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BANFF | JACK Quartet: Reimagining Chamber Music From A To Jay

By Jennifer Liu on August 16, 2017


JACK Quartet (Photo: Shervin Lainez)
JACK Quartet (Photo: Shervin Lainez)

Meet the JACK Quartet:

“There’s a real difference in the approach [JACK Quartet] reinforces, in terms of starting from scratch—there’s a really different kind of focus and energy to it.”

So Austin Wulliman puts out JACK Quartet’s nitty-gritty musical approach to us, one as bold as the modern repertoire they tackle. Comprising himself and Christopher Otto on violin, violist John Pickford Richards, and cellist Jay Campbell, the group’s total engagement lends an electric flow to their performances, at once jolting and immersive to witness.

Least to most Foodie: the JACKs rank themselves
Least to most Foodie: the JACKs rank themselves

JACK’s latest power surge occurred in fall 2016, when Austin and Jay came on board. At their audition, works by Lachenmann and Xenakis were on the bill, composers which JACK continue to program and be known for. Jay recounts the decisive encounter: “We read it down like you would a normal string quartet—you just get together and read a Haydn quartet, see if it meshes. And it’s like, ‘Ok, let’s play Tetras…’ It was a really insane… bunch of shit!” The current between the four was immediate and still runs strong: “It’s important to find people that you’re honest with,” Jay muses, “a group where it’s contributing towards something with longevity.”

Originally formed in 2007, JACK’s association with contemporary music positions them favourably in an era of rapid expansion. Their secret to longevity seems to be to embrace creative change, and to hang onto a musical curiosity that keeps them young-at-heart.

“The interesting thing as I start to become ‘not young’ anymore is that change is really good,” Austin reflects with a smile. “There’s a balance between longevity and in the mixing of ideas that influences each other: people find new solutions to new and old problems.” Fresh blood brings innovation into a musical organisation, whether in JACK’s case or within Banff Centre’s artistic directorship. “I think people have a romanticised, Guarneri-Quartet-50-years-together idea; I think it’s actually better to have some [personnel] changes over time.”

Least to most Caffiend: the JACKs rank themselves.
Least to most Caffiend: the JACKs rank themselves.

JACK jumpstarted Banff’s Chamber Music module last month, working with up-and-coming participant musicians as coaches, playing side-by-side, and through open discussions. This mentor-disciple model is a tenet of Banff’s reimagined program under its new artistic leadership, and a “big experiment,” if you will.

“It’s inspiring to see a new structure try to take shape; a new way of working together for the faculty and students compared to how it was before,” Austin points out. “For how a contemporary practice of chamber music works, it’s important that young musicians have both freedom to explore music they’re interested in, and the ways of rehearsing and interacting with older musicians […] Learning how you use your time and energy, and how you build community over a short period of time, that feeds the way it could work long-term.”

If we were to draw further parallels between musical schools of thought? “It’s actually weirdly like Marlboro, except the music is more interesting [at Banff],” Jay notes astutely. Score one for Banff: “It has that same open-endedness, and you can take as much or as little time as you want on the music, [depending on] however you feel the dynamic is. It’s cool, there’s not a lot of models like this one.”

Many musical models are confined to their origins, be it from the West or from Eastern cultures. John still relishes his moment of transition into new music: it was a pivotal moment of dissociating sounds from the “classical” standard. “Often there is no context when we’re given a new score, and we read the 10 pages of instructions—or not! [laughs]—and the actual challenge is finding that performance practice in there, and making that familiar the same way that The Beatles or Mozart are familiar to us. And I love that challenge.”

So does Austin: “I love it when the sound is messing with peoples’ expectations, especially when they expect to be more at a distance and the sound attacks them, and they’re in something that they don’t fully perceive or understand.”

Chris explains how Xenakis’s Tetras became a successful experiment in audience conversion for JACK. A signature piece of theirs since at least 2009, it manages to strike a chord across demographic and generational divides—this in spite of its noisy dissonances, unclassifiable sounds and glissandos.

“We just want to play music that we really love, and we don’t necessarily want to pander to what they already know,” Chris continues. “We try to challenge audiences to hear something they haven’t heard before; sometimes taking a risk with something that we really believe in can pay off. […] [Musical appeal] just becomes more about the energy and the physicality that we bring.”

On a scale of Rural to Urban: The JACKs rank themselves.
On a scale of Rural to Urban: the JACKs rank themselves.

“But,” Austin interjects, “in the core classical community, the assumption is that there’s more expression [in classical repertoire] and then everything else out there…”

Jay cuts in spontaneously:We’re a robot. [pose] RAWR.”

“Exactly! Robots playing new music,” Austin exclaims. Kidding aside, he explains that JACK is still faithful to the acoustic medium: “Even when we’re doing the weirdest piece, we don’t rely on electronics that often. That’s not to ‘diss’ electronics, they’re great—it’s just kind of fun to embrace the fact that we can still create incredibly new and exciting things with these ancient instruments.”

For these centuries-old instruments, is their age catching up with them where extended techniques come into play? “We’re already there!” Austin exclaims.

John adds, “I think the only way to really experiment with old instruments (like violins, violas and cellos) is to push the limits, all the time: composers have been surpassing the limits since the middle of the century.”

Jay pulls out some cello-specific examples: “Who’d think that Bartok snap pizzicatos are literally in every piece all the time now? Technically it’s an extended technique on the conservative side, but probably at the turn of the 20th century it was a little radical still. But you go back, even Biber uses it in La Batallia. He’s trying to simulate a war scene; he’s doing these things for a specific reason, so is that extended technique? I feel like a composer can’t get [the message] across with just notes and rhythms in a traditional sense. And so if you need to use more parts of your instrument, then do it.”

“That’s why I’d love to do away with the idea of extended technique,” Austin interjects. “I feel it’s so limiting for students to be taught in that way: it’s a poor teaching method, a poor practice to have options on your instrument that are necessarily branded as ‘outside.’”

Least to most Social Butterfly: The JACKs rank themselves
Least to most Social Butterfly: the JACKs rank themselves

Through it all, JACK are stalwarts for self-expression. “It’s like the mission of contemporary art should be to expand people’s consciousness, and expand the limits of your self-expression.” Austin declares. There’s no looking back: “I’m not interested in expressing some romantic ideals over and over—to me that’s incredibly boring and regressive. When I hear people say, ‘There’s no self-expression in certain contemporary music,’ I find that I have a knee-jerk reaction in the opposite direction; which is ‘someone made this; they poured their heart and soul into creating this work of art. Let’s look for what’s in it.’”

Update, August 17 2017, 8:11 a.m.: added video to an excerpt from Tetras, and corrected spelling of the piece’s name in the second paragraph. 

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