CMA Preview: A Conversation with Jack Quartet Violinist Ari Streisfeld

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By Mike Telin

If you ask people to name the string quartets who have the ability embedded in their DNA to perform experimental music comprised of polyrhythms, extended techniques, and microtonality, the JACK Quartet is sure to be at the top of everyone’s list. Next week, violinists Christopher Otto and Ari Streisfeld, violist John Pickford Richards, and cellist Kevin McFarland will present a mini-residency in Cleveland as part of the Cleveland Museum of Art’s Performing Arts Series.

On Tuesday, March 1 at 7:30 pm in Transformer Station the JACK will perform Georg Friedrich Haas’s pioneering String Quartet No. 3. Then on Wednesday, March 2 at 7:30 pm, the quartet will take the stage in the Museum’s Gartner Auditorium for a concert featuring works by Guillaume de Machaut, John Zorn, Claudio Monteverdi, and Caroline Shaw. The evening will also include two world premieres by Cenk Ergün. “We’re very excited about these concerts,” violinist Ari Streisfeld said during a telephone interview. “We hope everyone will come with open ears and open minds.”

Austrian composer Georg Friedrich Haas’s String Quartet No. 3 is a groundbreaking work for many reasons, not the least of which is that the composer asks for it to be performed in complete darkness. “It’s a phenomenal piece, and we like it a lot, but I don’t think the piece would work in the same way if the lights were on,” Streisfeld said. “Haas told us that when he conceived of the idea for the piece, he could have written a quartet that needed to be memorized note for note. But he decided that this was an opportunity for him to do something a little different and give the performers the possibility to develop the material that he would give them. It’s smartly written, because expecting a string quartet to memorize a difficult, complex score and play it in complete darkness is kind of ridiculous, if you will. But we’ve played the piece for many years, and it’s not as difficult to memorize as you would think.”

Streisfeld explained that the piece is organized into eighteen sections, each of which contains a specific “invitation” or gesture of some kind as well as a specific “acceptance” to that invitation. “One of us will send out an invitation to a certain section, and someone else then plays the acceptance, and we all have to jump in and realize that section based on its various parameters and rules. Haas says that you’re supposed to accept every three to eight invitations, so a good portion of the piece is just us sending out invitations to each other, and then waiting for an acceptance. It’s a highly controlled improvisation but it has structure and elements that reoccur.”

The work does have sections with written scores, one of which quotes music of Gesualdo from the 16th century. “Haas is very specific that this section has to happen about 75% of the way through the piece,” Streisfeld said. “During performances that delineates how much further we need to go before we reach the conclusion. We never really know how long a performance is going to be. We’ve had some that have gone up to 80 minutes, and others that have been 50 minutes. Haas says it has to be at least 35, which we’ve never had any problem reaching because the piece has a funny way of getting you to lose track of time as you’re performing it or listening to it. The first time I heard it was when I was a student at the Lucerne Academy, and I had no idea that 40 minutes had passed. It felt like 10 to me.” Read the article at ClevelandClassical.com.


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