Music For Writers: The JACK Quartet’s ‘Ride’

iStockphoto / MeltonBoy
iStockphoto / MeltonBoy

‘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.

John Pickford Richards
John Pickford Richards

“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.

For a time, the album, from New Focus Recordings, was streamed free on demand as an 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.

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” 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.

Mauricio Pauly 'Swerve' score excerpt provided by JACK Quartet, John Pickford Richards
Mauricio Pauly ‘Swerve’ score excerpt provided by JACK Quartet, John Pickford Richards

“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.”

Maricio Pauly Swerve score performance notes excerpt provided by JACK Quartet John Richards 2
Mauricio Pauly ‘Swerve’ score performance instructions excerpt, the “Re-articulation clef,” provided by JACK Quartet, John Pickford Richards

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 JACK Quartet - Photo: Justin Bernhaut
The JACK Quartet – Photo: Justin Bernhaut

‘We Talk A Lot About Our Feelings’

“We all met up at school. We weren’t best buddies while at school,” the Eastman School of Music.

“We’d never played together as a quartet at school,” Richards says, although they were involved in other larger-form groupings at times. “We were well-acquainted with each other, we had history together, but we didn’t have pre-existing dependencies on each other as friends, which I think was good.”

Once out of school, the four men had several opportunities to play together and their artistic chemistry became apparent enough that the quartet’s formation made sense.

Today, Richards says, the group is actually quite close, as people as well as musicians. “We always travel together. We get into a car together or we’re on the same plane, same train, same buses.”

It means more to us for the quartet to all be happy than to play 150 concerts a year. John Pickford Richards

This isn’t always the case. In many instances, even in small ensembles, the members will make their own travel arrangements and simply meet at performance venues.

“We get along really well,” Richards says. “We talk a lot about our feelings, making sure we communicate effectively with each other. We’ve never really had a big fight. We like to joke that what we consider our biggest fights are tiny little squabbles to the rest of the world.

“We’re all really different in terms of our personalities. I think we complement each other well that way. We have three children in the quartet now, too, which is somewhat new. So we try not to be away for more than a week at a time, which I think is good, keeps us healthy.”

Being based in New York City, Richards says, is a help on holding down travel. “There’s such a big audience here that it’s possible to play several times a year here and not wear them out.

“I think our biggest goal is to put the interests of the members before the interests of the quartet. It means more to us for the quartet to all be happy than to play 150 concerts a year.”

Cover JACK Quartet altaVoz ComposersThe JACK is working now on a major collaborative project with 80-year-old San Diego-based Pulitzer Prize-winning composer Roger Reynolds. FLiGHT involves not only the quartet but also the work of videographer Ross Karre and computer musician Paul Hembree. There are events in the Washington, DC, area coming up next February and March in the developing work.

“We’re going to be able to do some movement onstage,” Richards says about the project — hardly the norm for a quartet. He describes box-like scrimmed set components on which projections will be screened during FLiGHT — members of the quartet may be involved in choreography around those stage units.

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.”

“We tend to have one CD that’s all-JACK Quartet in a year,” meaning something like the áltaVoz Composers album with multiple composers represented. “Then two to four albums” each focused on a single composer.

The good news for those of us who enjoy their work — especially for how its variety can inform and contribute to other aesthetic efforts, like writing — is that the JACK is so happy together, Richards tells me.

“We try to take a month off in the summer, just to be sure we get some time away from each other.” He pauses, and then: “And you know, I miss them when we’re apart.” TC mark

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