One often overlooked instrument – it does, after all, amplify sound – is the performance space. Composers tend to make acoustical decisions subconsciously, but space can sometimes play a more important role than the performers themselves. Composer John Zorn took The Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Fuentidueña Chapel at The Cloisters, a relocated medieval structure at Manhattan's northern-most tip, and envisioned music to be performed in that particular space, a space the composer has visited since he was seven years old. Zorn’s compositions contain a bonanza of musical ideas, rolling in unnervingly peculiar waves and presented in clumps and clusters like audio versions of found art, perfect for the Twitter generation with limited attention spans.

Jack Quartet © Henrik Olund
Jack Quartet
© Henrik Olund

The Remedy of Fortune (2015), a world première given by the JACK quartet whose members include violinists Chris Otto and Ari Streisfeld, violist John Pickford Richards, and cellist Kevin McFarland, captures the essence of Zorn’s discontent for contentedness. Never did a sedate progression of harmonic pillars linger long before bombastic plucks and screeching bow-strokes defy all that was sacred in the Fuentidueña Chapel. Zorn explained that in addition to the space itself, Machaut’s Le remède de fortune influenced the narrative content of the quartet, encompassing nearly the complete emotional spectrum from desire to hatred to tranquility. Each setting, presented almost sequentially, cast the mind into a cyclone of uncomfortable disparities. The piece began gentle enough with chords built from soft harmonics, but soon enough tonal values were sequenced into inscrutable scales of unforeseeable lengths and all rhythmic foundations dissolved. The only residue of medieval troubadour settings occurred in the middle of the piece when the members of the quartet plucked a short modal snippet from their ersatz lutes. The JACK quartet really ripped a hole in the pulpit, leaving the audience shocked, nonchalant and unbalanced in a state of cognitive dissonance.

A similar dichotomy of co-existing realities echoed throughout The Holy Visions (2012) for 5 voices, beginning with a unison chant, drones and imitative polyphony before shifting into a void of randomness. Vocalists Jane Sheldon, Eliza Bagg, Sarah Brailey, Rachel Calloway and Kirsten Sollek exhibited a high level of musicianship, especially in regards to pitch recollection. Many of the ensemble members carried pitchforks, but the odd combinations of intervals required a sophisticated sense of relative pitch and each musician proved highly proficient. The Latin text was mostly sung throughout; however, occasional passages were spoken, muttered, and squawked. While Zorn gave the occasional salute to Medieval musical convention, text painting was almost non-existent. In many cases, the text seemed incomprehensible. Most audience members spent the duration of the piece flipping through the printed lyrics while scratching their heads.

The final piece on the program, Pandora’s Box (2013) for soprano and string quartet was set to German text written by Zorn himself. Muddled with ambiguity, the lyrics, and music for that matter, gave no clue of whether the box has been opened or whether the box has yet to be opened. In the case of Zorn, it’s completely possible that the Schrödinger’s Cat thought experiment applies here, and the box is actually both opened and unopened. Philosophy aside, the soprano started in a sprechstimme style, then alternating between singing, shrieking and screeching through a labyrinth of uncertainty. Soprano Tony Arnold embodied a demented coloratura who unleashed nervous tension throughout the chapel with strange observations (“noctural betrayals”, “alchemical contradictions”). The overall performance was indubitably impressive, allowing both Arnold and the JACK quartet artistic freedom to unchain themselves from anxiety and trepidation.

***11