If you don’t know JACK, here’s your chance.
At 4 p.m. Monday in Elizabeth S. Lenna Hall, the JACK Quartet will present an eclectic program of modern and contemporary works by Ruth Crawford Seeger, John Luther Adams, Iannis Xenakis and others as part of the Logan Chamber Music Series.
The string quartet was originally named by combining the four first initials of its founding members. The acronym doesn’t really work now, as violinist Austin Wulliman and cellist Jay Campbell joined violinist Christopher Otto and violist John Pickford Richards last year.
JACK is turning 10 years old, and it’s continuing to tackle repertoire that is either too dry or too terrifying for the myriad other classical chamber groups on the scene. Seeger’s String Quartet is a good example.
“She’s a really interesting figure in American musical history,” Wulliman said.
Seeger was born at the turn of the century in rural Ohio. Her Methodist upbringing had all the trappings of small-town, Midwestern Americana. Yet her music, with its gnarly, expressionist flair, stands toe-to-toe with pieces by big-city — and, typically, male — composers.
“Her music proved to be very influential on a lot of composers that followed in the U.S., although her name doesn’t ring as loudly as, say, Aaron Copland’s,” Wulliman said.
The string quartet has become Seeger’s most well-known work, partially because of its conceptual tightness and cohesiveness.
“It has a really clear concept to it,” Wulliman said. “The first movement is really about duos within the quartet, where one person is playing really expressively while another is playing really roughly at the same time. The second movement is a really offbeat, accented scherzo.”
The quartet’s fourth movement is a remarkable musical palindrome in which the players converge at a central axis halfway through the movement, and then perform the same music backward (albeit a half step higher) until the end.
“A lot of groups don’t program Xenakis and Seeger,” Wulliman said. “Those are really challenging works. But in the context of a well-balanced program, those works can speak to audiences.”
While JACK performs 20th-century music that has historically represented a special level of intellectual rigor, they believe a successful performance doesn’t need to be dry and lifeless.
“We try to bring a real virtuosic interpretation to those works, not just an abstract ‘playing the notes’ kind of interpretation,” Wulliman said.
JACK also tries to strike a balance between difficult, thorny pieces and more easily digestible works.
“John Luther Adams’ music is very triadic and consonant,” Wulliman said. “We’ve also worked with composers like Caroline Shaw who straddle that line between the popular and the classical in a really interesting way.”
Shaw famously won a Pulitzer Prize in 2013 at the age of 30. She is the youngest recipient of the prize and also one of a handful of female composers to earn the honor.
In addition to programming lesser-known 20th-century masterworks, the quartet makes a point of replenishing its 21st-century repertoire by participating in festivals and visiting universities to work with up-and-coming composers.
“We have these intensive periods where we try out pieces and sometimes those pieces don’t happen again, and sometimes they happen many, many more times,” Wulliman said. “That experimentation where we don’t know what the outcome is going to be is part of what makes us a little different.”
Sometimes, the outcome is less than ideal.
“There’s the ‘piles of quarter tones’ approach that happens sometimes,” Wulliman said. “Sometimes young graduate student composers want to prove they can write a lot of notes and haven’t thought through exactly how it all sounds.”
But when the group finds a new piece that really works, Wulliman said the feeling of introducing it to an audience for the first time is incomparable.
“It’s why I chose to move into performing almost all contemporary and 20th-century music,” Wulliman said. “It’s a lot of responsibility and a lot of effort that has an incredible result.”