At the JACK Quartet’s Thursday evening Lincoln Center performance, Ruth Crawford Seeger’s revered String Quartet “1931” set the precedent for four other string quartets all composed in the last five years. Crawford Seeger’s important work, which hinges on slides, slashes and spaces, came together into a jagged yet undeniably beautiful mosaic as the musicians bounded their way through its four movements. Violinists Ari Streisfeld and Christopher Otto, violist John Pickford Richards, and cellist Kevin McFarland all seemed tuned into a seamless channel of communication and energy, particularly Mr McFarland, who was clearly enjoying the bouncy pizzicato passages of the second movement. The frequent crossings and shifts in dynamics and tonalities (twelve tone rows, ten tone rows, and the unadulterated “sound mass” of the third movement) were handled with ease and obvious enjoyment by the members of the quartet.

JACK Quartet © Henrik Olund
JACK Quartet
© Henrik Olund

Missy Mazzoli’s Death Valley Junction exhibited a similarly rugged, ragged joy both in execution and in its motoric yet meditative lines of sustained tones and rapid series of repeated triplets. Once again the musicians’ communication was flawless as the cello line zigzagged all over the place while the others inched along in long high-pitched tones. The evolution of the repetition, in patterns and in structure, as the piece expanded in time allowed the meaning and imagery of the music to likewise expand and contract.

Caroline Shaw’s jaw-droppingly gorgeous Ritornello 2.sq.2.j places a similar emphasis on repetition. Part of a large, unfinished multimedia project titled simply Ritornello, Ms Shaw’s work explores the relationship between two chords, debatably V-I or I-IV, as she writes on her website: “I’m not sure it matters. And I love the ambiguity. It mirrors that other wild binary that I love – the sometimes elusive distinction between joy and sadness.” However traditional the harmony and counterpoint of the piece, the sacred-sounding Ritornello 2.sq.2.j is undeniably moving in its exploration of two seemingly simple chords, with unexpected moments in the timbre and form preventing it from sounding at all conventional. The JACK Quartet’s crescendoes towards the end were so resolute yet so unreal, as if they were pulling solid objects out of thin air.

Less ethereal and much less consonant was Jason Eckardt’s Ascension, also of 2014. The piece comes across as a conversation – or perhaps a bickering match – of trills, pizzicato, zips of sounds, bounces of the bow across the strings. The opening immediately grabs one’s attention with tense percussive sounds and a savagely-plucked second violin. The violins and viola then drag out rough, eerie noises while the cello distributes its own scatters of sound. The shrill sustained tones of the ending are marked by a breathless cut-off and sudden silence.

John Zorn’s The Alchemist rounded out the program after the musicians placed his monstrous scores atop their stands. The mad cascade of notes colliding and breaking past each other was shot through with moments of coherence, and the angularity felt nearly as sharp and defined as Crawford Seeger’s had been. At times, the cello thumped along beneath shrieks and slides, at others all musicians were shredding their bows across the strings in a racket of chords and wood and bow hair, at still others the mood dipped into a more hymnlike mood reminiscent of Ritornello 2.sq.2.j, and as is typically the case with Mr Zorn’s compositions, the ending came as a mixture of surprise and relief.

A concert of five composers, and three of them women – bravo to the JACK Quartet not just for inimitable execution, but for programming as well.