Ostrava Days (5): JACK Quartet both consummate and luminous

Czech RepublicCzech Republic Ostrava Days 2011 (5): Xenakis, Tornyai, Balogh, Sharp, Radulescu: JACK Quartet, Philharmonic Hall, Ostrava, Czech Republic 02.09.2011 (GG)

Iannis Xenakis: Ergma
Péter Tornyai: doubleaf; Sequenza Prima
Maté Gergely Balogh: C-o-n-s-u-m-m-a-t-u-m e-s-t
Péter Tornyai: doubleaf: Sequenza Seconda
Elliott Sharp: The Boreal
Horatiu Radalescu: “before the universe was born”

This astounding concert by the JACK Quartet was one of the high points of the Ostrava Days 2011 festival, a combination of breathtaking programming and equally impressive playing. In a year, and a festival, which has already been full of great music and promises a good deal more, this is already one of my top musical experiences.

Credit to the programming goes to both Petr Kotik and the Quartet members. Kotik asked them to play some music from students in the festival Institute, and selected two strong works, each with a level of craft and discipline that belied the composers’ experience. JACK chose the rest, which began with an obdurate avant-garde masterpiece and proceeded on to explore some thrilling, esoteric territory.

The student composers were Péter Tornyai and Maté Gergely Balogh. The former’s doubleaf uses beautiful materials – glistening long tones, delicate pizzicati and rich, melancholic phrases – to make a mesmerizing work in two parts (Sequenza Prima and Sequenza Seconda). Tornyai keeps things quiet, maintaining a good deal of silence and space, and carefully places events in time. He’s not creating a new style, certainly, but he’s working exceptionally well in a known one. His discipline falters a bit in the second sequence, where there are long stretches of relatively conventional harmonic and melodic writing; that’s not the strength of the piece. When he returns to his personal sound world, the music is again engrossing. Discipline is the key word, because he is crafting music that works in his ear, and for us to trust his ear, which for the most part we do, we need to trust his discipline.

Balogh also exercises admirable discipline in his musical re-imagining of Christ’s last words on the cross. The hyphenated title indicates his goal, one group sound event for every letter in the sentence “consummatum est.” There is only one pitch in the work – G – and while the sound events use a similar device (a hard articulation that leads to a first sustained tone that is then silenced by another), he varies the dynamics, phrase lengths and rhythms effectively. And after a tidy three minutes, neither too short nor too long, the piece has had its say and come to a close. It’s both effective and affecting.

JACK have made a specialty of Xenakis, and are fine advocates for Ergma, which is easier to admire than to like. It is so stubbornly unwilling to look outside itself – to be a work to be performed rather than just thought – that it can be off-putting, yet the JACK musicians play it with obvious skill and a kind of poker-faced clarity. They advocate for the music by simply allowing it to sound, and that aesthetic sobriety means after a few minutes of intervals being pushed against each other like mountains, the ear grows accustomed and finds, if not understanding, then some real beauty.

Elliott Sharp’s piece, from 2010, The Boreal, is simultaneously similar and very different. Like Xenakis, he pushes a lot of noisy, dissonant intervals against each other. He also has developed alternate “bows” for the piece, including ones made with metal springs. Structurally, it alternates between using the bow in a broad range of standard techniques, and rubbing the springs – and chains, too – against the strings, producing sounds that I have truly never heard, via any means or in any situation. Much of it sounds like a scream traversing a wind tunnel, the aural sense of great energy and color shimmering in space, like the atmospheric event from which Sharp gets his title. The writing seems careful, put together with an excellent sense of time and proportion, and within its own language quite varied, always interesting and powerful. Like the aurora borealis, Sharp has created an object that flows and turns in front of us, but at some distance. In Philharmonic Hall, JACK Quartet’s performance was intense but also warm and involving, more satisfying even than their fine recording of an earlier version from the 2009 Wittener Tage für neue Kammermusik. This is a great piece, a notable signpost in the road of experimental music that parallels the standard classical tradition.

Radulescu’s astonishing quartet, “before the universe was born”, is the fifth of what may be six or more total quartets (information about him is not up to date since his death in 2008) and an object of an altogether different kind; it both surrounds and reaches into the audience. The composer was one of the few true avant-gardists of modern music. Like Giacinto Scelsi, he explored new instrumental techniques – not to incorporate the sounds as parts of more familiar structures and forms, but fundamental to both process and resolution. He can be called a spectralist in that he used extended natural harmonics and such phenomena as “difference tones” to produce a certain sonic quality, but his music is not about harmony; it’s about, as the title of the work may indicate, a profoundly deep, at times harrowing, mystical journey via music into alternate perceptions and ideas. He was personally involved in the “Tao Te Ching,” but his music, at least in this example, goes far beyond the poetry of that work and into Scelsi’s territory, using sound as a tool to possibly open up a path to a different universe. Whether he succeeds or not of course depends on one’s personal inclination, and that will probably confine performances to a small group of specialists. (Also, Radulescu’s incredibly hermetic notational language was daunting enough that JACK relied on a musician who had collaborated with the composer to translate the meaning of the instructions.) So it is both to JACK’s great credit and to the honor of the legacy of the composer, that they perform the piece and have expressed the desire to record his entire string quartets.

And how they perform this music! Their cool demeanor belies their huge, confident sound, and their tremendous concentration in this thirty-minute work fully conveys the intensity of the inner experience. The piece is static, a series of extended group explorations of the possibility of string instruments, starting with the relative simplicity of spectral scordatura and evolving into effects that seem unreal, impossible: whale songs, phase-shifted wah-wah pedal, something that might be a cavern howling. The tone is dark and a bit forbidding, but not frightening. Radulescu is exploring profound extra-musical territory, beyond the normal concerns of society, and that is inherently daunting. The music is so overwhelming and so gripping that time stands still, and yet it seems to conclude in barely a moment; paradoxically, it leaves one exhausted and refreshed. JACK’s performance must be considered definitive, completely mastering the idiom and the expression.

The final words go to the composer. After the applause had finally ended and the musicians retired, I examined the score. Radulescu divided each page into two systems, and printed text above each. These are the two phrases written on that last page (the notes themselves ending in a series of ties, connected to nothing but space, drifting off seemingly into eternity): “The DAO will be luminous inside you and you will return to your primal self/The world is sacred and it cannot be moved.”

George Grella