The Gift of Close Listening: JACK Quartet Plays Catherine Lamb

JACK Quartet (photo by Beowulf Sheehan)

After about 75 minutes of sound that wavers between punishing and slight dissonance, Catherine Lamb’s string quartet divisio spiralis transforms into radiant consonance, made all the more powerful by the time you spend waiting to get there. The nearly hour-and-a-half long piece requires great concentration: Those clashing moments drive a persistently grating pulse that is only relieved after you’ve listened to most of the music. But lean into them and you might uncover shimmers hiding beneath the surface.

This past summer, I heard JACK Quartet play two of Lamb’s string quartets at The DiMenna Center for Classical Music: divisio spiralis at Yarn/Wire’s Institute in June and string quartet (two blooms) at the TIME:SPANS Festival. Both pieces offered great tension and great release, built from surface-level simplicity—unisons and near unisons, one or two notes entangling and diverting away from each other. But in that seeming simplicity, Lamb (and JACK) unlock infinite potential.

Conceptually, this music focuses on harmony instead of melody or rhythm, exploring how one tiny change in a chord can drastically alter its sonic quality. It moves slowly, unfurling through minutiae—in fact, the movement is so slow, it can almost be imperceptible. In other moments, any shift feels jarring, throwing off the piece’s delicate balance. It’s similar to a seesaw, where a jolt might just send a harmony or tone completely off track, chaos hiding just beneath the placid surface. The music is also played without oscillating vibrato, letting the pitch of each rounded tone ring its clearest, enhancing the quality of each chord.

Throughout string quartet (in bloom), JACK played a series of drones that stop and start, stacking up from low tones in the cello, either in unison octaves or splaying out into full chords. Starting up a drone and stopping it can feel jarring, like being jolted awake from a dream (or a nightmare, if the chord happens to be really cacophonous). But by the end of the piece, that characteristically resolute, and even a little optimistic, feeling settled the music’s waters, leaving us with a final moment of uplift.

While both performances proved superb, June’s divisio spiralis had a certain indefinable magic. A stillness hung in the room throughout the lengthy performance, allowing the gossamer sound to overcome every corner of the room. Before JACK began playing the music, which consists of long-held tones that layer on top of each other, expanding from near unison to unison and away again, they let us know it’s going to be a long piece and we should get comfortable. As the lights dimmed, we fidgeted a little in our seats, preparing for the first high pitch. Throughout the performance, my mind wandered, but I always came back to the sound, processing how it crunches in dissonance, how it pleases in consonance. By the time we reached those final moments of resonance, I started to tear up—there’s something almost indescribably moving about experiencing that final reveal, about hearing the warmth that emerges from the ashes of all the overtones that have faded away. 

There’s a tendency to call any music that hangs still or inspires reflection and focus “easy listening” or a “balm,” but that often ignores the mechanics that ignite this music. Listening to Lamb’s quartets might eventually get you to a sense of calm or serenity, but the attention it takes to get there is what makes those feelings worthwhile. It isn’t background music, nor is it easy. Instead, it shows us how concentrating on our present might reveal more to us than tuning it out.

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