By Laurence Vittes
Since 2005 the JACK Quartet—violinist Christopher Otto and violist John Pickford Richards, two of the original founding members who met at Eastman, and recent recruits Austin Wulliman and cellist Jay Campbell—has been one of the engines of new music in the new century. They play new music pretty much exclusively, and always fearlessly. The quartet programs composers they believe in, and work with them to produce sounds which are theirs alone. The group frequently collaborates with other new music-focused ensembles—recently with Sō Percussion at Carnegie Hall, which featured music by Dan Trueman and Donnacha Dennehy.
It’s been like that all year for the quartet—in New York, Heidelberg, Omaha, Philadelphia, Boston, Seattle, Spoleto, London, Lisbon, Durham, and Winnipeg—just to name a few. They’ve already released three recordings this year: music by Chaya Czernowin and Laura Schwendinger, and John Luther Adams’ Everything That Rises.
The quartet will be featured in eight of this year’s Ojai Music Festival concerts June 7-10, and Campbell will even get a chance to play Ravel’s Duo for Violin and Cello with artistic director and violinist Patricia Kopatchinskaja.
I caught up with the quartet just before they embarked for the West Coast. The only rule: One question for each player.
How do you prepare for the Ravel—which is almost a whole century old and strictly notated—with a musician so noted for her improvising approach?
Jay Campbell I actually think Patricia’s spontaneity—which is what I think you meant by “improvising approach”—is really informed by all the small details in the score, and that’s partly why we work so well together; in fact, working with live composers all the time helps you look at old scores differently. With Patricia we share similar feelings about approaching new music like it’s old, and old [music] like it’s new. My preparation with Patricia on older music isn’t really any different than my work with JACK. The attention to details in the score and how that relates to the performer’s conception of how that can be conveyed in a personal, vulnerable way.
On August 13 you’ll be making your debut at the BBC Proms with percussionist Colin Currie in premieres of quintets by Suzanne Farrin and Simon Holt. How did you put the program together?
Christopher Otto Collaborating with composers and other performers is one of our core interests, and this will be our first time commissioning a percussion quintet. Suzanne Farrin’s music has an intense intimacy that I’ve long been eager to explore. Simon Holt wrote his intricately powerful 3rd Quartet for us, and his new quintet Quadriga looks riotously fun. The rest of the program will be two works by Iannis Xenakis: Tetras for string quartet, and Rebonds for solo percussion. Xenakis was one of the most important composers of the 20th century, and his music resonates today with a visceral power. Both pieces are tremendously influential classics of the string quartet and percussion repertoire.
I understand you’re doing something extremely high-tech in August—and much else besides—for the Time Spans Festival at DiMenna Center for Classical Music, one of the highlights of avant-garde music in NYC since relocating from Colorado.
Austin Wulliman For our concert on the festival, we will perform electro-acoustic music alongside the world-renowned Experimentalstudio Freiburg in works that only they have the technology to perform. We will give the US premiere of String Quartet No. 7 by Georg Friedrich Haas, one of our dearest and longest-term collaborators. His music explores the austere and profound beauty of the harmonic series; exploring this harmonic world is endlessly rewarding for us.
We will also play Tran(slate) by Brazilian-born New Yorker Felipe Lara, an exploration of extended string techniques and timbral sensitivity. Lastly, we will present a long-anticipated collaboration: a world premiere of music by visionary Canadian composer Sabrina Schroeder who builds instruments and electronic systems, combining sounds with a mad alchemist’s touch and the mysteriously powerful. Each of these works taps into sound worlds that expand our imagination, and with our collaborators at the SWR (Southwest German Radio Orchestra) we hope to stretch the ears of our NYC audience.
We won’t be the only ones there: The rest of the lineup includes such fantastic NYC new music performers as the Talea Ensemble and Yarn/Wire, and Montréal’s wonderful Quatuor Bozzini. All these groups and the festival itself pursue uncompromisingly imaginative musical adventures. For us, being at home, this series of concerts is an opportunity to connect with the community of musicians we love in the city, and react to challenging work, usually in first NYC performances.
You are also committed to teaching, which has its own rewards.
John Pickford Richards In July, we will return to beautiful Banff Centre to teach at a three-week course for string quartets called EQ: Evolution of the String Quartet. The performance faculty will include the incredible Parker and Eybler quartets, with whom we coach 12 emerging ensembles; the composition faculty includes Zosha Di Castri, Tyshawn Sorey, and Chaya Czernowin, who work with ten emerging composers. While there, we will premiere a new quartet by Sorey and a new octet with the Parkers by Di Castri. It’s incredible to be in such an idyllic environment to make adventurous new music!