Meet the Artist……Kevin McFarland, ‘cellist, JACK Quartet

JACK Quartet (image credit: Henrik Olund)

Who or what inspired you to take up the cello, and make it your career?

My mom was a big part of it; she began ear training and piano skills with me from a very young age, bought me my first (eighth-size) cello, and started me on Suzuki training when I was just shy of age four.  While I was obviously not thinking about a career at this point, because music has been part of my life as long as I can remember it made the decision fairly easy later in life.  The incredible breadth and diversity of the recordings of Yo-Yo Ma were frequently played in the house and a master class I had with him in high school was truly inspiring.  I think the experiences that really cemented it for me were my three summers at the Kinhaven music camp in Vermont, where I first realized just how gratifying chamber music could be, especially with friends.  The new music bug also bit me fairly early through the vehicle of Kronos Quartet recordings.  My dad bought many of these which I borrowed (stole) as a teenager, I think I never gave many of them back!

Who or what were the most important influences on your playing?

My cello teachers have been hugely important in helping me hone my craft, both in musical and technical terms.  Troy Stuart at the Peabody Preparatory gave me a great foundation when I was in high school and transitioning into advanced repertoire, and then Steven Doane at Eastman really helped me refine these skills and be able to isolate all the technical difficulties in a piece of music and be able to put them back together in a way that was expressive and with clear interpretation.  Also at Eastman I developed my new music chops through collaborations with countless composers and performers, too many to name here.  I will note that my experience playing with the Eastman Musica Nova Ensemble under the direction of Brad Lubman was crucial, and helped me learn to parse difficult scores with precision and clarity.  Our professional as well as personal interactions with the Arditti Quartet have also been invaluable; without them much of our repertoire (as well as corresponding performance practices and attitudes) would simply not exist.

What have been the greatest challenges of your career so far?

The JACK Quartet specializes in contemporary music performance, and now we are constantly learning new (and often very difficult) repertoire.  This has forced me to learn music very quickly, which means careful study of scores and annotation of parts as well as practice sessions and rehearsals that are efficient as possible.  Striking a balance between this immense amount of work and maintaining a personal life can be very challenging, as the former tends to take priority over the latter.  However the work is well worth it, and I realize I might not be able to keep this pace up forever, so I figure it is time to strike while the iron is hot!

What are the special pleasures/challenges of ensemble playing?

I think the sublimation of the ego into something greater than oneself is simultaneously a special pleasure as well as a challenge of ensemble playing.  I find the joy of chamber music performance to have little to do with self-congratulation and more to do with gratitude to be part of amazing shared musical experiences.  That being said, it is often difficult to relinquish control, and much of chamber music interpretation has to do with compromise.  Sometimes everyone’s opinions align, but many times they conflict.  It’s important to try out everyone’s ideas and come to decisions about which direction to take that make everyone happy.  Many times I find that I have been stubborn about my viewpoint, only to realize that a different approach was equally valid (or in fact better.)  You have to choose your battles carefully.

Which performances/recordings are you most proud of?

Our Xenakis disc has had much to do with our career trajectory and these quartets remain some of my favorite music to play.  Tetras in particular can generate so much energy in the crowd when performed live that you can practically feel electricity in the air.  The music of Helmut Lachenmann also holds a special place in our repertoire and we hold our interactions with him near and dear to our hearts.  (Shameless plug: our recording of the Lachenmann quartets will be released on Mode Records in the coming year.)

Do you have a favourite concert venue to perform in?

Le Poisson Rouge in New York City very much feels like a home base for us at this point.  We know the audiences will be excited and primed for the music we present there and the crowd reactions are always supportive and overwhelming.  As far as more traditional venues go, our performances at Wigmore Hall in London have been incredible experiences.  The hall has an amazing sound and warmth to it but is also small enough to feel very intimate.  I can not think of a more ideal place for chamber music.  (Shameless plug #2: I should probably add our disc that was just released on the Wigmore Live series to the previous list of performances/recordings we are most proud of.)

Favourite pieces to perform?

I mentioned Tetras earlier, and should specify that Lachenmann’s String Quartet No. 3 “Grido” is also exhilarating to perform.  Wolfgang Rihm’s String Quartet No. 3 “Im Innersten” is always an overwhelming emotional and cathartic experience to perform.  There must be something about third string quartets, because I must also mention Georg Friedrich Haas’s String Quartet No. 3 “in iij Noct.” here, which is performed in complete darkness.  We insist that the condition of darkness be so profound when we perform it that you can’t see your hand in front of your own face.  The piece has a quasi-improvisational structure to it that allows for a bit more spontaneous music making than many other pieces in our domain.  All these conditions add up to an experience that elicits a range of responses: from terrifying to ecstatic, hallucinatory to synaesthetic.  It’s a blast!  Rounding out the list is Horatiu Radulescu’s String Quartet No. 5 “Before the Universe was born” which pulls a range of harmonics and complex spectral sounds out of our instruments unlike any other music we’ve played.  It is an experience both spiritual and transcendent.

Who are your favourite musicians?

Many of my favorite musicians are already listed in my responses to the above questions and so imagine me re-listing all of the above here.  There are many cellists whose recordings have been highly influential to me, including Rostropovich, du Pre, Isserlis, and many others.  I’ll also take this opportunity to note that my tastes vary widely to include much more than classical and contemporary classical music.  I am often fascinated by autodidactic musicians who developed their own sophisticated musical languages.  Frank Zappa comes to mind, as well as electronic musicians Aphex Twin and Autechre.  Björk has a unique vocal instrument as well as an idiosyncratic approach to the craft of songwriting.  The Swedish metal band Meshuggah has developed a complex polyrhythmic style that is hard to duplicate successfully in any other musical form.  There are many others, again too numerous to mention.

What is your most memorable concert experience?

This may be cheating a bit as it is in the near future, but we are about to travel to Bali to perform with a full gamelan and traditional dancers on a huge outdoor stage at a festival attended by an estimated 8,000 people.  I believe it will be quite memorable!

What do you consider to be the most important ideas and concepts to impart to aspiring musicians?

You must figure out what is the most unique contribution you can make to the music world and follow that path.  It is not enough just to play well anymore, but you have to figure out what makes your interpretation or performance different and memorable in order to stand out from the crowd.  You also have to love and care about your work.  I think it is nearly impossible to make a personal stamp without putting your heart into it.

What are you working on at the moment?

Trying to stay sane until our break in July!

What is your idea of perfect happiness?

To be surrounded by people you love, to be doing work that is gratifying and rewarding, to always be learning and growing as a person, to smile and laugh and enjoy the simple pleasures of life, and to be at peace with yourself so that you can know true compassion for others.

Comprising violinists Christopher Otto and Ari Streisfeld, violist John Pickford Richards, and cellist Kevin McFarland, JACK is focused on the commissioning and performance of new works, leading them to work closely with composers Helmut Lachenmann, György Kurtág, Matthias Pintscher, Georg Friedrich Haas, James Dillon, Toshio Hosokawa, Wolfgang Rihm, Elliott Sharp, Beat Furrer, Caleb Burhans, and Aaron Cassidy. Upcoming and recent premieres include works by Jason Eckardt, Zeena Parkins, Payton MacDonald, Huck Hodge, James Clarke, Mauro Lanza, Simon Steen-Andersen, Walter Zimmermann, , and Toby Twining.

JACK has led workshops with young composers at Princeton University, Yale University, the American String Teachers Association of New Jersey, University of Iowa, University of Wisconsin-Madison, Darmstadt Internationale Ferienkurse für Neue Musik (Germany), New York University, Columbia University, Carnegie Mellon University, Eastman School of Music, University at Buffalo, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, Northwestern University, University of Huddersfield (United Kingdom), University of Washington, University of Victoria (Canada), and Manhattan School of Music. In addition to working with composers and performers, JACK seeks to broaden and diversify the potential audience for new music through educational presentations designed for a variety of ages, backgrounds, and levels of musical experience.

The members of the quartet met while attending the Eastman School of Music, and they have since studied with the Arditti Quartet, Kronos Quartet, Muir String Quartet, and members of the Ensemble Intercontemporain.

www.jackquartet.com