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The JACK Quartet Decodes Xenakis At Mobtown Modern Season Opener

September 16, 2011

The name doesn’t come from the phrase: “You don’t know Jack!” It’s an acronym from the first letter of each player’s name. But these knockout young performers may relish the association. After all, they’ve made it their game to advocate challenging repertoire: stuff that’s hard to play and sometimes hard for audiences to take. But there was no audience revolt the night Mobtown Modern’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 he’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 “abstruse.” (This is a favor, as in the past not a few might have called it obtuse.) JACK blows this stuffy attitude to bits.

There’s nothing hard to comprehend by ear in JACK’s presentation of Xenakis. That’s why it’s so great that they’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 “four.” Christoper Otto on first violin began, his sound darting like a bee around the church before John Pickford Richards joined him on the viola. There’s grit here, plenty of effects, similar to what you hear in Gyorgy Kurtag’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 JACK’s approach welcomes new listeners and educated fans alike. Their interpretations bristle, sparkle, and ache. When I think of those who’ve made their name running the same “abstruse” 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!

It’s no wonder that JACK Quartet plays Poisson Rouge often, but we hope they’ll come back to Baltimore soon. Kudos to Brian Sacawa and his $5,333 Kickstarter grant for bringing them to our attention.

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  • Christian Hertzog

    200+ to hear Xenakis string quartets? Congratulations Mobtown Modern! Sounds like it was a terrific show.

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