Jasper String Quartet: Unbound
New Amsterdam Records / Sono Luminus

Unless I'm mistaken, the names of the Jasper String Quartet's members don't appear on the package of its fourth album Unbound. But the omission might not be an error on anyone's part; perhaps it's the group's way of expressing its desire to be seen as a single, multi-limbed unit rather than one featuring four individual players (for the record, they're J Freivogel, first violin; Sae Chonabayashi, second violin; Sam Quintal, viola; and Rachel Henderson Freivogel, cello). That the album's a joint release by New Amsterdam Records and Sono Luminus is also fitting, considering that a number of forward-thinking composers associated with the former are featured on a meticulously recorded string quartet release of the kind one would expect to see issued by the latter (Sono Luminus also released the group's first three albums, which feature pieces by Beethoven, Schubert, and Aaron Jay Kernis). Names such as Judd Greenstein, Ted Hearne, David Lang, Missy Mazzoli, and Caroline Shaw will no doubt be familiar to New Amsterdam listeners, and all things considered, Unbound seems an especially apt title for a collection so fundamentally committed to material by innovative composers. Whatever the differences between the seven pieces, they're united by a modern-day, post-genre sensibility.

Inspiration for the compositions came from surprising places, whether it be Shaw's Valencia, an homage to the structural make-up of the common orange and its “impossibly delicate vesicles of juice,” or Death Valley Junction, Mazzoli's evocation of an isolated, three-person town on the border of California and Nevada where one Marta Becket performed at the town's opera house until the age of eighty-six. Though the album's settings are wholly instrumental, programmatic details often factor into their design; in Mazzoli's case, for instance, the material first renders into musical form the desert landscape of the town's setting before shifting to rhythmically charged, dance-inflected figures one presumes to be suggestive of Becket performing.

As much as delving into the background of each piece enhances the listening experience, it's the quartet's performances that matter most, and on that count there's little question Unbound succeeds. Technically, there's nothing the quartet can't do: consider by way of illustration the group's dynamic rendering of Greenstein's Four on the Floor, a perpetual motion machine that, in a manner wholly befitting its title, pushes relentlessly forward at high velocity and demands the players execute unison lines with rapidity and precision. The group brings the composers' material to life with conviction, energy, and enthusiasm, and each setting is handled in such a way that reflects deep engagement with the material. This is an outfit clearly up to the challenge of handling works from both the traditional canon as well as ones of recent vintage.

Lang's almost all the time uses a ten-note “strand of musical DNA” as the building block for his long-form construction, the composer in this case posing in musical form an intensely methodical answer to the question, “Can you build a piece of music the way a person is built?” As his setting advances, Lang will have you believing as much when the separate strands align themselves into the entrancing, multi-layered formation presented here. On this Unbound standout, strings repeatedly surge, their individual tendrils stretching out like supplicating voices during the work's oft-keening and sometimes elegiac eighteen-minute running time. Though Lang's piece casts a long shadow, Donnacha Dennehy's Pushpulling complements it in the way its strings surge, too, even if his piece and Hearne's Excerpts from the middle of something (from Law of Mosaics) can't help but feel a little bit like afterthoughts, an impression reinforced when the latter clocks in at a modest four minutes. Such concision is hardly cause for complaint, however, when the recording as a whole weighs in at a plentiful sixty-nine.

April 2017