JACK Quartet – Xenakis day at the Wigmore Hall


JACK Quartet [(Christoper Otto, Austin Wulliman (violins), John Pickford Richards (viola), Jay Campbell (cello)]

Saturday, 25 February 2017, Wigmore Hall

Written by Ben Hogwood

Xenakis Ergma (1994), Embellie (1981), Mikka (1971), Kottos (1977), Hunem-Iduhey (1996), ST/4-1, 080262 (1956-62)

As part of its enterprising commitment to contemporary music, the Wigmore Hall ‘composer days’ are key, giving audiences a chance either to try something new or to further an admiration of an established figure.

Xenakis day, honouring the Greek composer, architect, civil engineer and burgeoning computer programmer Iannis Xenakis, concentrated on his works for strings on a small scale. The lunchtime concert, an hour in length but packed with six intriguingly titled pieces, showed just how adventurous Xenakis was in stretching the boundaries of the instruments he wrote for.

That said, the opening Ergma was a little more conventional in its grouping of the conventional string quartet – two violins, viola and cello. However it stipulated they should concentrate on chords containing the major seventh (nearly a perfect octave but not quite) and this created music of ear-bending tension. The JACK Quartet played with great freedom but also keen virtuosity, responding like athletes that had been set a physical challenge. Xenakis’ powerful and often confrontational sound world had been set.

The contrasting solo pieces that followed were effectively programmed, showing the great lengths Xenakis went to in finding new and interesting sounds for familiar instruments. Embellie, a substantial piece for solo viola, was brilliantly played by John Pickford Richards, who found unexpected if brief moments of contemplation amongst the abrasive chords he was asked to play. The use of microtones – notes in between the conventional twelve of a conventional Western scale – created once again the unique brand of tension Xenakis’ music holds.

Following this was the elusive Mikka – elusive because Christopher Otto’s violin line slid all over the place restlessly, like a fast moving fish evading capture. The sounds were genuinely funny at times, possibly not an intention of the composer but again showing how original sounds from familiar sources can get a reaction, whether a laugh or a frown. Both reactions were clear here!

The cello had its moment too, in the form of the brilliantly played Kottos, Jay Campbell at the absolute peak of his technical craft. This was the most accessible piece, using harmonics and a technique of bowing the actual bridge of the instrument itself to create eerie sounds. Xenakis uses sustained drones on the instrument, and these effectively accompanied the melodies, and they took on a religious connotation in their profile. Later on, folk tunes came to the fore and the energy of the piece built, Campbell finishing with a flourish.

The brief and rather caustic march Hunem-Iduhey (its title a reverse of the name Yehudi Menuhin) was an obstinate aside, before we heard one of the first pieces written as the result of a computer program. ST/4-1, 080262 – a deliberately non-catchy title – was ‘written’ after Xenakis mastered a program on what was thought to be the only IBM computer available in France. Scored for string quartet, the piece was filled with randomly generated incident to begin with, as though the computer had been trying too hard to fill in every possible outcome from the four instruments, but as the piece progressed the music became more spacious and easier to digest. There was no sense of ‘home’ here particularly, save some repeated, bell-like notes plucked by Austin Wulliman’s second violin, but that gave the listener a feeling of distance from the music itself, making an appreciation of the performance the main reaction.

There was abundant proof in this concert that Xenakis was one of the most original composers of the second half of last century, and as an introduction to his music it was perfectly weighted. There is a sense that we have not yet fully appreciated the Greek composer’s genius and originality, partly due to the confrontational nature of his music, but it was great to have it brought to the fore here. The JACK Quartet performed athletically and passionately, and it made a lasting impact.