Saturday, May 01, 2010

Jack Quartet at Library of Congress

The monastery of Sainte_Marie_de_La_Tourette.

A strong show by the Jack Quartet, a group of Eastman grads specializing in contemporary and new music, at the Library of Congress last night. The program was works by Jeff Myers, Matthias Pintscher, a premiere by Caleb Burhans, and a REDONCULOUS Xenakis quartet.

The opener, Jeff Myer's "Dopamine", operates in a unique space tonally, creating (through tuning I think) these not-quite-dissonant-not-quite-vanilla harmonies that dance uneasily around various solo figures. Toward the end, they converge in great masses of alternative chords and the effect is quite brilliant. You can listen to it on his myspace page here.

Pintscher's "Study IV for 'Treatise on the Veil'" is one of those pieces I find out of place in a regular concert setting. To the unprepared ear (perhaps all ears) it is almost completely without structure. An endless soundscape of demonstrations of the different noises the violin can make, both on its own and with certain augmentations added by the musicians. It could very well be an interesting sound world, but I can't help but feel it might be better explored in the freedom of a gallery space or something similar. In concert, on first hearing, one tries to interrogate it with the concentration one accords other things one hears in that space, and this approach offers pretty meager rewards with such a piece.

After the half, we heard the premiere of a gorgeous piece called "Contritus" by Caleb Burhans. So, sometimes watching new music, I wonder about whether the space exists for something like the generous feeling one finds in, say, Brahms--that kind of unabashed wisdom, feeling for the human condition, what have you. One the one hand, its an essentialized sentiment, and hard to square with a lot of the advances in the "research program", for the best in large measure, but on the other hand--its a question of how well music fulfills some basic human needs.

Burhans' new piece meditates on guilt via three sections organized around prayers of contrition. Not suffocating and terrifying guilt, but, I think, as a sort of beautiful humility before God. The piece is constructed from small figures, multiplying deliberately in pure, vital harmonies. At its climax, the swoon of the strings cuts deep and disarms, resolving in a slow fade out and reverent silence. It is a piece that wants to convey deep emotions, and does, through a deeply persuasive musical logic. I hope to hear it again.

And then there was the Xenakis, specifically the quartet "Tetras". I thought I had heard Xenakis live before, but now I'm doubting that, because I think I'd remember. Here's a little excerpt of him talking about his music out of A. Ross' Rest is Noise:
"The listener must be gripped...and--whether he likes it or not--drawn into the flight path of the sounds, without a special training being necessary. The sensual shock must be just as forceful as when one hears a clap of thunder or looks into a bottomless abyss."
Done and done, buddy. It is indeed primal--but not in the animal sense: in the chemical, rock formation, lava vs. atmosphere sense. It is the performance through humans of deeply unhuman processes. Today, when we think about how to portray such elemental forces, our minds go to a recorded artifact. Imagine the possibilities of technology to create strange, unsettling sound worlds that shock and surprise us. Yet Xenakis has humans doing it, choosing how to create it, in real time, WITH VIOLINS. And bizarrely, I suspect that this is the vehicle which produces the deeper effect of alienation, of disjuncture, of "sensual shock". The act of watching other humans force these noises into the world--and I'm sorry, but the Jack Quartet players just fucking outdid themselves here--resonates more deeply and personally than a disembodied recording.

I dunno if that made any good sense but that's where I am trying to get a handle on what I heard earlier.

Anyhow. Excellent program and performance.