JACK Quartet launches NY Phil Biennial with edgy brilliance
“We are all going in different directions.” John Cage stated that in one of his mesostic performance lectures—an experimental work commenting on the state of the arts.
Those words came to mind during the New York Philharmonic’s Biennial Monday night at 92Y. JACK Quartet played three new and recent works from Mark Sabat, Derek Bermel, and Cenk Ergün–three paths of the myriad ways of contemporary classical composition and music making.
Play a word association game with “new music” and the response is something along the lines of “avant-garde,” a catchall term that attracts fanatics and repels audiences that adhere to the classical and romantic eras. But not all directions are avant-garde, and there’s a constant flow of music that is newly made without being avant-garde.
Before JACK began playing, Philharmonic music director Alan Gilbert made the point from the stage that the Biennial is “heavily curated, heavily edited.” Programs like the one that JACK played represent the Philharmonic’s view of the most fruitful current directions, and it is to the programmer’s credit that they choose three fine, very different composers.
Repeated exposure to JACK Quartet over several years means one expects the highest level of playing, but some of the technical and musical demands of the concert were daunting, and JACK met them with skill, brilliance, and extraordinary ease.
It is a truth, though barely acknowledged, that the dominant equal temperament tuning system is artificial, devised to assist the technology of keyboard instruments, especially the piano. Sabat’s Euler Lattice Spirals Scenery, in its New York debut, was new music that was made with the fundamental just intonation.
Just intonation is ancient (a popular name for it is Pythagorean tuning) and uses the natural harmonic intervals heard in vibrating strings and the human voice. Intervals are based on ratios—an octave is 2:1, a fifth is 3:2—rather than equal temperament’s 100 cents of a frequency between each note. A perfect fifth in just intonation is slightly but noticeably sharper than heard on the piano, and because it is a pure interval it glows like the sun.
Rabat’s piece, in four continuous sections, begins with a demonstration of terms, the musicians building octaves and fifths on open strings, then adding increasingly complex intervals, melodic phrases, and modulations. JACK’s incredibly precise intonation gave everything a sublime perfection—even the simple octaves seemed more beautiful than any other octaves ever played.
Though the music went from stillness to a higher state of energy and activity, it was always gentle, like waves lapping at the edge of a pond. The core of the pure sound was familiar to anyone who knows the music of Josquin or Palestrina, but the organic shape set it free of any older idea of structure—the piece, like the notes, came out of the vibration of the air. Listening was an involved and complex journey.
Bermel’s Intonations, despite the title, was back in common tuning. His first multi-movement quartet, and a world premiere, the title has to do with the qualities of the human voice, as inspired by Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man.
The composer’s own voice is extroverted and ingratiating, and Bermel is adept at working with ideas from popular idioms, which for Intonations included western swing, gypsy jazz, blues, and even sludgy heavy metal in the final movement.
But the piece didn’t present itself as popular, crossover music; there was an honest, relative stiffness to the rhythms and phrases. Bermel also used harmonics and occasional, underlined microtonal intervals that abstracted vocal inflections. These made this the work of a composer, not a songwriter, building structure out of abstract materials and exploiting classical ideas of development. The inherent verve in the music brought out explosive energy in JACK’s playing.
If Sabat was the past (in the topsy-turvy world of classical music) and Bermel the present, then Ergün was the future. A talented musical thinker and improviser, his two pieces for quartet, Celare and Sonare, combined conceptual art and contemporary musical practice.
Celare opened with stretches where the musicians applied vibrato with their left hands without actually producing pitches. The music moved back and forth between this concept and long tones, heavy with harmonics. Those gradually built into a grinding microtonal mass in which slight shifts in pitch and timbre became engrossing and momentous.
With a quizzical little ending, the quartet launched into Sonare, a furious wall of agitated sound, underpinned with a weird march rhythm that violinist Ari Streiefeld churned out with the exciting aplomb of a drum major. The music then blossomed into more hollow, flutey harmonics, and a captivating viola solo by John Pickford Richards. He produced an uncanny sound, like velvet played with fire. In the end, Sonare recalled bagpipes in the distance, perhaps some kind of continuing march into one direction out of many.
The NY Phil Biennial continues through June 11 with concerts at multiple venues. Violinist Jennifer Koh performs 7 p.m. Tuesday at National Sawdust. For complete information, go to nyphil.org/biennial