A Mind-Expanding Mental Meal

United StatesUnited States Elliott Sharp: JACK Quartet, The Stone, New York City. 4.10.2013 (DS)

 Elliott Sharp: The Boreal, Tranzience

 At The Stone, on the far reaches of New York’s AlphabetCity, the avant-garde music world continues to blaze forth despite the ever-glistening gentrification that surrounds it. It touts series curated by musicians and composers (rather than artistic directors or public relations aficionados) and therefore offers a richness of repertoire chosen by those most expert at creating it. Recently I attended a 40-minute set by the JACK Quartet of works by jazz-rock-classical composer Elliot Sharp, based in New York. The setting, tiny and bare-boned in decor, feels casual but the audience attention and player focus often put larger institutions to shame. Creativity, and its mentor hard work, fill any extra breathing space, and I always leave with a feeling of having had an extraordinary, satisfying and mind-expanding mental meal.

The JACK players highlighted a new quartet by Sharp, entitled Tranzience, following the shorter but sonically related work, The Boreal. Both experiment with the use of other tools, like wooden sticks or metal tubes, as bowing apparatus. However, the ease and fluidity of technique by which Jack’s players switched from bow to non-bow—along with Sharp’s structured textures and astute pairings of wooden or metallic effects—made these alternatives seem like long-time tools of the trade. Rather than being entertained by a composer simply trying for “new sounds,” I found I was pulled into a multi-layered emotional ride, built around an almost classically formed skeleton. Furthermore, Sharp carefully partnered rhythmic patterns with unfamiliar, eclectic sounds. Listeners—I’m sure—felt grounded, without sonic boundaries descending into chaos masked as “experimental.”

Tranzience ends with a build-up into what I can best describe as a bouquet of squealing sounds. It felt as if the work were about to turn itself inside out, exposing some kind of inner lava that had fertilized all that had come before. But just before the music practically tore itself apart, Sharp took us down the mountain to a squeaking soft whisper. And JACK let us off gently, carefully—ready to make the transition back into a gentrified Manhattan— floating transcendently, a couple of inches above the pavement.

Works like these take time to get to know, and I always feel cheated and maybe even a little nervous not getting to see the score itself (as if, without paper in hand, I might not have heard what I was really supposed to hear). But the foursome’s razor-sharp ensemble and honestly rendered interpretation were reassuring, even seductive. Halfway through the performance, Sharp turned off the air conditioning unit and one standing fan, and the rising temperature only made the quartet perform with greater determination, intensity and insight. I gave myself over to them (and to the heat).

Daniele Sahr