Jack Quartet by Beowulf Sheehan
Photo: Beowulf Sheehan / Courtesy of greyfade

Christopher Otto and JACK Quartet Imbue Music with Mathematics on ‘rag’sma’

Christopher Otto and experimental string ensemble JACK Quartet apply the concept of “just intonation” to create a stirring, intense triple string quartet.

Christopher Otto and JACK Quartet
19 November 2021

Unless the listener is equal parts mathematician and musician, albums like rag’sma can be challenging to appreciate on all appropriate levels. When dropping the needle on this soaring, multifaceted new release, one hears the result of a great deal of mathematical construction and harmonic language that brings together complex intonation and triadic tonality. However, what may seem like some as the musical equivalent of “eating your vegetables” often results in a stirring, larger-than-life sonic experience.

Violinist and composer Christopher Otto is a founding member of JACK Quartet, one of the world’s finest contemporary string quartets, and is best known as an interpreter of other composers’ music. He’s performed works by Helmut Lachenmann, Georg Frederick Haas, John Luther Adams, Philip Glass, and John Zorn, among others. Zorn has been quoted as saying that Otto “brings a passion to everything he plays, elevating it to a level that is often beyond the composer’s wildest dreams”. Interpretation is one thing – rag’sma, however, is Otto’s full-length compositional debut. Joined by fellow violinist Austin Wulliman, violist John Pickford Richards, and cellist Jay Campbell, Otto has created a triple string quartet that implements compositional practices that challenge traditional notions.

With rag’sma, Otto uses the practice of “just intonation” – tuning musical intervals to whole number ratios, as opposed to the 12 notes of the traditional Western chromatic scale. In the album’s press notes, Otto explains that working with just intonation “gives me a much broader palette of colors to work with and enables a finer-grained control of harmonicity”. Not surprisingly, Otto pursued a dual undergraduate degree in math and music composition from the University of Rochester and Eastman School of Music. Additionally, rag’sma was released on greyfade, the label helmed by Joseph Branciforte, the producer, engineer, and composer who revels in the concept of process-based musical composition. Previous releases on the label – featuring artists such as Kenneth Kirschner, Theo Bleckmann, and Branciforte – are based on process-based works, acoustic and electronic minimalism, alternate tuning, and algorithmic composition.

Needless to say, rag’sma – along with the rest of greyfade’s discography – isn’t exactly Top 40 dance fodder or even crowd-pleasing baroque classical. But this doesn’t mean that the album isn’t a profoundly satisfying aural experience. The execution of these intensely felt and meticulously constructed compositions is, in fact, a unique and immersive experience. I’ll be the first to admit that – as someone who is not anywhere near Otto or Branciforte’s musicology level – this concept often goes well over my head.

But it’s hard to deny the sonic results. The music is often drone-like, with lengthy periods of sustained notes. The implementation of these hyper-precise, almost imperceptibly shifting tones seems to become more and more apparent with each listen of the album. Eventually, the listener can more easily pick apart the four instruments as they glide over each other and subtly shift their sound over the length of the tracks. It’s dark, dissonant modern classical music executed in slow motion.

All the releases on the greyfade label are available in vinyl and high-resolution digital formats. Branciforte does not release the music on streaming services. More than anything, this is a commitment to presenting the music with the highest possible quality available. With compositions like rag’sma and performances such as those brilliantly conceived by Otto and JACK Quartet, it’s easy to see why substandard, low-resolution formats like those offered by streaming services are not welcome here. This is music to be listened to as directly and cleanly as possible, on a good set of headphones or high-quality speakers. rag’sma works exceptionally well at loud volume, although your neighbors may disagree. The mathematical precision that Otto applies to his music requires patience and a suitable frame of mind, but the rewards are limitless.

RATING 8 / 10