectivity of construction site sounds coalesces into unisons. Interstellar squeals ring out as left hands descend and rise along strings lightning fast. A dancing motif on viola passes off to cello and centers us for a while, before the whole breaks into fabulous muting.
We hear radio tuning dial pure without static, before jumping on a race started by second violin and viola. Ultimately, cohesion rises out of a doppelganger interlude begun by Otto on violin. Then the players drop back and only the drone of a fan remained. A revel of silence deepened before applause erupted.
The freshness of JACKâ€™s approach welcomes new listeners and educated fans alike. Their interpretations bristle, sparkle, and ache. When I think of those whoâ€™ve made their name running the same â€śabstruseâ€ť gauntlet of composers, like Kronos Quartet (who taught JACK, in fact), I think they better look to their laurels. These four young players will steal their show!
Itâ€™s no wonder that JACK Quartet plays Poisson Rouge often, but we hope theyâ€™ll come back to Baltimore soon. Kudos to Brian Sacawa and his $5,333 Kickstarter grant for bringing them to our attention.