It’s a remarkable thing for a string quartet to have a distinct sound. Some do, certainly not all. Most have distinguishing characteristics or standout voices, but for a configuration as relatively small and homogenous as four sets of four bowed strings, a singular voice can be a surprising and wonderful thing to hear. Kronos, famously, has it. Through brilliance and passion and commercial ploys and kitsch, they always sound like Kronos, even with changes in the cello chair. 

JACK Quartet
© Steven Pisano for Bachtrack

The JACK Quartet, now well adjusted to its own changes in cello and violin, likewise can be counted upon to sound very much like themselves. A gem in the New York City landscape, the quartet’s consistency, likely more than anything, explains their popularity. And it was that JACK-ness that carried the premiere of Eric Wubbels’ phrēn at the Time:Spans festival on 25th August. Not that other quartets couldn’t play it; they could and should. But JACK made it their kind of great. 

There was a remarkable warmth from the outset. Chordal structures built and slowly repeated with slight (and sometimes a little less than slight) tonal variation until a cello sustain broke the pattern. One violin quickly acclimating to the new setting, then viola, then the second violin, the tempo, unceasing in its four-count, maintained by the and the slow repetition. When it finally came time to fully break the mold, they did so with bravura, executing sharp – harsh, even – and quick interruptions, but the insistent count remained. 

Catherine Lamb, in her string quartet (two blooms) from 2009, also built show chordal structures, but the closest thing to a discernible count was the shifting of bows, irregular enough that it didn’t engrain. 

JACK Quartet at Time:Spans
© Steven Pisano for Bachtrack

Lamb’s music often lies beneath its own surface. The easy descriptor would be ‘drone’, but as with most acoustically generated drone music, there’s gradation within the singularity. The music was, in fact, very often in solo, duo or trio, configurations shifting by the minute within a narrow tonal spectrum, but never pushed by a pulse, a slow undulation seeming almost literally to make the music breathe for three-quarters of an hour (about double the length of the Wubbels). Her work can be quite a bit like staring at a tree, and the skeptic inclined to call that boring would be well advised to try it again before lodging the complaint.