Jack Quartet, Works by Haas, Brook, and Rădulescu, Orpheum Annex, March 14, 2015.

Contemporary classical music advances just like any other field of research and there has long been a quest to depart from traditional tonal sequences – governed by ‘equal temperament’ – and to split and arrange tones into finer and finer partitions.  To play the new ‘microtonal’ works that have come forth, stringed instruments must be tuned differently, sometimes for each work, which involves a process of ‘micro-tuning’.  This is not easy for any ensemble to do: sometimes it takes longer for a group to tune their instruments than to actually play the composition.  Performance is no easier: for the violins in particular, a good portion of the writing seemingly lies at or beyond the fifth position (sometimes on the bridge) and there is little recourse to vibrato.  The New York-based Jack Quartet have surfaced as masters in this field, exploring new works and techniques considerably beyond those attempted by the classic Kronos and Arditti ensembles.  Three works received their Canadian premiere at this concert, including one by a young Canadian, Taylor Brook.

Originally grouped with composers such as Ligeti, George Friedrich Haas (b. 1953) has become a true pioneer in microtonal composition.  His String Quartet No. 8 is his first attempt to create ‘micromelody,’ using sixth-tone and eighth-tone steps in a fugato that builds from a minimalist theme on the viola.  The opening progresses to increased complexity and density but the microtonal progress is relatively easy to understand: the work moves slowly to higher tones in very small intervals and these are developed in parallel to descending passages later on that creep continuously downward in the same increments.  The work essentially builds up from nothing, and descends down to nothing at its conclusion, always occupying a remote and somewhat acerbic world.  Variations in meter and texture are critical to developing the work’s internal integrity but, over its full 20 minutes, the feeling is of a perfectly symmetric ‘fantasia’ on an elusive theme that one can feel but never quite articulate.    

Taylor Brook (b. 1985) has studied with Haas during his current doctoral sojourn at Columbia University.  His composition is comprised of a series of ‘songs’ in the microtonal tradition but which also aim to juxtapose some of the tangible diversity in musical history: for example, African music and Bartok.  The philosophical inspiration is the relativistic notion that the history of music can be re-imagined through many different lenses (conjunctions of genres) – an idea that is unfortunately specific to a particular ‘lens’ itself.  Be that as it may, I found these experiments very impressive for a young composer, structurally cogent but also finding an emotional resonance as well, moving variously through attractively refined, warmly rhapsodic and strongly uncompromising projections.  

String Quartet No. 5 by Horațiu Rădulescu (1942-2008) was premiered in Paris twenty years ago but still represents a path-breaking contribution and a very innovative effort to redefine the dynamics and motion of a string quartet.  One might see this work as written in ‘cyclical form’, but instead of gravitating to an ultimate tonal equilibrium, it always uses devices to push away and search for something else.  This means that it is the consistency of the departures from cohesion that actually define the structural equilibrium of this new conception.  The title of the work, ‘before the universe was born,’ gives a clue to some of the representations: an almost indeterminate ‘white noise’ that the music consistently attempts to break, climbing up to find stronger cross rhythms, subsequently moving to a feeling of ‘fluids in suspension’, and then toying with just a hint of a pagan theme.  Later on, we find a particularly insistent, and human, statement by the viola.  Soft low tones (and their overtones) are used as effectively as very high ones, the latter moving right up to intangibility: all we see at one point are the bowing actions without identifiable sound.  I was very impressed with just how much this composition takes on.

Because of its sheer technical difficulty, this Rădulescu quartet has not been performed very often.  It is quite amazing to see the Jack Quartet negotiate it.  Leaving aside the difficulties in actually tuning the instruments, it involves so many string techniques of incredible difficulty.  Bowing without sound is one of them, bowing that involves only the lightest brushing of the strings is another.  Then, there is all the skill required to keep both the evenness and timbre of the highest tones and the often half-spoken murmurings of the lower ones.  Indeed, each one of these works requires a huge investment in both preparation and technique.  

‘Hat’s off’ therefore to the Jack Quartet for giving us the proceeds of their ongoing learning process, an exploration that they appear to undertake so selflessly.  Their ensemble is definitive, and their degree of unanimity and precision in the many soft passages in particular is disarming.  But they do have stunning flexibility; they can also spring in an instant to an incredible display of virtuoso power.

© Geoffrey Newman 2015

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