JACK Quartet


plays Ligeti, Pintscher, Cage and Xenakis









Innovation, in both technique and expression, is a feature of all the works in this recital, but we shouldn’t mistake its presence for a concern with a linear model of ‘progress’. The simplicity and quirkiness of the oldest work here, John Cage’s String Quartet in Four Parts, resonate just as strongly with our twenty-first-century sensibilities as does the more linguistically ‘advanced’ Pintscher; and although ostensibly in the classically correct four movements, it’s a good deal less structurally traditional than the twenty-years-younger Ligeti work, whose refraction of Classical quartet structure through Bartókian/constructivist symmetries surely remains closer to the genre’s discursive origins. Cage, with characteristic plainness, calls his movements ‘parts’, and according to the composer they represent summer in Paris (where he began composing the work in August 1949, towards the end of a six-month European sojourn funded by the success of his recent Sonatas and Interludes), autumn in New York, and a long and immobile winter before spring arrives in a sudden burst of concluding freshness. Thus the turn of the seasons issues in renewal, and the work chimes with ideas Cage had been encountering in Indian philosophy, of cyclic structures tending towards balance and calm.


In dissolving the genre’s traditional formal rhetoric Cage also reimagined its sound, asking the players to play without vibrato; the result is closer to a Renaissance string consort than to a Classical quartet. In the Sonatas and Interludes he had similarly bypassed the instrumental timbres most closely associated with the piano sonata’s Classical heyday, and in so doing had also found himself developing a new approach to harmony around the innate restrictions of the prepared piano. This innovation, too, Cage carried into the quartet. He created a grid of sounds – some of them single pitches, some recognisable chords, some more complex combinations – and composed the quartet entirely with reference to these pre-defined ‘gamuts’ (as he called them). In a sense the quartet has become a prepared instrument itself, on which the composer plays. Dynamics and rhythm vary widely, but every time a melody note recurs it has the same accompanying harmony (or lack of accompaniment); the same timbre; the same registral placement and the same scoring, down to precisely which string each player uses. Cage’s calibration of sound is as exact as Pintscher’s, and as radically yet idiomatically focused on the instruments’ own capabilities and quirks: another meeting-place for those deceptive categories of ‘simple’ and ‘complex’.


© 2012 John Fallas


[from the booklet notes to Ligeti – Pintscher – Cage – Xenakis (JACK Quartet; Wigmore Hall Live, 2012)]




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