Spektral Quartet (l-r): violinists Maeve Feinberg and Clara Lyon, violist Doyle Armbrust and cellist Russell Rolen. (credit: Jocelyn Chuang)

Review: Spektral Quartet plays into the juxtapositions with Experiments in Living

Karl Henning | 25 November 2020

The Spektral Quartet have released a beguiling, wide-spanning and multilayered double album, Experiments in Living as not only a (linear, or not) program for listening, but as a kind of gaming experience with a variety of adjunct cards: one a Tarot-style deck designed by øjeRum (Copenhagen-based musician and collage artist Paw Grabowski) as well as several smaller cards with a mild non-tropical storm of disconnected words, to invite the listener(s) to form their own connections to the music. The gaming aspect of the project strikes me, personally, as more interesting as an idea than as an activity, mais chacun à son goût. Certainly there is no denying the superb production values of øjeRum’s cards, and this reviewer delights to find another ensemble collaborating with a visual artist.

As to the optional linearity, let me begin where the liner notes end:

There are many paths through this album, but this is your adventure, friend. We wish you good fortune…

Earlier, one reads:

Listeners may encounter this record in whatever way they are inspired. Moving sequentially will create a compelling journey from Romanticism to Modernism to Jazz to the Uncategorizable. But for those feeling adventurous we’ve also fashioned a tarot deck of sorts that will bring chance into the experience, and rely on your deep listening to build bridges — literally — between these polychromatic sound worlds.

In Elysium, John Cage gently smiles.

Experiments in Living Spektral Quartet August 2020

Experiments in Living
Spektral Quartet
New Focus Recordings, fcr270
August 28, 2020

Since the whole of this fascinating and undeniably engaging project is an invitation to interactive participation, I’m going to object mildly to one assertion in these notes: “Some large percentage of the classical-music community may argue that the pieces on this album don’t belong together. We beg to differ.” — Why prejudge and strike such a pose? To paraphrase Alan Arkin in The In-Laws: Don’t underestimate the classical-music lover in the street. Give more of the world credit for an open mind.

My first listen to the album was, as invited, a user-initiated shuffle, a practice not new to me, as the music loaded onto my phone’s micro SD card ranges from Zappa’s Broadway the Hard Way to Richard Egarr playing Louis Couperin. I like the mental jugglery of the music player turning on its heels from a Prokofiev piano sonata to a single by Devo, and the pleasurable jangling (inaudible, of course) of brain cells fancying a connection between the two. For our purpose here, however, let me do the reader the courtesy of a somewhat orderly survey.

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Part Two of the album consists of the collaborations with breathing composers/performers.

The Cliff Dwellers Club of Chicago commissioned Chicago-based composer, laptop improviser, electronics performer, and sound artist Sam Pluta to write (what may be my favorite coyly impenetrable title of the year) binary /momentary logics: flow state/joy state for Spektral Quartet in 2016. Happily the music itself is less obfuscatory. Its play of colors and gestures suggests the kind of piece Anton Webern might have written later in his career, if his scale were less determinedly concentrative. Not to say that Pluta’s piece is at all diffuse, only that it has something of a Webernian character, but possessing greater breadth. I like it.

The Fromm Foundation at Harvard University commissioned Anthony Cheung (an Assistant Professor of Music at the University of Chicago) to write The Real Book of Fake Tunes (2015) for Spektral Quartet and flutist Claire Chase.

The liner notes speak of “whiffs of jazz harmonies,” but I think this a little orthogonal to the effect of the music. To cite perhaps the most commonplace example: a dominant seventh chord is a “Mozartean harmony” and it is a “jazz harmony.” What makes it one or the other is context. I think the Cheung a fine piece, but I do hear a piece of modern chamber music with harmonies one also hears in (say) Stravinsky or Bartók. That the composer found jazz one of his elements of inspiration is indeed a point of interest, but not a particularly effective guide to hearing the piece.

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Spinals (2018) featuring New York-based, but New England Conservatory-trained Charmaine Lee (voice and electronics) was “devised in collaboration with Spektral Quartet” and is fully improvised.

Given the inherent contradiction that, once recorded, what was in its time of creation, spontaneous improvisation becomes, in fact, a document, the acid test is, “Is it unflaggingly engaging?” And I can assure you that Spinals is a strikingly original and seminal success.

The Fromm Foundation at Harvard University also commissioned Chicago trombonist/composer George Lewis to write the avant-whole-number String Quartet 1.5: Experiments in Living (2016) for the Spektral Quartet. The titular piece stands out among the contemporary collaborations on the album, both in its generally lesser density of surface activity and, what is related, in articulating into a broad two-part form, a kind of reverse Introduction and Allegro … an Allegro and Outroduction/Recessional? The quartet is good-humored and conversational, as if (perhaps) Haydn had been transposed to our epoch. The clarity of Lewis’s conclusion of the piece reinforces this impression for me.

Spektral Quartet (credit: Daniel Kullman)

Spektral Quartet (credit: Daniel Kullman)

With technical excellence and intense sensitivity as an ensemble (among themselves, or with Clare Chase and Charmaine Lee) the Spektral Quartet communicate these new scores with warmth and commitment. All the collaborative ventures of the album’s Part 2 are a shining success, and a delight to the ear.

My first listen to this album was (as the group invites us to) a random shuffle, and I agree that such is a stimulating and illuming experience. But now let us focus on some select items, as this too makes for rewarding listening.

To revert at last, Part One of the album consists of traditional literature.

Before ever I listened to the Spektral Quartet, ample ink had already been spilt on the Brahms, Op. 51 № 1 in c minor from 1873, on Arnold Schoenberg’s third quartet, Op. 30, written in 1927, although less perhaps (unfairly) on Ruth Crawford Seeger’s 1931 quartet. Brief, then let me be.

Spektral Quartet (credit: Daniel Kullman)

Spektral Quartet (credit: Daniel Kullman)

Doyle Armbrust’s cantabile viola in the “Romanze” (the second movement of the Brahms, poco adagio) is sublime.

Perhaps I am in the minority, in being practically always ready to listen to a Schoenberg string quartet. The first theme of the “Moderato” first movement of Schoenberg’s Op. 30 opens with serene sustained tones floating over something of a skittish accompaniment. That accompaniment figure then develops into a kind of hocket interplay which the Spektrals carry off with a fine balance of playfully frisky and earnest. For the close of the first movement, the texture relaxes into a hesitant tenderness, a tone set by cellist Russell Rolen.

The entirety of the Ruth Crawford Seeger quartet is a solid, accomplished instant classic and its center of gravity is the poignant, otherworldly Andante, in which we hear the Spektrals’ expert balance of voicing and perfectly tuned dissonances. It is all color, and the color gleams pure.

I am alive to having seemed to give these three traditional pieces short shrift, but all the performances are excellent, as indeed is the entire album. ■