JACK Quartet and three different generations of composers

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Jack Quartet by Beowulf Sheehan

The string quartet has, since its inception in the 18th century, been a constantly evolving, never stagnant point of reference for Western art music. In its various 21st century incarnations the string quartet reflects an eclecticism and openness to the influences not only of the compositional and performance practices of new and recent art musics, but of external sources drawn from a culturally porous, globalized world. On display in three recordings by the JACK Quartet of string quartets by three composers of three different generations is some of the diversity of the form as it currently exists.

At 85, Roger Reynolds represents the earliest generation of composers here. The album FLiGHT and Not Forgotten, which contains the two string quartets by those names, is the first of two planned volumes presenting his recent work. FLiGHT originally was created as an evening-long, multimedia work of which the four-movement string quartet was one, albeit a fundamental, element; the complete work included spoken word and projected images. Presented here by itself, the string quartet shows that it can stand alone as a substantive work in its own right. Rising and falling motifs, whether as glissandi or fully articulated phrases, define the piece, along with robust chords and sliding dissonances. As with some of Reynolds’ other recent work, such as the imagE-imAge set, its architecture is built up out of discrete, contrasting gestures. Not Forgotten is a work of six movements, each of which is dedicated to a composer or location that has had a formative effect on Reynolds. Although some signature moves recur throughout the music—sliding between notes, trills—each movement has its own distinct character. The second movement, for example, which is dedicated to Iannis Xenakis, works through textural contrasts between solo and ensemble playing; the third movement, dedicated to Toru Takemitsu, highlights contrasting dynamics. The movement dedicated to Elliott Carter has a subtle, neoclassical flavor, while the Ryoanji movement features noise-based gestures such as pressure-bowing and percussive strikes against the instrument.

John Luther Adams (b. 1953) takes the middle position within this generational series. Much of his music is inspired by the landscape not only of Alaska, where he lives, but by the landscapes of other places, some of them far removed from Alaska. His fifth string quartet, Lines Made by Walking, reflects some of his long walks in mountains, deserts and canyons in North and South America. In a manner reminiscent of the British land artist Richard Long, Adams has created a work using the material intrinsic to a given place, as filtered through the immediate experience of passing through that place. Lines Made by Walking is a canon piece that uses the limited, tonal material of a single melodic line that Adams deploys as an organizing motif to be layered and varied across three movements. The first movement, Up the Mountain, is appropriately enough built on ascending lines; the second movement, Along the Ridges, favors neither ascending nor descending motion; while the final movement, Down the Mountain, is largely made up of downward-moving phrases. The combination of tonality and contrapuntal writing gives the music an expansive feel that summons images of broad-horizoned skies above and rugged ground below. Like Lines Made by Walking, Untouched, another three-movement work, is strongly tonally focused. The piece was inspired by Adams’ hearing the wind play through an aeolian harp he brought out onto the tundra; its languorous, long tones evoke images of the sustained breath of wind across barren land. The last movement is notable for the sheer crystalline beauty of its vanishingly ethereal harmonics. Both works demonstrate that tonal music hasn’t lost any of its power to be deeply moving.

Chinese-American composer Du Yun (b. 1977), the youngest of the three, writes music from a broad background of influences encompassing Western art and vernacular musics as well as the traditional music of her native land. She is also very strongly interested in story as a structuring framework for her music. Her A Cockroach’s Tarantella, for string quartet, electronics and narrator, is an elaborate, imaginative story that takes us inside the mind of a cockroach that wants to become human. Although many listeners might hear in it a kind of reversal of Franz Kafka’s Metamorphosis, it was inspired instead by the stories of reincarnation Du Yun heard as a child in China. There are two versions presented on the recording, one in English and one that Du Yun loosely translated from her original English into Chinese. As if to emphasize the cyclical nature of reincarnation, the story begins with the Epilogue, based on field recordings of a Wuhan market recently reopened after the COVID-19 shut-down, which serves as a kind of prelude to a new turn of the cycle of rebirths. The music works as a supportive setting for the narration, which is at the foreground of the piece. Also included on the album is Tattooed in Snow, a string quartet for spatially-distributed players. For this piece the music begins with a muted delicacy but turns dramatic; as it develops it makes allusions to non-Western microtonality as well as to pre-Baroque polyphony, and liberally uses contemporary extended performance techniques.

Of course the unifying thread connecting all three of these quite different sets of music is the JACK Quartet; taken together, these albums provide incontrovertible evidence of the group’s versatility and ability to inhabit and bring alive works of truly diverse sensibilities.