Do You Know JACK?

The JACK Quartet, Live in Kalamazoo Michigan, 10/19/2012
(Wellspring Theater, EPIC Center).

Taking seriously prog guru Birzer’s marching orders, and addressing “any music that is good, true, and beautiful,” I’d like to make sure that all of you know JACK. (I would NOT want anyone to be able to say that readers of Progarchy don’t know JACK!)

If you don’t know JACK yet, they are a string quartet (violinists Christopher Otto and Ari Streisfeld, violist John Pickford Richards, and cellist Kevin McFarland), and they have been making a fairly big splash over the last few years over in the more “academic” “new music” bins.  They have already developed an international reputation, especially through their revelatory recordings of Iannis Xenakis’ quartets.  Their name is an acronym composed of the first letters of the members’ first names, but they very much live up to the musical impetuousness that the name suggests.


I’ve known about them for a while, but last Friday night in Kalamazoo Michigan, I got to see them perform in person for the first time.  It was one of those nights when multiple accidents on the Interstate bring the traffic to a halt, so the 45 minute lead-time I had planned on between arrival and concert time was obliterated, and I had to walk in fifteen minutes after they started.   Hence, I unfortunately missed their rendition of three pieces by Guillaume de Machaut, arranged by violinist Ari Streisfeld.

But then they launched into the 5th string quartet by Philip Glass, and any frustration about having to walk in late melted away.  Glass has been one of the most visible composers in recent years working at (and often obliterating) the boundaries of more “academic” composition and supposedly more “popular” genres of music.  To watch the total bodily involvement of the members of JACK in the performance of this music was breathtaking.  If you know what it looks like to see a great string player absorbed in an excellent classical piece, and also what it looks like to see the head begin to nod and the posture pulsate in that serious rock-aficionado sort of way, imagine BOTH sorts of movement brought towards you on the crest of the wave that I consider one of Glass’ most subtle and engaging pieces.  I have rarely seen a more striking embodiment (as opposed to a mere presentation) of Glass’ music.

After a break, they returned with a fascinating reading of Guillaume Dufay’s Moribus et genere, an “isorhythmic motet” from the 1400’s arranged for strings by JACK violist John Pickford Richards.  I do not consider myself much of an early music fan, but Richards’ arrangement and JACK’s performance very nicely highlighted the resonance of some early compositional techniques with contemporary composition.  Appropriately more restrained, and nicely showing JACK’s professional polish.

But finally, the highlight:  Tetras by Xenakis.  I have heard a fair number of recordings by Xenakis, and even seen some pieces performed.  But I have never been so profoundly struck by the way in which the members of JACK seem to understand Xenakis, to be able to live his music in performance, as opposed to “presenting” it.  All of the sounds (many of which still tend to strike some listeners only as “noise”) were profoundly musical sounds, irreducibly beautiful sounds.  The precision of the chamber ensemble performance was thoroughly energized by the primal level at which the players “got” the music, and pushed us as listeners to “get” it as well.

After the concert, I had a chance to talk to the members of JACK.  Ari Streisfeld enthusiastically agreed with my assessment that skillful transgression of genre divisions is at the heart of what is most exciting and inspiring in music today.  This has already been true for decades in music by Glass, Xenakis, and a host of other recent composers.  Kronos and others have made the transgression increasingly visible in accessible and popular ways.   Watching JACK perform, however, reinforces my sense that young musicians are increasingly feeling this excitement at a more visceral level, breathing this inspiration as well as grasping it well at the theoretical and performance levels, making it their dwelling, their home.  These are guys who have been weaned on Bach and John Zorn.

If you have not yet heard JACK’s excellent recording of Iannis Xenakis’ quartets (the Xenakis Edition, volume 10, on Mode), consider bringing your prog-sensitized ears to it as soon as you can!

JACK’s website:

JACK on Facebook:

The Xenakis quartets on video at Amazon (also available on CD and digital download):


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