Skittering strings. Large, looping passages. Perfectly eerie little scenes. Such is the sonic landscape in which the JACK Quartet can frequently be found. Violinists Christopher Otto and Ari Streisfeld, violist John Pickford Richards and cellist Kevin McFarland met at the Eastman School of Music, where they were involved in the school's Ossia new music organization.
"We would put on crazy shows of some of the most intense repertoire out there," Streisfeld says, reminiscing about the group's early days. The members, selected out of Ossia to participate in a new music festival in Morelia, Mexico, soon connected with the German composer Helmut Lachenmann, who has served as a mentor for the group ever since. In 2009, the quartet received an ASCAP/Chamber Music America Award for adventurous programming of contemporary music.
In addition to keeping up a regular performance schedule in the U.S. — and, this summer, in France, Austria and the U.K. — the quartet supports new composers and cultivates up-and-coming talent.
"Working with composers is one of the most exciting parts of what we do," Streisfeld says. "We try to find each composer's sound world and style so we can play their music the way they envisioned it."
Streisfeld cites Elliott Carter, Salvatore Sciarrino and John Zorn among the contemporary composers JACK has not yet worked with, but who have caught the quartet's eye.
For its performance in the Greene Space on Thursday, the JACK Quartet will run the gamut on the timeline, performing Death Valley Junction by contemporary Brooklyn-based composer Missy Mazzoli and Tetras by Iannis Xenaxis, as well as Streisfeld's own arrangements of three pieces by Carlo Gesualdo, a Renaissance composer who may be as well known for murdering his wife and her lover in 1590 as he was for his intensely experimental (for the time) madrigals.
"I always felt that, because of the tumultuous love life [Gesualdo] had, the music he wrote later in life is still in the late Renaissance style, but he kind of pushes it to a whole other level," Streisfeld says. "His use of chromatic harmony, the color of the text, is quite experimental. He still sounds strange to us today."
Streisfeld says the JACK Quartet sees a clear narrative arc from Gesualdo's Renaissance pieces to Mazzoli's contemporary ideas.
"We find it interesting to pair music by those early composers, writing without the rules of Western music in whatever way they felt like, against composers that are now creating new rules in what they write," he says.
"Too often, people go to classical concerts and expect to hear certain pieces and sounds" Streisfeld adds. "I want people to start going to concerts expecting to hear something new, something they've never heard before."
- Mazzoli: Death Valley Junction
- Gesualdo: Three Madrigals (arr: Streisfeld)
- Zenakis: Tetras