UW News

March 7, 2014

UW composers discuss collaboration with visiting JACK Quartet

UW World Series

The JACK Quartet -- violinists Christopher Otto and Ari Streisfeld, violist John Pickford Richards, and cellist Kevin McFarland -- will perform two shows in the Meany Hall Studio Theater March 15.

The JACK Quartet — violinists Christopher Otto and Ari Streisfeld, violist John Pickford Richards, and cellist Kevin McFarland — will perform two shows in the Meany Hall Studio Theater March 15.Stephen Paff

The popular New York-based JACK Quartet will perform two concerts in the Meany Hall Studio Theater on March 15.

The concerts will feature compositions by Richard Karpen, professor and director of the University of Washington School of Music; and Juan Pampin, associate professor and director of the Center for Digital Arts and Experimental Media. The 7:30 p.m. show will feature the composers’ works; at 10 p.m., the quartet will perform improvisations with UW musicians.

JACK is a contemporary string quartet known for creating and performing new works. Its members — two violinists, a violist and a cellist — also are spending a weeklong residency at the School of Music, collaborating with the composers and rehearsing with musicians who will join them on stage.

Karpen and Pampin answered a few questions about the concerts and the importance of collaboration in presenting music at the UW.

Q: Contemporary music is complicated for many listeners. How do you help people understand the language of your compositions?

JP: There is a misconception that new music is hard to understand, but really it’s easier to understand than a lot of classical music. We work with perception, with the direct signal that goes into your brain. We are experimenting with ways of listening.

To experience the good pieces you have to get beyond what you like. There is a continuum of creation — if it’s experimental we are just doing what Beethoven, Haydn and Bach did with music in their time.

Richard Karpen

Richard Karpen

RK: As composers we are always thinking: What are you going to hear? What wll you experience? There is a direct sensorial path from our ears into the brain. Not understanding the sound is sometimes what makes it great. It’s a matter of people taking risks to go to something that they have never heard before. The experience itself is what it is.

Q: How will bringing the JACK Quartet to Seattle benefit the composition program at the UW?

RK: We are both artist researchers; bringing the quartet is part of the research process. In a way, the JACK Quartet is a scientific instrument for our music, like a living microscope that provides us feedback — particularly because I do not write for instruments; instead I write music for people playing instruments.

This is the quartet’s second trip here and we invited them because they are colleagues that we can do research with. Research is what artists have been doing for a long time. Beethoven did research, look at his manuscripts – half of it is scratched out. He was doing research.

Usually composers – like those of us on faculty – have active international careers. We would normally travel abroad to work, but we are bringing musicians here to support our research, benefiting both students and faculty. They are able to experience our research process, which will ultimately lead to the concerts on March 15.

Q: Could you each talk about one unique aspect of a piece listeners will hear the JACK Quartet play?

RK: My piece involves the JACK Quartet and another trio, the Six Tones; what will be interesting is that they will be playing ancient Vietnamese instruments. These are two groups I have worked with separately and they have not worked together.

Juan Pampin

Juan Pampin

JP: My piece is called “Respiración Artificial.” It is for the JACK and bandoneon player Mirta Wymerszberg. The piece is about breathing cycles. The bandoneon has a big bellows and is able to hold a note for a very long time. The timing of the inhale and exhale of the instrument was used to define the time structure of the piece.

The beginning of my piece is all in the very upper register. Your ear is not able to resolve what is happening with pitch, the notes tend to shimmer, it builds sensation. I am using a three-dimensional audio system and ultrasonic speakers we developed that can produce highly localized beams of sound – akin to spotlights – which can move around the audience and bounce off the architecture of the room.

Q: These concerts are presented jointly by the UW School of Music, Center for Digital Arts and Experimental Media and World Series. How was this collaboration formed?

JP: Usually these pieces would be presented in New York or Europe and our artists would travel far away to create their work. This collaboration is setting a precedent, and shows that the UW has decided to prioritize the arts on campus.

The directors of these arts departments and the UW World Series are willing to experiment, which is how we can work together to present exciting new music. The priorities of the departments have aligned and now the organizations are willing to take risks. The JACK residency is for the students, for the faculty, and for the audience.

  • This was edited from a longer interview posted at the UW World Series website.