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JACK Quartet: Soundscape America

A Polyphony of Styles: Shifting Identities 

The string quartet provides an ideal medium for exploring the fluid identity implied by being “American.” Its evolution over the past few centuries has taken on a wildly contradictory span of roles, from lightweight entertainment— music as wallpaper—to a quasi-sacred status as the vehicle for the most advanced thoughts of composers like Beethoven and Shostakovich. Even the string quartet’s image in popular culture reflects a basic paradox. Used to instantly conjure an aura of detached wealth and luxury, it is at the same time recognized in actual practice (in countless songs and soundtracks) as signifying the opposite: the string quartet as a mode of immediate emotional connection, the “real” music that uncovers the essence after frilly facades have been torn away.

“When we were planning what a series about ‘the American string quartet’ could include, it was clear from the start that it involves so many different styles—and this is part of what makes American music itself so interesting. There is no one central style,” says John Pickford Richards, the JACK Quartet’s violist and Executive Director. 

Naturally there was a superabundance of repertoire that couldn’t be squeezed into two programs. What were the JACK Quartet’s criteria for inclusion? “Most of our programming focuses on which composers will benefit from our playing their music,” Richards explains. Many celebrated moments in the American string quartet, from Charles Ives and Samuel Barber to Philip Glass, were thus deliberately not chosen because “they don’t necessarily need representation.” 

The JACK Quartet’s selection emphasizes not only the enduring contemporary relevance of the medium but its importance as a site for experimentation, for pushing boundaries. Chronologically, Soundscape America begins less than a century ago, with Ruth Crawford Seeger’s visionary String Quartet of 1931, and reaches right up to 2015. Indeed, only three of the 11 composers presented over the two concerts are no longer living, and eight of the works date from the present century.

What will be immediately apparent is the sheer diversity of approaches here: each selection, in a sense, starts tabula rasa, redefining what a string quartet means. In some cases, that extends beyond issues of form and content to include the performative configuration as well (in keeping with the inherent ambiguity of the term, as a “string quartet” can refer both to the performers and to the composition performed). 

Yet amid this polyphony of styles and approaches, listeners are invited to make connections and cross-references within and between the programs according to their individual interests. “Taken together, all of these pieces present a collection of completely fresh and unique ideas,” Richards remarks. “It’s very American not to fit into a pre-fabricated style but to have a unique identity as an artist. All of these composers are mavericks in that way.”


Mouthpiece XXII 

ERIN GEE (b. 1974) Composed in 2014. 

The California-born composer-vocalist Erin Gee has won international acclaim for her expansive Mouthpiece series exploring the potential of the voice as a source of non-semantic sound production, alone or within a variety of instrumental contexts. Mouthpiece XXII (commissioned for the Arditti Quartet’s 40th anniversary) thus calls on the string players to contribute myriad unexpected sonorities from their own voices in addition to extended playing techniques from their instruments: a transformation of the Orphic image of the singer accompanied by lyre. 

The relation between sound, breath, and gesture here gives rise to a continually surprising sequence of textures. Through her clever interplay between voice and string instrument, Gee generates sonic illusions in which the true source of the sound generator is obscured, suggesting parallels and crossovers between the human and string sounds: is that a harmonic at top register or a whistle, a whisper or wide vibrato? 

“Here there are four active articulators in the space, but the mouth has only one,” the composer notes. “One small push is all that is needed. The choice of how to articulate.”


Darmstadt Kindergarten 

MARK APPLEBAUM (b. 1967) Composed in 2015. 

A native of Chicago now based at Stanford, Mark Applebaum frequently incorporates a theatrical dimension into the performance of his music.

Commissioned for the Kronos Quartet for a children’s concert, Darmstadt Kindergarten alludes with subversive playfulness to one of the sacred cows of the postwar European avant-garde: the summer courses in which Boulez, Stockhausen, et al. exchanged ideas— which came to be known as the Mecca of high-minded, highly serious Modernism (with little time for play). “I wanted to compose a piece that could appeal at once to audiences of varying age, experience, and affinity for levity, gravity, whimsy, and rigor,” writes the composer.

Darmstadt Kindergarten juxtaposes www.millertheatre.com a “conventional” image of the string quartet players bent on performing their instruments with the usual seriousness and what Applebaum calls a “choreographic” version of the same, during which the musicians substitute silent hand gestures in place of their instrumental sounds.

“The instrumental ‘theme’ is repeated five times in immediate succession,” Applebaum explains. “During each successive statement, one additional player is permanently removed from the instrumental group and instead plays the choreographic version. The hand gestures are executed at precise moments corresponding to the rhythms from the player’s instrumental part.” As a result, Darmstadt Kindergarten “is partly about memory; the audience is invited to ‘hear’ the instrumental material when later voiced by choreographed action. Music can indeed be expressed even in the absence of sound.”


String Quartet No. 2

ELLIOTT CARTER (1908-2012)

Composed in 1959. Born while Aaron Copland was still a boy, the long-lived Elliott Carter became the face of the American avant-garde for many in the postwar new-music scene in Europe—whereas resistance to other manifestations of experimental American music, particularly Minimalism, for a long time remained strong there.

Discussions of Carter’s formative years usually mention his early encouragement by Charles Ives and his years in the early 1930s studying with Nadia Boulanger in Paris: a bifurcating path that included a neoclassical “detour” abroad, later followed by a return to the composer’s more adventurous instincts as he at last found his voice at mid-century. The first of Carter’s five string quartets is often cited as the composition in which he achieved this breakthrough, its origins linked to the mystique of a larger self-discovery enabled by a lengthy stay in the “undisturbed quiet” (Carter) of the Sonoran Desert in Arizona.

The epic String Quartet No. 1 (1950- 51) confirmed Carter’s identification as a radical modernist. Only about half its duration but even more intensely concentrated, the String Quartet No. 2— premiered by the Juilliard String Quartet and winner of the 1960 Pulitzer Prize for Music—carries on with several of the techniques Carter pioneered in No. 1. Above all, No. 2, which unfolds over nine sections played without break and includes three solo cadenzas, reimagines the division of labor among the four players in such a way that each becomes a radically independent entity.

As Carter puts it, “the four instruments are individualized, each being given its own character embodied in a special set of melodic and harmonic intervals and of rhythms that result in four different patterns of slow and fast tempi with associated types of expression.” It’s interesting to compare the resulting scenario with four separate dramatis personae—Carter compared his players to characters in a Samuel Beckett play— Miller Theatre at Columbia University with the theatricality inherent in other versions of the quartet idea presented by Soundscape America

If the classical notion of the string quartet, as Goethe famously defined it, evokes “listening to four rational people conversing among themselves,” Carter’s Quartet No. 2 “subverts the social contract of ensemble playing,” according to Carter expert David Schiff, and “might have been entitled ‘Four Players in Search of a Quartet.


Composition 173

ANTHONY BRAXTON (b. 1945) Composed in 1994.

An important perspective to keep in mind when approaching the creative work of Anthony Braxton is that attempts to categorize this extraordinarily prolific composer and multi-instrumental performer are counterproductive. Even a term as open-ended as “improvisational” fails to account for the theatrical and performative complexity involved in such constructions as Composition 173.

The JACK Quartet recently met in a workshop with members of the Tri-Centric Foundation—a New Yorkbased organization of musicians, video artists, and educators whose mission is to support and perform Braxton’s enormous body of work and to disseminate his ideas. Composition 173 was the basis for the album of the same name released in 1996. Conceived “for four actors, 14 instrumentalists, constructed environment, and video projections,” its source material (from 1994) consists of a 283-page score and an accompanying script for a one-act play by the same title. The play is written for four characters (Older and Younger Man, Older and Younger Woman) and set in an airport. Their reactions to “different imaginary sound occurrences” shape the play’s “movement-execution strategies” and “body-examination logic.” John Pickford Richards explains that Composition 173 is highly flexible and can encompass performances by full-on ensemble or string quartet. “A distinct performance practice goes with the music,” he says, “but the Tri-Centric musicians are also interested in having us develop a new sound for it, so we were given the freedom to play any line in any clef.” In the context of Soundscape America, this new iteration by the JACK Quartet highlights “the more-open, less-controlled possibilities for a string quartet.”

Musically, Braxton’s sound world calls for a good deal of rhythmic unison but also for radical tempo changes that are left up to the performers. The score uses an elaborate system of symbols to indicate various types of improvisation. Richards explains, “Sometimes a symbol is attached to a note and works like a wormhole that can transport you to another part of the piece.” Working with the Tri-Centric musicians is “an experience rich with performance practice and tradition and an almost mystical belief in Anthony Braxton’s music and art,” says Richards. “He has created an entire culture around his music.”


Structures for String Quartet

MORTON FELDMAN (1926-1987) Composed in 1951.

In 1951, when Carter completed his breakthrough String Quartet No. 1, Morton Feldman wrote his poetically nuanced Structures for String Quartet, its delicate miniaturism at the opposite end of the scale from the immense (six-hour) span of his String Quartet No. 2 (1983). It had only been the year before that Feldman met John Cage by chance at a New York Philharmonic concert, which led to an inseparable friendship—and Cage’s advice to Feldman to abandon the European Modernist models he had been studying and trust in his intuition instead.

Unlike other early Feldman works, Structures does not use a graphical score but is fully written out. Yet the realization of its sparse sound world almost demands that the players efface the very physicality of the act of producing sound—and in turn requiring the audience to strain to focus on the musical events. In place of traditional dynamic markings, Feldman asks for the muted strings to play “soft as possible” (sic) throughout, alternating plucking and bowing like the pinprick brushstrokes of a pointillist canvas. Prolonged silences play a major role, providing a background that makes the sotto voce sonorities stand out in relief. 



CENK ERGÜN (b. 1978) Composed in 2014-15.

In maximal contrast to the introverted, contemplative abstraction of Structures, Sonare explodes with furious energy and busyness. Cenk Ergün, a composer and improviser who was born in Turkey and is based in New York, composed Sonare specifically for the JACK Quartet (to whom he dedicated the score). Sonare was initially a two-movement work; the other movement, titled Celare, is a slowmoving, meditative score. Ergün decided to separate these highly contrasting worlds into two independent pieces that may be played separately or together. The JACK Quartet premiered both in March 2016.

Sonare takes its name from the Italian word “to sound” (the source for “sonata”) and might be heard as an affirmation of the physicality and density of sound that are given such a ghostly embodiment in the Feldman piece. Indeed, the athletic challenge of performing Sonare entails a level of individual and ensemble virtuosity that sets the piece in a category of its own.

Like Carter, Ergün also emphasizes the simultaneity of event, with each player given distinctive, rapid-fire phrases out of the gate. Only after several minutes of this Miller Theatre at Columbia University extreme playing (extremely loud, fast, and busy), with its manically repetitive pulse, does the texture thin out, the first violin emerging for a brief solo passage. The music ratchets up to an even higher level of intensity, suddenly dipping in volume for a striking ppp flautando passage, a tense calm within the storm. Ergün’s conclusion to this scenario is theatrically effective.


String Quartet No. 8

GLORIA COATES (b. 1938) Composed in 2001/2002.

Another version of American identity is found with the prolific Gloria Coates, who was born in Wisconsin but has for decades been an ex-pat based in Munich. Once dubbed “our last maverick” by the critic Mark Swed, Coates has composed 16 symphonies, 12 works for string quartet, and numerous pieces for the stage. Deeply influenced by her mentoring with the Russian exile Alexander Tcherepnin and the electronic-music pioneer Otto Luening, Coates went on to develop a musical language is utterly distinctive, recognizable by her trademark use of the upward- or downwardsliding gesture known as glissando.

“The music I try to create goes to a point where I reach intuitively to places that I’ve never been — or maybe no one has ever been before!” Coates said in an interview with Bruce Duffie. “Then I try to explore those places and present them. It has sort of a religious feeling about it. It also gives me a feeling of being an inventor or an explorer.” Coates wrote her String Quartet No. 8 “in memory of the victims of 9/11” (as she inscribes the work). Each of its three movements carries a title: “On Wings of Sound,” “In falling Timbers Buried,” and “Prayer.” Her characteristic glissando technique shapes the entire opening movement , which begins in an unmoored state that continues throughout, which is reinforced by the unusual tuning (with the viola and cello a quarter-tone down from the violins). The composer and scholar Kyle Gann observes that the melody of the second movement comes from an earlier Coates setting of a poem by Emily Dickinson depicting a man who has been buried alive. Using obstinate pairs (violins and viola/cello) of hymn-like parallel fifths, the final “Prayer” concludes the work with a tentative balm.


String Quartet 1931


Composed in 1931. Two decades before Elliott Carter’s epochal First Quartet, the remarkable Ruth Crawford Seeger was already radically reenvisioning the potential for this medium. Composed during her time in Europe (to Berlin and Paris) on a Guggenheim Fellowship — she was the first woman to receive this honor —String Quartet 1931 is not only a towering achievement in American Modernism but, poignantly, the indicator of what might have been had Crawford Seeger been adequately encouraged to continue along her path. Soon after, in 1932, she married her former composition teacher, Charles Seeger, and her new role, as well as her commitment to the Communist Party together with her husband, led Crawford Seeger to set aside her composing career and focus her energies on social activism as well as the American folk music revival. She did begin to take up the experimental thread of her composition again in 1952 but died soon after of cancer.

In Europe, Crawford (as she was named at the time) met some of the leading lights of the European avant-garde, but she declined to become their student, preferring to focus on creating her own music. String Quartet 1931 made a big impression when it was premiered in New York in 1933—Charles Ives agreed to fund a recording— and became Crawford’s bestknown composition. Tautly concentrated, the 12-minute work comprises four movements and anticipates aspects of Carter in the remarkable independence of the four parts.


Nightmare for JACK (a ballet)

NATACHA DIELS (b. 1981) Composed in 2013.

A highly adventurous composer and flutist, Natacha Diels, who was born in Los Angeles, was mentored at Columbia University by George Lewis and Fred Lerdahl. Diels has focused on electroacoustic music for chamber ensemble with the Ensemble Pamplemousse, which she founded in 2003, and currently teaches on the music faculty of the University of California, San Diego.

Nightmare for JACK (a ballet) is composed for string quartet and electronics and calls for amplification of the instruments and a Max/MSP patch for the electronics. Diels’s score includes such playing indications as making the bow in rest position “resemble a military officer resting his gun on his leg,” aggressively fingered random notes, “wide, crazy vibrato,” “gradually move from regular pressure to over-pressure.” Additionally, the players are instructed to adopt a repertoire of choreographed “head indications,” such as “tilt head slightly right,” “look extreme left,” or “rapidly open and close mouth.” The result is a work of whimsical theatricality that finds room for a kind of humor—as we experienced in Concert One’s Darmstadt Kindergarten— often missing from the string quartet. 



MARCOS BALTER (b. 1974) Composed in 2011.

A prodigy who began conservatory studies when he was only five, the New York-based Marcos Balter moved from his native Brazil to the United States in his early 20s, where he studied with Augusta Read Thomas, Amy Williams, and Jay Alan Yim. He currently teaches composition at Montclair State University. Chambers was commissioned for the Spektral Quartet. Balter provides the Miller Theatre at Columbia University following commentary:

“Chambers is a three-part snapshot of my compositional personality. The first movement focuses on attentive listening, immersing oneself into seemingly static textures that in return gradually unveil their many complexities and hidden hyperactivity, primarily through timbre. The second movement in centered at around the role of spatial and temporal organization of musical ideas as well as at the physical and contextual questioning of music repetition. The third movement both summarizes the two previous movements and adds to them other elements dear to me: virtual polyphony (the illusion of a bigger instrumental force), internal and external counterpoint, stylistic plurality at the service of the music material, and close structuring of transitions and proportions.”



JOHN ZORN (b. 1953) Composed in 2003.

A phenomenon of his native New York’s downtown new-music scene in the 1970s, John Zorn has remained a maverick among mavericks as a composer, performer (especially on saxophone), and recording artist. Not surprisingly, the intensely collaborative Zorn has had a significant and association with the Kronos Quartet. Written for Kronos in 1988, Zorn’s Cat O’ Nine Tails string quartet was a game-changer in his own hugely prolific output and led to a host of “classical” efforts.

Necronomicon first appeared as the central work on the studio album Magick, recorded at the Hit Factory and released in 2004 on Zorn’s Tzadik label. The title manifests Zorn’s fascination with the convergence of mysticism, the occult, and popular culture. It comes from the American horrormeister H.P. Lovecraft (1890-1937) and refers to a fictional magic textbook in his writings and those of his followers. The image of the Necronomicon has also had widespread currency in popular culture via horror films, comic books, and video games.

The five movements of Zorn’s Necronomicon are titled: “Conjurations,” “The Magus,” “Thought Forms,” “Incunabula,” and “Asmodeus” (a king of demons, but also associated in the Kabbalah with the offspring of an incubus—a male demon who takes sexual advantage of women—and a human). Opening furioso, the quartet’s oddnumbered movements boil over with rage and even violence, while the second and fourth movements proceed at a barely audible level, hypnotic and mysterious. Interwoven into Zorn’s language are techniques and gestures from the Modernist sweep of the string quartet— Bartók, Shostakovich, Ligeti, and company—but Necronomicon remains unabashedly, thoroughly his own.