JACK Quartet presents pieces by UI composition students in virtual concert

The award-winning quartet partnered with the UI School of Music to perform six student-written pieces at the virtual, free concert.


Abby McCusker, Arts Reporter

On Wednesday night, the JACK Quartet concert was streamed live on the University of Iowa School of Music website. The performance featured six pieces written by UI composition students.

JACK Quartet operates as a nonprofit organization with a mission of supporting underheard composers, performing new works, and increasing the visibility of contemporary classical music. The group is the Quartet in Residence at Mannes School of Music, which is a branch of the college of performing arts at The New School in New York City.

The group is comprised of four string musicians: violinists Christopher Otto and Austin Wulliman, violist John Pickford Richards, and cellist Jay Campbell. All four members of the group also serve as faculty at the Mannes School of Music.

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The group was selected as Musical America’s 2018 “Ensemble of the Year”, named to WQXR’s “19 for 19 Artists to Watch”, and awarded an Avery Fisher Career Grant. In addition to these awards, their concept album Imaginist with the Le Boeuf Brothers was nominated for a GRAMMY award in 2018.

JACK Quartet frequently partners with the UI String Quartet Residency Program to teach and collaborate with students twice a year, once in the spring and once in the fall. Tonight, the group collaborated with UI composition students to bring their pieces to the stage to be presented to an audience.

The six featured pieces included “String Quartet No. 2 ‘poppies bursting into bloom in the wind and rain’” by Hongwei Cai, “‘Seung-mu’ (Buddhist Dance) for String Quartet” by Sanggeun Choi, “Rondo, warmly dedicated to the JACK” by A. Emrich, “Light and Dust” by Wenxin Li, “Mono//Logic III” by Matt A. Mason, and “verged” by Ramin Roshandel.

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The live-streamed performance had a very relaxed feel. Only piano benches, music stands, and minimal recording equipment sat on the otherwise empty stage. The four musicians dressed casually in black t-shirts and dress pants, all highlighting the untraditional nature of most of the pieces performed by the quartet.

In the spirit of the JACK Quartet’s mission, the pieces presented were works of contemporary classical music. These pieces frequently utilized unconventional string techniques that are not typically found in traditional classical music, such as the wooden side of the bow and body percussion. One of the pieces utilized the vocals of the performers as well as the stringed instruments they played.

With the exception of “Rondo, warmly dedicated to JACK,” the repertoire focused heavily on dissonant sounds and many moving lines among the different instruments making them feel very chaotic. These pieces utilized alternative string techniques frequently which added to the chaos and differentiated them from the standard canon of classical music. “Rondo, warmly dedicated to JACK” felt more traditional with strong expressive melodies and very little dissonance.

All of the pieces presented were technically challenging, making for an impressive performance. The musicians ended the night by thanking the audience, congratulating the composers on their work, and bidding viewers a farewell until next time.