An Interview with Jay Campbell

By · Title Image © Shervin Lainez · Date 04/13/2017

In July of 2016, Jay Campbell replaced Kevin MacFarland as the cellist of the JACK Quartet. In the meantime, he’s already shown himself to be an enthusiastic participant in the quartet’s extended technique social media videos. I met him on a sunny day at the bar of the Westin Hotel attached to the Elbphilharmonie.

VAN: You’re performing Michel van der Aa’s “Up Close” with film at the Lucerne Festival this summer. What is that like?

Jay Campbell: It’s a pretty cool piece. There are certain things the soloist does that reflect what’s going on in the film, and then likewise what happens in the film reflects what’s happening on stage. And then in some ways they start crossing, and you start doing things in sync with the actress in the film.

[The film] struck me as very lonely and vulnerable. It’s this solitary woman, going through these strangely ritualistic-seeming things, and you’re not sure what’s compelling her to do them. I can’t say for sure if Michel was after that, but that was my take on it.   

What are your main duties as an Artist Étoile at the Lucerne Festival?

JACK is going to lead a performance of “Sila: The Breath of the World,” the big outdoor John Luther Adams piece. We’re going to figure out where to put people. All these choirs of instruments are in different places outside, so we have to find out what the ideal acoustic properties are.

I remember being at Lucerne as a participant, and everyone drinks at the fountain outside of the [concert hall] KKL—that’s where everyone gets drunk. And there were so many locals who would drink there and hang out too, and it never struck me that those two worlds would ever collide. But it would be so great. It’s the white whale of classical music right now.

It also makes sense because the main events at Lucerne are fairly buttoned-up.

I remember not being able to get in to a concert as a participant once. I was either not wearing a jacket, or wearing jeans, or something like that. And I thought I was dressed up [laughs]. I put in the effort and they were still like, “No, sorry.”

It still has that old-world seriousness about it. The performances that happen there are very serious, and the audiences are very serious too, which is great. They’re attentive and responsive. I really appreciate that. But I can also totally see how that scares people away.

In Hamburg, you performed a program of music from New York, which there’s obviously so much of. How do you go about choosing the repertoire for a concert like that?

This program was made before I was in the quartet, so I’m not privy to all the details. But it was about showing a wide amount of styles while still being personally and artistically satisfied with what we’re playing: not just a grab bag for its own sake, but still thinking about quality and aesthetic representation. As well as other types of representation—not having our concert be all white males, for example.

John Adams, “Shaker Loops”; Austin Wulliman, Christopher Otto, and Ari Streisfeld (Violins), John Pickford (Viola), Kevin McFarland and Jay Campbell (Cellos), Volkan Orhon (Bass)

You mentioned being personally satisfied with the music. Say you’re invited to play this concert, and you’re allowed to choose five pieces, but the sixth one has to be something you’re not into. What do you do?

That’s certainly come up. In the quartet, the way we deal with presenters is we try to keep them in the equation as artistic partners. But there’s also definitely some negotiation. There was one recently, a new music festival, where they wanted us to play a piece that we artistically couldn’t get behind.

You probably can’t tell me which piece.

I shouldn’t say. Even as a new music quartet that has to be open to exploring all areas of new music, different aesthetics—you also need your artistic mooring.

When a new member auditions for a string quartet, he or she typically plays Haydn or Beethoven with the current members. When you audition for JACK, I’m imagining you sitting down and sight-reading Radulescu quartets.

It was sort of like that actually. We played Webern’s Six Bagatelles and Gesualdo in an arrangement that had some just intonation things, which were specific to how they like to do it. If I’m remembering correctly, because of the way Gesualdo often modulates by thirds, you keep down drifting down a bit, and then at one really dramatic moment in the text you reset back to where you started, which was really cool. That was the traditional, easy…that was the non-technical part of it.

The other part was playing Lachenmann’s quartet “Grido,” and the last, super-ball-buster part of Xenakis’s “Tetras.” It was really insane. First, we talked about a few meter things, and then we basically read it down. And I remember thinking: “We’re reading this like it’s a Haydn quartet? This is great. I have to join this group.”

Is there anything that makes you think, “No way, we can’t do that”?

You definitely get things in pieces that are not physically possible: accidents of composition, where you can’t physically reach that far. Although even then sometimes we try to figure out other ways. Recently I find myself using my chin a lot, to play double stops.

It’s funny: with student composers, you’re put in this weird quasi-educational position where it’s like, “That’s not how you write for the cello.” And I try to get out of that mindset. For example, we just played a bunch of doctoral composers at Columbia University. They’re writing crazy shit, but they know their shit. Even then, I went into the first rehearsal, and I caught myself thinking that these composers may not necessarily have mastered string writing. And I thought, “OK, if Xenakis had written this, I would pull out all the stops to make it work.” In the Xenaxis Piano Quintet, I’m using my chin—I went far out of my way to make it work. If it had been a student composer who had given me that part, I would’ve been like, “This is physically impossible, go rewrite it.” So I was like, “OK, I need to rethink this.”

Photo © Beowulf Sheehan
Photo © Beowulf Sheehan

In a VAN profile, composer Alex Temple said that “because [her piece ‘Late Beethoven’] was for JACK, I went all out with the extended techniques in a way that I don’t normally do.” Do you ever get easy pieces, or does the quartet’s reputation for playing difficult music become a self-fulfilling prophecy?

Every once in a while we get something easy. I honestly really appreciate the earnestness of someone in a Masters or doctoral composition program just sticking to their guns: “I’m going to write this piece in F# Minor, 4/4, sonata form. Don’t care what anyone else thinks.” If that’s you, cool. Just stick to it. I appreciate any kind of earnest art making.

But what you were saying about the self-fulfilling prophecy is totally true. There is a level where it’s like, “good, the quartet is coming to do a residency,” and everyone pulls out all the stops and writes these super fucking hard pieces [laughs]. But it’s in our arsenal—and if us coming opens the door for them to explore crazy sounds and learn about execution, I see that as a worthwhile educational thing, even if it’s not necessarily their aesthetic.

Even if it involves tons of extra practicing for you?

I try not to think about my labor in those terms. I’ve tried very much to get out of this mindset. I do come out of a pretty traditional conservatory education. But when I’m practicing those things I’m trying not to think about how I could be practicing a Brahms Sonata.

When you guys disagree about something in rehearsal, how do you go about negotiating what you want?

That doesn’t come up too frequently. We’re pretty democratic. We also respect individuals’ veto power, say for pieces or composers. But for musical decisions, one thing that keeps us from getting into huge fights is that we can just ask the composer. That solves a lot of the rabbit hole arguments you find in chamber music. I play in a piano trio also, which plays basically the meat and potatoes of the piano trio repertoire, and it’s a completely different conversation.

Charles Ives, II. TSIAJ (“This scherzo is a joke”). Presto; Conrad Tao (Piano), Stefan Jackiw (Violin), Jay Campbell (Cello)

How so?

They get more philosophical and personal, about what it means, this little dot or whatever. Over-obsessing about certain details. But in a way it’s fun, because you’re crafting something that’s totally individual. There’s no way that we can play a Schubert Piano Trio that’s fully honest and how Schubert wanted it—that’s impossible short of playing it with Schubert.

In conservatory, you kind of steamroll all old music into just a few genres: you have the German Romantics, the French Impressionists, things like that. Maybe partly because of competitions or auditions, where you have to play one Romantic sonata and one Classical sonata and a showpiece. But working with composers, even if they have similar vocabularies, they’re still unique individuals. You deal with the piece and the composer on their own terms. That’s something that I’ve applied back to playing old music: What are the expressive terms of this piece or composer? And not having just one brush-stroke for one style of music.

Does it feel different playing old music and new music on stage?

They’re different burdens of expectation. If you’re playing a warhorse, and there are instrumentalists in the audience, they know not just the score, but the performance history of the score. So that’s one level of anxiety.

To which I say, “Fuck all of that.” It’s much more exciting to just to do you. It’s important for that sea change to happen, and I think it is happening, thankfully. But at the same time, you also have a big obligation when you’re playing a new piece by living composers. Their piece is in your hands and you don’t want to mess it up. ¶