Calling a composer “maverick” can seem somewhat redundant, as the mere process of pulling music from thin air is, at the very least, original. But there are those artists whose voices are particularly singular, composers who push accepted boundaries so far that people look back and think, “Dang, that composer was a real lone ranger.”
Enter Charles Ives, Ruth Crawford Seeger, and Steven Mackey
These three took their visions of what music could be and created works that are truly distinctive and forward-looking. Charles Ives, steeped in the Western musical tradition, tore rhythm and harmony apart and stitched them back together to create a new fashion. Ruth Crawford Seeger took modernist serial techniques that were being used to organize pitch and extended them to rhythm and form. Steven Mackey brought popular and classical styles together to forge a completely new style altogether. Their individualism continues to inspire composers today; it is this sort of ingenuity—the ability of a composer to redefine “normal”—that propels the JACK Quartet forward.
New music often seems, at the time of its composition, rudely confrontational with the norms of its time; this is no less true of Charles Ives’s String Quartet No. 2. The work is dense with odd combinations of familiar melodies (“Dixie”; “Turkey in the Straw”; excerpts from symphonies of Beethoven, Brahms, and Tchaikovsky) and the mixing of tonalities. The work commented on what Ives considered to be the increasingly “trite” and “weak” compositions of the time. He later wrote, “I started a string quartet score, half mad, half in fun, and half to try out, practice, and have some fun with making those men fiddlers get up and do something like men.”
About 15 years later, as men were steering music toward new systems of tonality, Ruth Crawford Seeger blazed a new path with her String Quartet. In addition to using popular serial techniques of the time, in which a fixed series of pitches could form the basis of an entire piece, she developed methods of applying serialism to rhythm and form. This became a wildly popular method of music composition after the Second World War: Recall the music of Pierre Boulez and Milton Babbitt, for instance.
Much later in the century, Steven Mackey began to smash together elements of classical, rock, jazz, and avant-garde music. Physical Property combines a string quartet with an electric guitar to create a new world of sound and style. Mackey writes, “The piece demands that an unlikely combo—the quintessential classical music chamber ensemble and the symbol of adolescent rebellion—work together with consummate discipline in the service of joyous freedom.”
—John Pickford Richards