The JACK Quartet (Photo by Shervin Lainez, courtesy the artists).

Contemporary classical music ensembles face a dilemma when programming concerts: how much of the program should be devoted to the newest and most experimental works, and how much filled with reliable standards and crowd-pleasers? Many find a middle ground, peppering their concerts with Stravinsky here, a dash of Shostakovich there, and then a smidgen of something newer. But not so the JACK Quartet—its recent concert at the Wallis Annenberg Center for Performing Arts was aggressively modern, without compromise. Thoroughly exhilarating.

The JACK Quartet came to prominence in 2009 with its debut recording, a collection of the complete string quartets of the Greek-French composer, Iannis Xenakis (1922-2001). His music is among the most difficult ever written (Alex Ross notes that one of Xenakis’s percussion pieces requires additional appendages to perform). JACK’s assured performances of  Xenakis vaulted it into the vanguard of new music ensembles.

The quartet opened its recent concert at the Wallis with Structures, a short piece by Morton Feldman (1926-1987) from 1951. A 65-year-old work might seem like a strange opener for a group devoted to new music, but it was  radical. Feldman, obsessed with silences and quiet sound, in Structures, asks instruments to play with mutes, and bows to pull across strings with the lightest pressure. There is no noticeable attack to the notes; they materialize out of thin air, requiring the audience fantastically to strain to hear them, and blur the already tenuous line between sound and silence. This creates a ghostly effect,  far from the raucous opener many groups prefer. 

The JACK Quartet (Photo by Kevin Parry for the Wallis).

In addition to performing experimental and lesser-known music, the JACK Quartet’s concert featured the work of two female composers. First: Ruth Crawford Seeger’s String Quartet from 1931. Crawford Seeger (1901-1953) only composed serious classical music for a few years before switching her focus to transcribing and preserving American folk songs in the mid-1930s. The String Quartet is her masterwork and one of the great pieces of 20th Century American music. Rather than melodies backed by harmonies, the quartet is structured to sound as if a single musical line is being played. The four instruments each interject among one another, their parts a series of puzzle pieces that create a full picture when combined.

The final piece for the Wallis concert’s first half, Early That Summer (1993) by Julia Wolfe (b. 1958), was a welcome respite, following, as it did, two dissonant, atonal works.  Wolfe’s quartet opened with see-sawing figures that alternated between sweet consonances and harsh outbursts. Her program notes state that the piece was inspired by a rising sense of tension she felt reading a history book. She doesn’t mention the subject or the book’s title, but the music seems appropriate to a military subject: the rapid-fire notes sound like machine gun reports. After the chugging rhythms had successfully ratcheted up the tension, the strings faded out without warning over a single held note for nearly a minute. It created an interesting effect in which tiny variations in volume allowed each of the instruments to rise to the top of chord, giving a sense of movement, even though each person was playing a static note.

After intermission the JACK Quartet returned with Intonations (2016) by Derek Bermel (b. 1967). JACK gave the piece its premiere at the 2016 New York Philharmonic Biennial. Bermel cites Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man as an inspiration for the music. The music had elements of jazz, gospel, and especially the blues. Violinists Christopher Otto and Austin Wulliman traded off a series of scooped notes that gave the feel of a human singer. Compared to some of the more abstract pieces on the program, Intonations was full of aural pictures. The lighter first movement evoked scenes of a rural farm. It had a humor and lightness that brought to mind some of the Looney Tunes music of Carl Stalling, like a Foghorn Leghorn short. But each movement grew progressively darker. The eerie plucked strings of the third movement brought to mind a nighttime walk through a dark and sinister city. The quartet also began to play microtonal notes, pitches that fall between the established notes of Western music, which create a sense of unease.

Austin Wulliman and Christopher Otto of the JACK Quartet (Photo by Kevin Parry for the Wallis).

The concert ended with Iannis Xenakis’s Tetras (1983), the piece that the JACK Quartet made its name with. In addition to his work as a composer, Xenakis was also a visionary architect. Many of his compositions were partially written using mathematical equations and graphic notation from his architecture projects. It sounds like the recipe for cold and mechanical music, but Xenakis’s works are anything but, full of vibrancy and wit. Tetras opened with the players sliding notes and using a variety of extending techniques, like bowing on the wrong side of the bridge, or on the tailpiece, or tapping the bodies of their instruments with their hands. The intro turns into a catalogue of bodily noises, about as human as it gets—the unusual sounds replicate burps, farts, groans, and cracked knuckles. Tetras becomes an exploration of the possibilities of sound, requiring the performers to expand traditional conceptions of how a string instrument is played through extended techniques. JACK’s rhythms were perfectly layered, and every section moved along effortlessly like a well-oiled machine. Even the best new music ensembles sometimes flub a part here or there in pieces as complicated as Tetras, but the JACK Quartet has it in their blood now.

Before the concert started, I overheard multiple people in my vicinity mention that they knew nothing about the group and just came because they liked classical music.I had a feeling some of them would sneak out at intermission. But they stayed and, by the end of the concert, they were on their feet applauding. The JACK Quartet’s quartet presented a difficult program, but their bold choices and palpable enthusiasm sold it.