Ensemble of the Year:
JACK Quartet

By Allan Kozinn

This group’s fresh, energetic, and stylistically omnivorous approach to the contemporary repertoire makes it a worthy heir to the tradition of new-music quartets that goes back to the Composers Quartet in the 1960s and rivals the Kronos and Arditti Quartets of today.

2019 Muscial America Ensemble of the Year:<br>JACK Quartet
© Beowulf Sheehan.

The JACK Quartet: (left to right) John Pickford Richards (viola), Austin Wulliman (violin), Jay Campbell (cello), Christopher Otto (violin).

One of the most fascinating, unusual, and certainly memorable performances I have ever attended was a 2010 concert at the Austrian Cultural Forum, in New York, where the JACK Quartet devoted its program to a single work, Georg Friedrich Haas’s String Quartet No. 3 (“In iij. Noct.,” 2001). Haas specified that the quartet be performed in darkness—that is, not a “darkened” hall, with minimal light from exit signs, or leaking in from under doors, but absolute darkness.

The hall held a brief trial before the music began, so that listeners could determine whether they could stand that level of sightlessness, and leave if they were uncomfortable. No one did, so the JACK players took their positions at the corners of the hall and set out on an extraordinary, 70-minute journey through virtually every combination of sounds a quartet can produce—tapping and scraping, dialogues of rich-hued, vibrato-heavy solo lines, sustained chords with shifting balances and changing timbres, eerie harmonics, explosive bursts, and, surprisingly, a quotation from a Gesualdo vocal work. And the darkness forced a lack of distraction that made you focus on all this with an unusual intensity that made the performance seem almost visceral.

The JACK Quartet had been on the scene only three years by then, but composers, critics, and new-music fans had already come to admire the group’s fresh, energetic, and stylistically omnivorous approach to the contemporary repertoire—and to trust the players’ instincts. If JACK thought a piece was worth programming, you wanted to be there to hear why; and if the group thought it worth experiencing in the dark, so be it. JACK was, by then, seen as a worthy heir to the tradition of new-music quartets that went back to the Composers Quartet in the 1960s, and has been revitalized more recently by the Kronos Quartet and the Arditti String Quartet.

The Kronos and the Arditti, in fact, were JACK’s principal models: As students at the Eastman School of Music, the violinists Christopher Otto and Ari Streisfeld, the violist John Pickford Richards, and the cellist Kevin McFarland, JACK’s original lineup, carefully analyzed both groups’ repertoires—the Kronos being more eclectic and open to pop- and world-music influences, the Arditti more focused on gritty modernism—and decided that their group would be open to everything. 

The Arditti also, indirectly, helped create JACK’s identity. When the players, who were all members of Ossia, the Eastman School’s student-run new-music ensemble, got together in 2003 to read through recent quartets, the first piece they took up was Helmut Lachenmann’s Grido, his String Quartet No. 3. The work was composed for the Arditti, and its title is both the Italian word for scream, or shout, and an acronym for the first names of the Arditti players at the time—Graeme Jennings, Rohan de Saram, Irvine Arditti, and Dov Scheindlin. 

“If he’d written it for us, it would have been called ‘jack,’ ” McFarland noted—and suddenly, this college ensemble had a name. It remains JACK, despite the 2016 departures of the original A and K: Streisfeld joined the faculty of the University of South Carolina School of Music, and McFarland opted to devote more time to composition and solo performance. Their successors, violinist Austin Wulliman, a founding member of the Spektral Quartet, and cellist Jay Campbell, who won an Avery Fisher Career Grant earlier that year, appear to fit in seamlessly. 

JACK was playing concerts by 2005, but they date their founding to 2007, when they moved to New York and made their debut. Since then, besides pursuing a busy touring schedule, they have become enthusiastic teachers, with regular residencies at the University of Iowa, the Boston University Center for New Music, and, through 2019, Duke University. They also make frequent teaching visits to Columbia University, Harvard, Princeton, Stanford, New York University, the University of Washington, and Eastman, where they work with young composers as well as players. 

The size and variety of JACK’s repertoire is truly astonishing. Besides the Haas (whose Quartet No. 9, also meant to be played in the dark, was composed for JACK), I have heard JACK give polished, moving accounts of music by György Ligeti, Iannis Xenakis, Derek Bermel, Caroline Shaw, Horatiu Radulescu, Huck Hodge, Yotam Haber, Hugi Gudmunsson, Henryk Gorecki, and Cenk Ergün, and that’s just for starters. If you peruse the group’s discography—34 discs so far (including appearances on compilations with other musicians)—you get a fuller sense of how expansive their tastes are.

Many of their recordings are must-haves, for anyone interested in new music. Among those are two devoted to the music of John Luther Adams—The Wind in High Places and Everything That Rises. John Zorn’s and Elliott Sharp’s quartet music is explored on several discs each. Other albums offer music by Laura Elise Schwendinger, Chaya Czernowin, and Lei Liang. And the group’s traversal of all the Lachenmann quartets is not to be missed.

Whenever possible, the quartet consults the composers whose works they are preparing, in the hope of moving past the notes on the page. The players say, only partly tongue-in-cheek, that this passion for the composer’s word has kept relationships within the ensemble harmonious, the theory being that by focusing on a composer’s interpretive desires rather than their own, they avoid the ego clashes that might arise if they were playing works from the standard canon. 

Not that they avoid old music entirely. When a sponsor insisted on something familiar to audiences, they played late Beethoven. And in recent years they have made arrangements of works by Machaut, Rodericus, Gesualdo, and Dowland—composers who flourished before the harmonic language established in the 18th century became Western Europe’s musical lingua franca, and who, like today’s composers, created music at a time when the “rules” of composition were in flux.

JACK’s fascination with composers who are changing, overthrowing, and replacing the rules is played out, night after night, in the stylistically ecumenical approach that has become one of the quartet’s strongest attractions.

“When you open yourself to the experience of playing pieces,” Wulliman said in an interview with Ara Guzelimian, the provost and dean of the Juilliard School, this summer at the Ojai Music Festival, “you find that there are artists who are exploring music in really amazing ways, in every style that’s being worked with today.” For JACK, that openness is an article of faith. Their mission is to persuade listeners to embrace it as well. •

Allan Kozinn, for many years a music critic for the New York Times, now lives in Portland, Maine, and writes about music and musicians for The Wall Street Journal, Opera News, and other publications.