John Zorn: Cat o' Nine Tails
Hans Abrahamsen: String Quartet No. 4
Morton Feldman: Structures for String Quartet
Witold Lutoslawski: String Quartet
After a rather traditional and totally satisfying recital in upper Manhattan the night before, I was in Brooklyn's Central Library on Sunday afternoon for Carnegie Hall's Neighborhood Concert featuring the always exciting JACK Quartet, which consists of four like-minded musicians who, in the best tradition of the ground-breaking Kronos Quartet, have seemingly never met a hair-raising challenge they did not like and virtuosically sink their teeth into. So the playlist unsurprisingly showed experimental contemporary composers such as John Zorn, Hans Abrahamsen, Morton Feldman and Witold Lutoslawski.
Although none of those would qualify as a household name, that did not keep all sorts of people from eagerly filling up the Dweck auditorium to the brim, briefly overflowing in the lobby. The lucky ones inside included a father and pre-teen son who had come all the way from Washington Heights out of devotion for the ensemble, and an older Russian gentleman who was openly lamenting his accompanying pianist daughter's lack of interest in non-traditional music, which prompted their early departure. The vast majority of the concert-goers, however, stayed and were amply rewarded for it.
No matter what the various audience members had come for, the JACK Quartet wasted no time making clear that just because this was a free community concert open to all, they had no plans to compromise their hard-core adventurous stance in the name of accessibility, beside some insightful and much appreciated explanations. Accordingly, they kicked off the concert with the wild feast of recurring scratchy dissonances, unexpected cartoonish jump cuts and sudden melodic flashes that is American composer-saxophonist John Zorn's "Cat o' Nine Tails". Take it or leave it.
Danish composer Hans Abrahamsen's String Quartet No. 4 was over 20 years in the making, which probably explains its rigorous simplicity, exacting structure and cool feel. Nothing had been left to chance there, and the musicians made sure to do full justice to the stark contrast between the ethereally serene, barely there, first movement and the primitively dark, pizzicato-filled, third one, the vivacious happy-go-lucky mood second movement and the delicate babbling of the fourth one.
Still in the quiet minimalist style, the following six minutes were sparsely filled by "Structures" for String Quartet by American composer Morton Feldman, for whom silent is clearly as important as sounds. True to form, this precious little nugget turned out to be a short and fascinating exercise in musical experimentation.
We then moved on to Polish composer Witold Lutoslawski's String Quartet, a well-known example of aleatory music from the mid 1960s, which intriguingly combines notated music and chance occurrences. Although some vaguely discernible rhythmic patterns occasionally sprang out as if to tease us, most of the time I felt as if we were all floating in a vacuum with no clear direction whatsoever, which actually may very well have been the whole point of the endeavor. We eventually touched down, grateful for the memorable adventure and ready to do it all over again.