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JACK String Quartet

Artist
JACK Quartet
Venue
Jane Mallett Theatre
City
Toronto
Date
Thursday, January 14, 2016

New York's JACK String Quartet provided a Toronto audience Thursday night with a thrilling demonstration of why it is one of the premiere performing ensembles in the world. Dedicated to the new in music, the quartet explored and challenged our most basic aesthetic ideas – what constitutes musical sonority, how we define a piece of music, what is the essence of musical communication itself.

That last question was most comprehensively answered by the quartet's performance of a work from 1983, the second string quartet of Iannis Xenakis, Tetras. Xenakis was one of the towering figures of mid-20th-century avant-garde composition, who combined an interest in architecture with a fascination for music. He uses statistical procedures in his dense, intense compositions that create mind-numbing passages of enormous technical complexity.

Or so you might have thought until you heard the JACK Quartet play them. Okay, the group has performed this piece 100 times, so it has come to terms with its technical challenges. But JACK's Tetras wasn't about techniques, or forms, or aggregations of sound. It was about music, about the organization of sound to produce meaning and emotion, the same definition one would use for all significant composition, from Gregorian chant to Beethoven to Adele. In the hands of these master musicians, Tetras became accessible, transparent, beautiful. We were reminded once again of what musical artists do – they join their bodies, minds and hearts together, and put the results on display for our delight.

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The other fascinating work of Thursday's program was its opening number, The Wind in High Places by American John Luther Adams. Adams lives in Alaska, and has traditionally used his music to represent the innocence, purity and comprehensiveness of nature. The Wind in High Places was also technically challenging. In the entire work, Adams uses only open strings and harmonics, so that not one of the members of the quartet actually touches the fingerboard of his instrument during the performance (harmonics are created by ever so lightly touching the strings of the instrument as you bow across it). The result was a piece of music the exact opposite of Tetras in many ways. Where the Xenakis showed its structure and musical thinking in full view, Adams hid his behind a sheen of uninflected nature, as though the wind, and not human players, was creating the music.

The rest of JACK's program consisted of the seventh string quartet of John Zorn, commissioned by JACK, and a demonstration of the everything-new-is-old adage, an arrangement of a 14th-century piece of French music, whose rhythmic complexity didn't again enter musical discourse in the West for 600 years. Throughout the evening, the group demonstrated its flair for musical drama, its total concentration on the task at hand, and its communal joy in making music. Can't ask for much more, whether the repertoire is Haydn or contemporary composer Georg Haas. We learn every day that how we understand what it is to be human continues to widen and expand. The JACK Quartet reminds us that exactly the same forces of expansion are at work in music – and that the wider the field, the more opportunities we have for beauty and meaning.

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