JACK Quartet: JACK Quartet plays áltaVoz composers

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New music powerhouse JACK Quartet performs works by four Latin American emigré composers whose works transcend boundaries of nation and tradition.

Audio

# Audio Title/Composer(s) Time
Total Time 45:09
01Tran(slate)
Tran(slate)
8:23
02L'ardito e quasi stridente gesto
L'ardito e quasi stridente gesto
10:39
03Every new volition a mercurial swerve
Every new volition a mercurial swerve
10:14

String Quartet no. 3 música fúnebre y nocturna

Jorge Villavicencio Grossmann
04I. Lento ma non tanto
I. Lento ma non tanto
4:58
05II. Hochetus, pizzicato ostinato
II. Hochetus, pizzicato ostinato
2:50
06III. Passacaglia spezzata. Lento molto
III. Passacaglia spezzata. Lento molto
8:05

Felipe Lara's work "Tran(slate)" engages with what he describes as "the artist's impossible desire/obsession of starting from a blank slate, tabula rasa." Formed in Boston in 2003, áltaVoz is a group of Latin American emigré composers currently living in North America and Europe. The pieces performed by the stellar Jack Quartet on this recording suggest that these four Latin American composers have embraced, if not a "tabula rasa", then a quasi-universal modernist vocabulary that is more allied with a global academic tradition than anything specifically germane to aesthetics specifically associated with their native countries. Composers Felipe Lara (Brasil), Jose Luis Hurtado (Mexico), Mauricio Pauly (Costa Rica), and Jorge Villavicencio Grossman (Peru/Brasil) have all established themselves as dynamic voices in Europe and North and South America and important figures in academia. This recording was made in conjunction with a concert presented by the Americas Society in New York in 2010 featuring the critically acclaimed new music specialists Jack Quartet in performances of these works.

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Lara's piece "translates" characteristic gestures from the controlled world of electronic music onto instrumental gestures in the string quartet, expanding on a concept integral to the chamber music of one of his professors and mentors, Argentine-American composer Mario Davidovsky. University of New Mexico professor José Luis-Hurtado's "L'ardito e quasi stridente gesto" explores oppositional elements of a single expressive character, one of unease and tension. In Royal Northern College faculty member Mauricio Pauly's "Every New Volition a Mercurial Swerve" composite instrumental analogues are created within the ensemble, with one instrument triggering another with quick glissandi, accelerating and decelerating figures, and brusque pizzicato chords. Midway through the piece, ethereal harmonics create a weightless repose between episodic interruptions. Ithaca College professor Jorge Villavicencio Grossmann's String Quartet no. 3 not only has the most conventional title of the set, but also uses an approach to string quartet writing that is closely aligned with traditional repertoire for the combination. Opening with a haunting passage featuring an austere unison duo over an eerie accompanimental ostinato, Grossmann's work engages in instrumental character pairings not unlike what one hears in Elliott Carter's Second String Quartet. The second movement is written primarily in pizzicato, with the instruments hocketing in a rhythmic texture. The final movement is a deeply felt piece based on a flexibly realized passacaglia. Towards the end of the work, a brief quote from Bach's chorale "Es ist genug" ("it is enough") is heard, tying this expressive quartet to the roots of a tradition it reverentially honors in its construction.

Closing this excellently curated and performed recording with Grossmann's expressionist quartet suggests that the elusive "tabula rasa" may relate more to the lineage of the string quartet itself than any impact of emigration on the aesthetic of these four composers. The string quartet is a notoriously daunting genre to tackle, and the áltaVoz composers have contributed four substantial works to the repertoire that both push it forward while growing from roots in the rich and long tradition they are building upon.

Recorded, mixed and mastered by Ryan Streber at Oktaven Studio in Yonkers, NY.
Produced by José Luis Hurtado, Felipe Lara, Mauricio Pauly and Jorge Villavicencio Grossmann.
Artwork by Mauricio Quirós.

JACK Quartet

The JACK Quartet electrifies audiences worldwide with "explosive virtuosity" (Boston Globe) and "viscerally exciting performances" (New York Times). David Patrick Stearns (Philadelphia Inquirer) proclaimed their performance as being "among the most stimulating new-music concerts of my experience." The Washington Post commented, "The string quartet may be a 250-year-old contraption, but young, brilliant groups like the JACK Quartet are keeping it thrillingly vital." Alex Ross (New Yorker) hailed their performance of Iannis Xenakis' complete string quartets as being "exceptional" and "beautifully harsh," and Mark Swed (Los Angeles Times) called their sold-out performances of Georg Friedrich Haas' String Quartet No. 3 "mind-blowingly good."

The recipient of New Music USA's 2013 Trailblazer Award, the quartet has performed to critical acclaim at Carnegie Hall (USA), Lincoln Center (USA), Wigmore Hall (United Kingdom), Suntory Hall (Japan), Salle Pleyel (France), Muziekgebouw aan 't IJ (Netherlands), La Biennale di Venezia (Italy), the Lucerne Festival (Switzerland), Bali Arts Festival (Indonesia), Reykjavik Arts Festival (Iceland), Festival Internacional Cervatino (Mexico), Kölner Philharmonie (Germany), Donaueschinger Musiktage (Germany), Wittener Tage für neue Kammermusik (Germany), and Darmstadt Internationale Ferienkurse für Neue Musik (Germany).

Comprising violinists Christopher Otto and Ari Streisfeld, violist John Pickford Richards, and cellist Kevin McFarland, JACK is focused on the commissioning and performance of new works. In addition to working with composers and performers, JACK seeks to broaden and diversify the potential audience for new music through educational presentations designed for a variety of ages, backgrounds, and levels of musical experience.

The members of the quartet met while attending the Eastman School of Music and studied closely with the Arditti Quartet, Kronos Quartet, Muir String Quartet, and members of the Ensemble Intercontemporain.


Reviews

Boston Globe

A single concert experience knocked Felipe Lara off of his projected career path. Born in Brazil, Lara came to Boston to attend the Berklee College of Music, planning to study improvisation, guitar, and jazz arrangement. One night in 2000, he found himself at Symphony Hall for a performance of Olivier Messiaen’s massive “Turangalila Symphony” by the Boston Symphony Orchestra under Seiji Ozawa.

“That really changed things for me,” Lara said recently by phone. He promptly switched majors, eventually graduating from Berklee with a degree in composition. He went on to earn a master’s degree from Tufts University and a doctorate from New York University. He’s now a highly regarded young composer whose portfolio includes commissions from the International Contemporary Ensemble and the Arditti Quartet.

During Lara’s time in Boston, he noticed that composers of Hispanic and Latin American origin were not always adequately represented in concert programs. So in 2003 he and four fellow graduate students at various schools — José Luis Hurtado (Mexico), Pedro Malpica (Peru), Mauricio Pauly (Costa Rica), and Jorge Villavicencio Grossmann (Peru) — formed áltaVoz, a consortium aimed at enhancing the presence of Latin American new music around Boston. Its members have since moved away from the city — though Pauly has newly returned for a Radcliffe Fellowship at Harvard University — but they remain dedicated to advancing a neglected stream of the avant-garde. Works for string quartet by four of the composers are on a recent CD on the New Focus Recordings label, in committed performances by the JACK Quartet.

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Lara pointed out that many prominent Latin American composers of the early 20th century became known for incorporating the folk idioms of their respective countries into their music. To judge from the works on the new recording, though, the composers of áltaVoz take their bearings from abstract, less figurative sources. Lara’s “Tran(slate)” is a reworking of a piece for quartet and electronics, in which the processes that control the studio-generated sounds have been translated into colorful and energetic textures for the strings.

Hurtado’s “L'ardito e quasi stridente gesto” moves from breathless, eruptive gestures to an uneasy stillness, while Pauly’s “Every New Volition a Mercurial Swerve,” has tough, wiry sounds that build and subside in irregularly shaped peaks and valleys. Next to these, Grossmann’s Third Quartet is contemplative and, in its pizzicato middle movement, almost playful, with subtle tonal inflections. The occasional sonic similarity aside, these are four composers with resolutely distinct voices and strategies.

So what, if anything, links them today? What might underlie a Latin American avant-garde? Lara avoids easy answers, though he does think of the idiom as being “inherently cosmopolitan. For us, the entire career was kind of outside our native birthplace.” That’s because many of those countries lack not only a tradition of new music, but also the performers anxious to tackle it.

“At least in Brazil, I can say, there’s really not a lot of new music ensembles, or even players, who are interested or willing to play more challenging new music,” he explained. “There’s a lot of people doing electroacoustic music in Latin America, but it’s very hard to write acoustic music and have it performed, like you see in Boston or New York — they have young groups of phenomenal musicians very hungry to play and present all kinds of new music.”

Like, for example, the JACK Quartet, which Lara praises highly and compares to the Arditti Quartet, a group that premiered “Tran(slate)” and, more broadly, set the standard for a contemporary-music string quartet years ago. “If you think of the Arditti Quartet, whom I’m crazy about, they have that explosive, fiery sound that is kind of a trademark. And the JACK can have that sound if you want them to, but they also have this really refined, classical controlled sound that I love.”

- David Weininger, 9.4.14

Q2 Music

If the JACK Quartet continues producing definitive recordings at its current rate, preschools may be obligated to launch composition departments to fill the demand for new scores.

The group’s latest release zeroes in on áltaVoz Composers, a consortium of Latin-American composers schooled in the United States. All are ferociously talented yet underrepresented, and with their voices filtered through the discerning lens of JACK and the New Focus Recordings label, the results are luring and delectable.

Felipe Lara from Brazil contributes Tran(slate). This piece endeavors to transmute electronic music phenomena into the often equally-glitchy world of the analog string quartet, and here we have JACK at its most elegant. The friction of a bow grinding in to over-pressure, abrupt whips like a record spun in reverse, and the thwacks of snap pizzicati never play as confrontational, but rather, are delivered as familiar and enchanting as any Romantic-era gesture.

L’ardito e quasi strident gesto by Mexican José Luis Hurtado moves the action into a more percussive sphere. It often plays like the sounds of cherished possessions clattering to the pavement, tossed off a 40th-floor balcony by a fed-up lover. Objects delicately flutter on descent, creating fascinating rhythms as they asymmetrically split open upon contact.

The vertical bent of the Hurtado leads us to the horizontal, Rube-Goldberg machine of Every new volition a mercurial swerve by Mauricio Pauly of Costa Rica The JACK players coordinate the pace of their bow strokes in relation to one another here, like a self-regulating confederacy of tone-crunchers, and the final bars of the piece are as gripping as anything we've heard.

In an odd twist, the most historical-sounding piece – and the album’s only multi-movement work – is saved for last. Jorge Villavicencio Grossmann’s String Quartet No. 3, "música fúnebre y nocturna," finds its voice in the midpoint of the last century. Perhaps unsurprisingly, it is dedicated to the Brazilian/Peruvian composer’s former teachers, Lukas Foss and Ayrton Pinto. The playing here is expert, from chromatic meanderings through luminous, hocket-ed pizzicato, and into dusky melodies.

-Doyle Armbrust

Thought Catalog

‘The Ride Of Our Repertoire’

“What was that term you used? ‘Screechy?'”

John Pickford Richards is laughing at me as he takes a question about how reachy — “not at all screechy, John,” I assure him — some of the music on the JACK Quartet’s new album may be for these artists.

As personable a conversationalist as you’ll find anywhere in the business, Richards is the J in the JACK, the guy the New York Times has described as the ensemble’s “wholesome-faced” violist, a former founding member of Alarm Will Sound.

He and his three colleagues — violinists Ari Streisfeld and Christopher Otto, and cellist Kevin McFarland — are known for being unknown, in a way: they take a certain delight in their ability to create influential recordings and highly significant performances — 70 or so a year — in a wide variety of styles, periods, tone, and range of material.

“We don’t latch on to any one style,” Richards says. “We draw from all sorts of pools of music, which is something I really enjoy about the quartet.”

Like authors who can jump, writerly chameleons, from one genre to another, the JACK can keep even the most devoted of its fans guessing with what Richards calls “the ride of our repertoire.”

An energetic illustration of this is on display in their new album, JACK Quartet Plays áltaVoz Composers.

You can hear the album free from New Focus Recordings in this week’s Album of the Week offering from Q2 Music, the 24-hour free stream of contemporary composition, an international service of New York Public Radio’s WQXR.

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The áltaVoz Composers‘ consortium is made up of contemporary Latin American composers who were schooled in the States. By bringing together the work of four of them on this CD, the JACK creates a kind of chamber-tight demonstration of the rich divergence of voice and vocabulary their work manifests.

By the end of the album, for example, they’re wringing a pensive, deeply reflective sadness out of Jorge Villavicencio Grossmann’s 3rd String Quartet, musica fúnebre y nocturna. 

Schoenberg, himself, would have been proud to evoke a night so transfigured by the gentle but trenchant motif that resolves the strings’ lovely distress in the third movement, Passacaglia spezzata. It means a “broken” passacaglia. And it sounds heartbroken. This music sobs itself into a wistful silence too soon, you want much more of it.

As violist Doyle Ambrust writes at Q2 Music, the Grossmann “finds its voice in the midpoint of the last century,” giving it what Ambrust identifies as an “historical” sound.

That’s not unwelcome, either, quite the contrary. While even the most staid traditionalist might find good comfort in the darkening sighs of the Grossmann, the gorgeously named Every new volition a mercurial swerve from Maricio Pauly actually means more business with that title more than you might think.

‘Our Minds Kind Of Get Torn In Two’

“Pauly’s quartet,” Richard says, “is mind-stretching” for the JACK. “It has a whole extra staff of graphic notation — in addition to the specific traditional notation. Our minds kind of get torn in two.”

Having your mind torn in two might not sound like a good time in a recording studio to you, but the JACK guys love it, Richards says. And he’s sent me the Pauly score so I can show you what he’s talking about.

In the image below, you’re looking at a page with the usual staves for the first and second violins, the viola and the cello (properly, a “violoncello,” hence the “VLA” [sic] abbreviation for its line). What you see above each staff in the green and blue is a form of what’s called tablature, musical notation that’s outside the standard.

“There’s an element of improvisation” to playing this, Richards says. “The staff for the bow has a line that goes up and down and there’s the color involved, as well. And it indicates the articulation and the speed of the bow rhythm. So while the left hand has very specific rhythms, the bow might be speeding up and slowing down in a way that’s somewhat up to the performer — and designated by this graphic notation.

“So there’s an element of performer input, a little bit more than most pieces.”

As long as the bows are in the hands of the JACK, Pauly’s in good shape. They work with a precision, a discipline that can sort out and handle the intricacies of such layered notation.

The score arrives with instructions on how to handle the “re-articulation clef” in performance. They explain that the blue line’s lower reaches indicate slow action rising to fast. An abrupt vertical line means the performer is to “stop re-articulating,” and once resumed, that re-articulation of the bow can be “interrupted by a once-occurring note.”

“There’s an element of precision, for sure,” Richards says. “I’d be interested to hear another group play it. The subtlety” of the effects this kind of notation — not quite musical, more tactile — “could really change from group to group.

“We work so much with each other that we read each other very quickly. We work as an organism, you know?”

You can hear the sheer physical agility going on in the JACK’s handling of Pauly’s Swerve — full, indeed, of musical swerves — long, eerie glissandi lifting those bows in what Ambrust calls “a self-regulating confederacy of tone-crunchers.” Lines rise and fall, the players suddenly and briefly unified in pizzicato, then dashing off again to their own corners of the score’s sharp angles.

No, it’s not music you’ll be humming an hour after you near it. But Pauly unsettles you in a delicious way, not least because he can use those rhythmic notations to suddenly slow the group into a quaint ensemble-wide bounce, then send a violin soaring to wail like a carnivale whistle.

I ask Richards if it can be a hindrance as well as a help at times. among musicians so close to each other, to be able, as they are, to anticipate what will come from each other’s work?

Richards thinks about it for a moment, then comes out with a diplomatic swerve of his own and a laugh: “It’s definitely efficient.”

The new album — with a busy, worried pressure behind an engaged performance of José Luis-Hurtado: L’ardito e quasi stridente gesto and a buzz-and-rip opener from Felipe Lara, Tran(slate) — is the JACK Quartet’s 15th, by my count. Unlike some ensembles, the group doesn’t tour based on specific recordings but has amassed a remarkable breadth in that “ride of our repertoire.”

-Porter Anderson

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