July 11, 2023: JACK Quartet: New York Stories

May 23, 2023

Structures for String Quartet (1951)

Morton Feldman (1926-1987)

Although Morton Feldman’s best-known innovation is the devising of graphical scores that permit a range of choices (of, say, pitches to be made by the performer), the present composition is not such a work. It is as fully notated as any classical quartet. In fact, it has been remarked that it could well serve as an example of how the composer himself might realise one of his graphical scores. This is precisely what Feldman actually did. He sketched out a plot of what one might call musical events (versus elapsed performance time), filling in this graph until it satisfied him. It should be understood that this was not a literal plot of, say, frequency versus time but a general guide to laying out event successions. Once this was done, Feldman then transcribed the material into a precisely notated conventional score so that performances of this piece are relatively fixed. This particular compositional technique he has only used twice, once in the present instance and once in composing, also in 1951, a piano piece for Merce Cunningham, who then choreographed it as “Variations” for solo dancer.

Structures for String Quartet turns out to be a short composition in one movement always played as quietly as possible – another Feldman specialty. The “structures” of the piece follow one another in a quite straightforward linear pattern. The opening section is pointillistic and sparse in texture. This is followed by what I will call, for lack of a better word, a series of quasi-ostinato passages. Each one of these is almost but not quite a precisely fixed ostinato of a type almost resembling a tape loop in electronic music. Four of these occur in sequence separated by short rests or simple intervening chords. A second pointillistic passage, reminiscent of the opening, appears next and this is followed by two more quasi-ostinati and a concluding section again reminiscent of the opening. The dialectic of the piece thus is one of emptiness versus density, and of irregularity versus periodicity.

Contritus (2010)

Caleb Burhans (born 1980)

Contritus is Latin for “crushed by guilt”. In the Catholic Church, there are many prayers of contrition and penance. Composed in the fall and winter of 2009, Contritus is in three sections that organically flow into one another. These sections represent three different prayers of contrition. Much of the string writing in Contritus is evocative of early music and viol consorts while still portraying a sense of modern guilt.

String Quartet No. 5 (1991)

Philip Glass (b. 1937)

The expansive 5th string quartet (1991) begins an epic journey from the very opening bars which serve as the connective tissue for the rest of the quartet. This work is full of dramatic contrasts and all of the composer’s trademark stylistic devices: self-propelling rhythms, elemental harmonic progressions, and restless arpeggiated figures. But these raw elements become nearly invisible within the soaring and operatic structure of this quartet; from the bell-like introduction to the swaying syncopation of the second movement to the quirky figures of the scherzo-esque movement to the sustained transition which gives way to a rapid explosion of scales, finally yielding to a refrain of the introduction and a floating resolution. Reflecting on his approach to the composition of the 5th quartet, Glass commented: “I was thinking that I had really gone beyond the need to write a serious string quartet and that I could write a quartet that is about musicality, which in a certain way is the most serious subject.”

Entr’acte (2011)

Caroline Shaw (b. 1982)

Entr’acte was written in 2011 after hearing the Brentano Quartet play Haydn’s Op. 77 No. 2 — with their spare and soulful shift to the D-flat major trio in the minuet. It is structured like a minuet and trio, riffing on that classical form but taking it a little further. I love the way some music (like the minuets of Op. 77) suddenly takes you to the other side of Alice’s looking glass, in a kind of absurd, subtle, technicolor transition.”

The Remedy of Fortune for String Quartet (2016)

John Zorn (b. 1953)

Six tableaux depicting the changing fortunes of romantic love: pain, desire, devotion, hope, beauty, longing, ecstasy, intoxication, frustration, anger and despair. Inspired by the work of Guillaume de Machaut. The

Remedy of Fortune was composed for JACK Quartet to premiere at The Cloisters Museum of the Metropolitan Museum of Art on May 30, 2015.


by Lejaren Hiller

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