Grammy nominated Spektral Quartet releases Experiments in Living, a modular journey through canonic and contemporary works that is designed to be reordered each time a listener experiences the album. Featuring works by George Lewis, Sam Pluta, Charmaine Lee, Anthony Cheung, Ruth Crawford Seeger, Arnold Schoenberg, and Johannes Brahms, Spektral asserts the cyclical connections through this progressive program, suggesting affinities between the works that transcend era and stylistic boundaries.
String Quartet in C minor, Op. 51 No. 1Johannes Brahms
|02||II. Romanze. Poco adagio|
II. Romanze. Poco adagio
|03||III. Allegretto molto moderato e comodo|
III. Allegretto molto moderato e comodo
String Quartet No. 3, Op. 30Arnold Schoenberg (1874-1951)
|07||III. Intermezzo. Allegro Moderato|
III. Intermezzo. Allegro Moderato
|08||IV. Rondo. Molto Moderato|
IV. Rondo. Molto Moderato
String Quartet 1931Ruth Crawford Seeger
|09||I. Rubato assai|
I. Rubato assai
|12||IV. Allegro possibile|
IV. Allegro possibile
|13||binary/momentary logics: flow state/joy state|
binary/momentary logics: flow state/joy state
The Real Book of Fake TunesAnthony Cheung
|Claire Chase, flute, Spektral Quartet|
|Charmaine Lee, voice and electronics, Spektral Quartet||6:16|
|20||String Quartet 1.5: Experiments in Living|
String Quartet 1.5: Experiments in Living
“This album will never be heard the same way twice. Do you remember the Choose Your Own Adventure books? ‘If you approach the mysterious stranger, turn to page 48… if you duck into the forbidden cave to avoid them, turn to page 136,’ etc.”
So starts Spektral Quartet violist Doyle Armbrust’s coy liner notes for the group’s adventure spanning three centuries and several more eras and genres, Experiments in Living. By bringing Johannes Brahms, Arnold Schoenberg, Ruth Crawford (Seeger), George Lewis, Anthony Cheung, Sam Pluta, and Charmaine Lee under one cover, Spektral asks the listener to focus on what these forward-looking musical figures have in common. By designing a tarot card deck packaging that allows the program order to be reshuffled, the quartet challenges us to understand this common ground in musical as opposed to chronological terms.
George Lewis’ String Quartet 1.5: Experiments in Living embodies the peripatetic quality of the album as a whole. Quick character shifts, timbral extremes, and bracing rhythmic dialogue within the ensemble create compelling moment to moment activity. Stepping back from the sonic canvas, one hears the architectural evolution of several layers of narrative over the substantial sixteen and half minute work.
Ruth Crawford Seeger’s String Quartet (1931) is an important bridge in the trajectory of compositional approaches to the string quartet. The opening movement, Rubato assai, demonstrates Seeger’s interest in establishing independent roles for the four instruments, foreshadowing the careful cultivation of emotional character in Elliott Carter’s quartets. The canonic texture of the second movement dispenses with this independence, constructing a serpentine line of fragments that are passed from one instrument to another. The third movement is Seeger’s most well known, (and also exists in a string orchestra version), and features what she dubbed “dissonant dynamics,” a klangfarben type technique in which a melody emerges from terraced dynamics within each part. The final movement establishes a duality between short, forceful proclamations in the first violin and longer, slinking lines in the rest of the ensemble. These roles are gradually swapped, with the first violin’s line becoming longer, and then swapped again as the work comes to a close.
Sam Pluta’s binary/momentary logics: flow state/joy state shares Lewis’ jump cut approach to character as well as Seeger’s experimentation with how to use the ensemble. The work opens with an additive rhythmic texture, with subsequent descending scalar phrases getting progressively longer, while angular interjections fly around the ensemble. Pluta flows back and forth between presenting the quartet as one hybrid voice and creating independent spaces for all four instruments, and alternating between modular presentation of motivic material versus ideas that evolve linearly.
Brahms’ first String Quartet is a restless work, befitting a composer who was notoriously self-critical (he is said to have written twenty quartets before finally allowing himself to publish his official String Quartet #1). Propulsive eighth note figures dominate the first movement, persistently elbowing a lyrical second theme out of the way. The second movement achieves more repose and tenderness, while the third lives in an ambivalent space between the insistence of the opening and the lyricism of the second. In the final movement, we hear Brahms cultivating various ways to use the instrumentation, laying the groundwork for later explorations.
Anthony Cheung’s The Real Book of Fake Tunes, written for flutist Claire Chase and the Spektral Quartet, is organized like a suite, with each of the five movements expressing a different affect. Cheung is of course referencing the “Cliff’s Notes” bible of jazz standards, The Real Book, though his “tunes” verge less in the lead sheet direction, excavating the richness of this lush instrumentation. Like other pieces in this program, Cheung plays with various ways to present the instrumentation -- soloist with accompaniment, two primary voices with supporting material, and fully integrated. Throughout, we hear colorful voicings, syncopated grooves, and lines that suggest the freedom of improvisation despite the meticulous nature with which they have been notated.
Arnold Schoenberg’s String Quartet #3 is a prime example of how he sometimes offset his revolutionary approach to pitch with an approach to structure that was grounded in conventional forms. The opening movement is in sonata form, the second a theme and variations, the third a minuet and trio, and the final movement is explicitly a rondo. In one possible reordering of the album, placing the Schoenberg before the Brahms could underscore both the continuity and disparity between these two innovative figures, both of whom opened up pathways for artistic risk for generations of composers to come.
Schoenberg’s String Quartet #2 broke with tradition in a different way, by integrating voice into the instrumentation. Here, Spektral Quartet mines the same fruitful territory, but with a new collaborative improvised work with vocalist and improviser Charmaine Lee. Lee’s vocabulary of extended vocal techniques is staggering, and the quartet is admirably game, finding timbres that mimic, support, and provide a foil for her evocative palette.
The juxtaposition of these works from different eras provokes more questions than it answers, and this is surely the point. From this starting place and all the ordering permutations within, we have a golden opportunity to examine how we understand the lineage of modern string quartet repertoire, and an invitation to interrogate that understanding.
- Dan Lippel
Multi-GRAMMY nominees, the Spektral Quartet actively pursues a vivid conversation between exhilarating works of the historical repertoire and those written this decade, this year, or this week. Since its inception in 2010, Spektral is known for creating seamless connections across centuries, drawing in the listener with charismatic deliveries, interactive concert formats, an up-close atmosphere, and bold, inquisitive programming.
With a tour schedule including some of the country’s most notable concert venues such as Carnegie Hall, The Kennedy Center, The MET Museum, Miller Theater, Library of Congress, and NPR’s Tiny Desk Concerts, the quartet also takes great pride in its home city of Chicago: championing the work of local composers, bridging social and aesthetic partitions, and cultivating partnerships with cultural and civic institutions across the city. Over their ten years, Spektral has commissioned dozens of new works, many by composers of international significance, leaving a lasting impact on the 21st-century string quartet repertoire.
Named “Chicagoans of the Year” by the Chicago Tribune in 2017, Spektral Quartet is most highly regarded for its creative and stylistic versatility: presenting seasons in which, for instance,
a thematic program circling Beethoven seamlessly coexists with an improvised sonic meditation at sunrise, a talent show featuring Spektral fans, and the co-release of a jazz album traversing the folk traditions of Puerto Rico.http://spektralquartet.com
One of the reasons Spektral Quartet have remained favorites of Chicago’s new music scene is their holistic interest in the trajectory of classical music and how it connects with contemporary repertoire. This superb new double album expands the way the group often programs its concerts. Yes, it’s strange to include a performance of Brahms’ String Quartet in C Minor in this column, but the group features the piece because the composer’s harmonic sense was celebrated by Arnold Schoenberg, the 20th century paradigm-shifter whose String Quartet No. 3 is also performed here. Also included is Ruth Crawford Seeger’s brilliant and perennially overlooked 1931 String Quartet. The second half of the collection zooms in on the present; the slashing intensity and radical dynamics of Sam Pluta’s “binary/momentary logics: flow state/joy state;” the transplanted harmonic language of jazz within a formal classical structure behind the splintered melodies of guest flutist Claire Chase on Anthony Cheung’s “Real Book of Fake Tunes;” the purely spontaneous electricity of the quartet’s splattery yet cogent collaboration with improvising vocalist Charmaine Lee on “Spinals;” and the, by turns, eerie, violent, serene, and percussive George Lewis work “String Quartet 1.5: Experiments in Living.” The second disc provides a potent sampler of some crucial threads in 21st century composition. In typically inventive Spektral Quartet fashion, the physical release includes a set of custom tarot cards to chart random track sequences in order to discover new connections.
— Peter Margasak, 8.21.2020
When this release was presented to me for review, I politely declined Spektral Quartet’s invitation to determine my own playlist using a deck of cards, à la John Cage making composing choices via the I Ching. I can do the same thing with my computer’s random play button, and no one will be any the wiser. The point is that you don’t need a gimmick to realize that the range, the diversity, and the eclecticism of the selections speak for themselves. More importantly, the Spektral Quartet manages to lock into each composer’s sound world.
To be sure, more expansive and genial readings of Brahms’ C minor Quartet can be had (for example, the Alban Berg Quartett, the Quartetto Italiano), yet Spektral’s lean textured, contrapuntally clear outer movements and deliberately held-back Allegretto hold comparable validity. Shapely nuance and intelligent use of portamento and vibrato enliven Schoenberg’s still-foreboding syntax: compare Spektral’s conversational bounce in the Allegretto to the relatively stiff and clipped New Vienna String Quartet recording, or the specificity of their melodic pointing in the Adagio next to the Leipziger Streichquartett’s more generalized though impeccable execution.
Their interpretation of Ruth Crawford’s astonishing 1931 Quartet easily matches the Pacifica Quartet’s reference recording, especially in the finale’s nimbly phrased unison lines. By contrast, the Sam Pluta composition is all about percussive attacks and releases. It often evokes DJs employing scratching techniques at super speed. The music demands and receives as vivacious and hard-hitting a performance as one is likely to hear.
Anthony Cheung’s The Real Book of Fake Tunes amounts to a textural tour-de-force, where flutist Claire Chase’s amazing command of extended techniques assiduously integrate within the composer’s boundless gestural arsenal. The fourth movement in particular stands out for Cheung’s blending of pizzicato punctuations and sustained chording, and for the climactic cascading runs with instruments in all registers.
I’m not sold on Spinals, an improvised collaboration with Charmaine Lee; I find that the electronic component and wordless vocal effects abound with clichés that we’ve heard millions of times from thousands of electro-acoustic improvisors. On the other hand, George Lewis masterfully recreates the language of his highly original electronic aesthetic through the string quartet medium, where his fresh and constantly inventive writing always keeps you guessing. What is more, Lewis is not afraid to use silence to make a dramatic impact and to help prepare the ear for the next timbral onslaught. “Spektral Stimulation” is guaranteed for all listeners, and this release certainly does the ensemble proud on the cusp of its 10th anniversary.
— Jed Distler, 8.28.2020
This week Spektral Quartet, Chicago’s multi-grammy nominated ensemble, releases their fourth full length studio album: Experiments in Living. Taking its namesake from a quote by utilitarian philosopher John Stuart Mill the album is meant to be “an interactive, deep-listening excursion through Spektral’s expansive repertoire.” The conceptual cornerstone of this project is Spektral’s philosophy that pairing classic standards with new contributions can alter our perception of both.
This album, unlike most, is not meant to be listened to from start to finish. The music is paired with a collection of Tarot-style cards from Copenhagen-based artist øjeRum. These strikingly colored cards are meant to guide the listener through an aleatoric process. Spektral Quartet has devised a system wherein the album can last fifteen minutes, fifty minutes, or longer (depending on how you choose to draw your cards.) Featuring the work of seven composers and roughly two hours of audio this collection is a bold attempt to offer art music consumers a new experience in the age of streaming. The A side features the works of Brahms, Schoenberg, and Crawford (Seeger) while the B side showcases the newer talents of Sam Pluta, Anthony Cheung, Charmaine Lee, and George Lewis. In the following sections I will address each work separately before circling back to discuss the experience that the album offers.
Johannes Brahms: String Quartet in C minor, Op. 51 No. 1
The first four tracks on this album (if you were to listen chronologically) are composed of Brahms’ String Quartet #1 in C minor. This work serves as an interesting study in the personality and creative habits of the great German Composer. So infamously indecisive was Brahms that, to this day, composers remark that they have a case of “Brahms Syndrome” when they feel the need to continuously revise an otherwise completed project. Op. 51 is no exception. In typical Brahmsian style the creation of this work took place slowly over the course of eight painstaking years. There is evidence that he started writing this piece as early as 1869 and destroyed upwards of 20 different manuscripts on his way to finally publishing the work in the Summer of 1873 (at the age of 40). Brahms’ contribution to the Western canon cannot be overstated, but it certainly seems that if one were tasked with finding a composer to choose a restaurant with that Brahms might not be the wisest choice.
Brahms’ fickle nature is on full display in this recording. The first movement opens with a fast-paced, angsty, a full-bodied phrase which soon gives way to thin and impish recantation. These two, seemingly opposed, dispositions unceasingly oscillate throughout this movement with a mastery so refined that it makes Kanye seem emotionally stable in comparison. The second movement is careful and elegant. Brahms takes 7 and a half minutes to patiently walk the listener through a satisfying series of gentle motivic developments and perfectly curated counterpoint. The third movement is a wandering, almost improvisatory, exploration. It is ambiguous in character. Motion never ceases, but it never seems to have a precise destination. In the final movement Brahms reestablishes the confidence with which the first movement began, but this time he is less willing to recant. There are intermittent moments of intimacy, but they come few and far between as Brahms demonstrates exactly how he earned his moniker as the third “B” of classical music.
We tend to talk about Brahms as two separate people. On one hand we have the arbiter of Brahms syndrome. The sad sack who was chronically crippled by self-doubt. The man who, by all indications, erased far more music than he ever published. On the other hand we have the fiery German master. The heir apparent to the First Viennese School. The man who, although he most assuredly second guessed himself along the way, had the wherewithal to continue the legacy of the Symphony in a world void of Beethoven. And when told, at his favorite bar in Vienna, that his first symphony sounded like Beethoven’s 10th replied curtly, “Do you think you are the first jackass to tell me that?” Perhaps what makes Op. 51 No. 1 so compelling is that both dualities of Brahms are so prominently depicted in the music.
Arnold Schoenberg: String Quartet No. 3, Op. 30
54 years after the premier of the aforementioned Brahms, but in the same town, Arnold Schoenberg premiered his String Quartet no. 3. Nearly two decades had passed since Vienna had witnessed a work in this medium from the thorny and often temperamental composer. His String Quartet no. 2 had been remarkably unusual in that, in addition to a typical four players, it also called for a solo Soprano. Op. 30, however, carries a uniqueness of its own. Schoenberg had previously utilized his 12-tone system in a handful of solo works and chamber pieces, but this work marks the first use of this invention for string quartet. Schoenberg traded late stage romantic harmony and unconventional structure for the dodecaphonic system and a return to strict classical form. This addition to Schoenberg’s discography follows the typical four movement structure that we might see in Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert, or Brahms.
Movement one “Moderato” follows a par for the course sonata form. This first section, from start to finish, is unified with energetic pulsing eight notes and boasts soaring high violins. In regards to this movement Schoenberg had this to say: “As a little boy I was tormented by a picture of a scene of a fairytale “Das Gespensterschiff”, (The Ghostship) whose captain had been nailed through the head to the topmast by his rebellious crew. I am sure that this was not the program of the first movement of the third string quartet. But it might have been, subconsciously, a very gruesome premonition which caused me to write this work, because as often as I thought about this movement, that picture came to my mind.” With that comforting thought we will move on to following movements.
A Theme and Variations was chosen as the blueprint for the second movement. This decision was no doubt a tip of the hat to his city’s musical past. Next is the bouncing third movement, which hints towards a Viennese Waltz, and the finale comprised of a Sonata-Rondo. Schoenberg’s music seems tame and conservative to us today, but at its time it was the greatest musical experiment that had ever been conducted (sans Leonin and Perotin). The inclusion of this piece fits wonderfully into the spirit of the album.
Ruth Crawford (Seeger): String Quartet 1931
The final piece of this album’s A side is Ruth Crawford Seeger’s String Quartet 1931. In 1930 Ruth Crawford (as she was known at the time) was the first woman to receive a Guggenheim Fellowship. In private letters to her future husband she goes into detail on the origins of this work. For six months she had set her sights towards composing her first symphony, but this vision never manifested. Instead, she completed a handful of significant chamber pieces, one of which being, this seminal work of string quartet literature.
The often sparse and understated first movement demonstrates Crawford’s keen ability to develop phrases and thematic material in the absence of conventional harmony. The second, fast paced and furiou, features quick pass-offs and extended figures which descend seamlessly between voices. Seeger’s ability, through orchestration, to make for four players sound like one is possibly the most captivating aspect of this movement. The third movement, clocking in at just under four minutes, is the longest and perhaps most innovative. Two-thirds of this section is spent in a long and steady crescendo. Voices enter, diseapper, layer, and mingle as the music slowly boils over. Once the peak has been reached it quickly tapers off to end where it began. The final portion of this work is composed entirely of dialogue between the first violin and the rest of the ensemble. Seeger utilized shocking sonorities by writing the second violin, viola, and cello in unison motion and octaves throughout; and in doing so brazenly broke some of the most regarded rules of counterpoint. The speed and precision with which Spektral Quartet plays – the entire piece, but particularly – this final movement set it apart from previous recordings.
Sam Pluta: binary/momentary logics: flow state/joy state
Fellow Chicagoan composer Sam Pluta opens up the B side of this album. His piece, binary/momentary logics: flow state/joy state was commissioned by Spektral Quartet and premiCharaminered in June of 2016 at Constellation in Chicago. Pluta explained the work thusly, “This piece explores the joy of opening up the mind to improvisatory exploration. It is also an attempt at orchestrating for acoustic instruments with my electronic improvisational language.” Pluta paints with a diverse pallet of sound, texture, and timbre. He uses, what appears to be, virtually every technique that a string instrument can achieve – standard or extended – to great effect. Twenty-five separate, but continuous, movements take place in just under nine minutes. Some of the titles are as descriptive as “loose cannon”, “slide”, and “double duo” while others are as esoteric as “professor dr. squiggly, dma” and “universal consciousness”. The album’s overarching theme of experimentation is omnipresent in this piece which makes it a perfect and welcomed addition to the tracklist.
Anthony Cheung: The Real Book of Fake Tunes
Lovers of Jazz, or people who have paid large sums of money to have people talk at them about Jazz, will undoubtedly be familiar with “The Real Book”. It is a collection of lead sheets, for different instruments, containing Jazz standards. The idea is that the musician can quickly familiarize himself with a chart when it is called at a gig. This piece by Anthony Cheung pays satirical homage to the famous tome in five movements.
Cheung describes each movement as having a distinct character. The first as a “floating, weightless introduction that turns capricious,” the second as “a somewhat sorrowful ballad with interruptions,” the third as “a semi-serious scherzo that swells and subsides in wave-like motions,” the fourth as a “resonance study that turns into a free-flowing, improvisatory rhapsody,” and the finale as “the closest one gets to a “tune” in the familiar sense, with repeated and expanding yet irregularly timed chord progressions that might remind some of John Coltrane’s “Countdown.”
In these tracks Spektral is joined by Brooklyn-based flautist Clarie Chase. As stated, each movement of this piece has its own character, but the character revealed most is that of Anthony Cheung as a talented, inventive, and supremely original composer full of wit and charm.
Charmaine Lee: Spinals
From a style standpoint Charmaine Lee’s Spinals track is where this quartet delivers on its promise of experimentation the most. This piece was devised as a collaboration between Spektral and New York based vocalist and improviser Charmaine Lee. The piece is composed of an assortment of vocal sounds over noisy electronics and an ever-changing base of strings. As a fan of music – and new music in particular – I am not incredibly shocked when I listen to a piece like this. It is, however, shocking to hear it done so right. Spinals is an example of the latter. This piece offers what many in its genre do not; the sense that it was carefully constructed in some way. There are moments of extreme chaos, but also silence. There are peaks and valleys. Intensity and reprieve. Many pieces of this persuasion intentionally bombard you, but Spinals lures you in with a feeling of true sincerity. That one group can play Brahms as precisely as they do while convincingly playing this piece is a testament to the superior command of style possessed by the members of Spektral Quartet.
George Lewis: String Quartet 1.5: Experiments in Living
The final track of this album is the “title track” String Quartet 1.5: Experiments in Living by George Lewis. Lewis has a reputation as a creative renaissance man. He is well known for his contributions to computer music, his illustrious scholarly career, and his efforts as an installation artist. He is also objectively and unequivocally a Composer (with a capital C). The piece starts with a section of sultry harmonics, pointed plucks, and harsh rhythmic interjections. This is followed by an extended series of smooth glissandos and ambient lows. The third section, which begins near the halfway mark, is more rhythmic in nature. Pizzicatos play a supporting role throughout the piece, but are given their closeup here in a full ensemble section that sounds more like a kalimba than a string quartet. The fourth section is marked by extreme use of range for all parties. Swelteringly high violins soar as the cello delivers gutural tremolos. The finale is a series of chaotic pass off and blistering runs that showcase the ensemble’s virtuosity, Lewis’ compositional prowess, and his ability to build a sound structure.
First and foremost I will say this: the album is performed, recorded, and produced beautifully. It delivers – and exceeds – the promise of quality that you would expect from a group of this caliber. The dazzling performances of Claire Chase (flute) and Charmaine Lee (composition, voice, and electronics) add variety and push this project beyond a “par for the course” String record. The music speaks for itself, but the selling point of the album is the interactive experience.
When I first downloaded the album and sorted through the promotional material I was torn. The angel on my right shoulder was saying that it was an interesting idea; that I should give it a chance. The devil on my left was saying the only innovative thing they’ve managed to achieve is complicating a handy little invention commonly referred to as “the shuffle feature”. The premise is that you can listen to this album in a different order each time. Instead of going through the tracks numerically you can skip around and choose your own adventure. That idea, in itself, is not at all novel. As a matter of fact, you can already do that with any album you choose. Blood on the Tracks is around fifty-two minutes long, but sometimes I just want to listen to “Tangled Up in Blue” and “Shelter from the Storm”. The question that I kept coming back to was this: how is that any different than creating a playlist on Spotify?
We are all so used to streaming our music. That ease of access is a catch 22. Any song we want is at the touch of our finger, but that ease sometimes makes us lose the reverence we should have. Igor Stravisnky said, “For one can listen without hearing, just as one can look without seeing. The absence of active effort and the liking acquired for this facility make for laziness.” He was talking about radio and the phonograph, but it is shocking how much more accurate this statement becomes when applied to streaming.
I used to buy CDs. I would spend every cent of my Christmas money at Best Buy as a teenager. There was a ritual to unboxing the disk, looking at the album art, reading the liner notes, and intently following along with the lyrics for the duration of the album. That ritual has been replaced – and I hate to admit it, but I feel that I am not alone here – with absently listening to one movement I like from a Mozart Symphony, two or three Drake songs, and half of a podcast episode; all while cleaning my house, eating dinner, scrolling on Instagram, and texting. That is what makes this album so remarkable. The act of receiving those Tarot cards in the mail, opening the box, reading about the album, picking the order of tracks. The experience forced me to take a minute and be actively involved.
Will this revolutionize how we consume art music in the 21st century? No, probably not. Is it meant to? I don’t think so. I think it was meant to be an experiment, but it is an experiment with value that we should all take a part in. The experience is a truly beautiful thing.
— Jeremy Smith, 8.28.2020
Given the easy accessibility of recorded music of virtually every type and era, at times it seems that musically, all time collapses into the present time. It’s a strangely ahistorical contemporaneity we seem to inhabit—is the internet eternity’s jukebox?–but even if it makes for a certain uneasiness, the random-shuffle possibilities it opens up may provide opportunities for musical illumination.
Realizing some of those possibilities is something Chicago’s Spektral String Quartet sets out to do with its ambitious double album Experiments in Living. The group selected seven string quartets written between 1873 and 2018 and, inventing a randomizing process to be realized with a deck of cards, offer the listener the chance to order and reorder the pieces for playback.
The works the group chose are Brahms’ 1873 String Quartet in C Minor; Schoenberg’s String Quartet No. 3 (1927); Ruth Crawford’s String Quartet of 1931; Anthony Cheung’s Real Book of Fake Tunes for string quartet and flute (2015); George Lewis’ 2016 String Quartet 1.5: Experiments in Living; Sam Pluta’s binary/momentary logics: flow state/joy state (2016); and Charmaine Lee’s 2018 Spinals for string quartet, voice and electronics.
The eighty year lacuna between Crawford’s work and Cheung’s represents a conceptual as well as a chronological discontinuity. A developmental continuity binds the earlier three works: the Schoenberg quartet conserves something of the romanticism of the Brahms, while the dissonant counterpoint of the Crawford quartet plays peculiarly American variations on Schoenberg’s serialism. As distinct as these three pieces are, all are fully composed and squarely within the elastic but still recognizable tradition of Western art music. The pieces on the other side of the great divide, by contrast, break out of that tradition as much as they take their bearings from it. They sound different, to begin with—their vocabularies draw as a matter of course on extended performance techniques that at times push their surface textures to extremes of noise and fragmentation.
One other significant break lies with the newer works’ engagement with improvisation as something major to do, emulate, or draw inspiration from. Lee’s relatively short, single-movement work, which was created in collaboration with the ensemble, is completely improvised. Lee, who joins the quartet in their performance, is an improvising vocalist who augments her voice with electronic amplification; the piece is an abstract blend of wordless vocals and largely unpitched sounds. Pluta describes his rapidly moving, twenty-five movement quartet as being about the “joy of opening up the mind to improvisatory exploration;” what’s explored is an electronically inspired collection of quick-cutting, scratchy, oscillating sounds that the quartet convincingly translates onto acoustic string instruments. Cheung’s lyrical, five-movement piece layers a flute line played by Claire Chase in an improvisational spirit over compact, song-length settings. Although improvisation plays a significant role in Lewis’ musical poetics, his exuberant quartet, which like Lee’s, Pluta’s, and Cheung’s was commissioned by the ensemble, is a fully notated work that weaves together various extended techniques into an episodic, but audibly cohesive, tissue of sound.
In its willingness to disrupt ordinary ways of listening to music within a highly diverse tradition, The Spektral Quartet’s Experiments in Living is certainly a challenging recording, and a stimulating one as well.
— Daniel Barbiero, 9.01.2020
The Spektral Quartet takes advantage of the open-ended playing time of a digital release to create effectively a double album for their latest recording, Experiments in Living. While double albums often suffer from a bit of flab, this one doesn’t have an extraneous moment. It is a well curated release that attends to meaning making in contemporary music with a spirit that is both historically informed and deeply of this moment.
A clever extra-musical addition to the project is a group of Tarot cards that allow the listener to ‘choose their own adventure,’ making their way through the various pieces in different orderings. These are made by the artist/musician øjeRum. The tarot cards may be seen on the album’s site.
It might seem strange to begin an album of 20/21 music with Johannes Brahms’s String Quartet Op. 51, no. 1 in C-minor (1873). However, Arnold Schoenberg’s article “Brahms as Progressive” makes the connection between the two composers clear. It also demonstrates Spektral’s comfort in the standard repertoire. They give an energetic reading of the quartet with clear delineation of its thematic transformations, a Brahms hallmark.
Schoenberg is represented by his Third String Quartet (1927). His first quartet to use 12-tone procedures, it gets less love in the literature than the oft-analyzed combinatorics of the composer’s Fourth String Quartet, but its expressive bite still retains vitality over ninety years later. Ruth Crawford Seeger’s String Quartet (1931), an under-heralded masterpiece of the 20th century, receives one of the best recordings yet on disc, its expressive dissonant counterpoint rendered with biting vividness.
Sam Pluta’s Flow State/Joy State is filled with flurries of glissandos, microtones, and harmonics to create a thoroughly contemporary sound world punctuated by dissonant verticals. One of Pluta’s most memorable gestures employs multiple glissandos to gradually make a chord cohere, only to have subsequent music skitter away. Charmaine Lee’s Spinals incorporates her own voice, replete with lip trills and sprechstimme that are imitated by string pizzicato and, again, glissandos.
Spektral is joined by flutist Claire Chase on Anthony Cheung’s Real Book of Fake Tunes, which combines all manner of effects for Chase with jazzy snips of melody and writing for quartet that is somewhat reminiscent of the techniques found in the Schoenberg, but with a less pervasively dissonant palette. Cheung’s writing for instruments is always elegantly wrought, and Chase and Spektral undertake an excellent collaboration. One could imagine an entire album for this quintet being an engaging listen.
The recording’s title track is George Lewis’s String Quartet 1.5; he wrote a prior piece utilizing quartet but considers this his first large-scale work in the genre. Many of the techniques on display in Pluta’s piece play a role here as well. Lewis adds to these skittering gestures, glissandos, and microtones the frequent use of various levels of bow pressure, including extreme bow pressure in which noise is more present than pitch. The latter crunchy sounds provide rhythmic weight and accentuation that offsets the sliding tones. Dovetailing glissandos create a blurring effect in which harmonic fields morph seamlessly. The formal design of the piece is intricate yet well-balanced. More string quartets, labeled 2.5 and 3.5, are further contributions by Lewis to the genre. One hopes that Spektral will take them up as well – their playing of 1.5 is most persuasive.
— Christian Carey, 9.02.2020
We’ve traveled so deep into the digital age that we’ve almost forgotten the awe that can accompany a physical release. The irony is that the musical portion of Experiments in Living is digital while the accoutrements are physical. Unwrapping the box ~ about the size of a vintage paperback book ~ produces a sense of anticipation, followed by curiosity, chased by excitement. And now, let the music play.
We’re starting with Brahms, specifically “String Quartet in C Minor, Op. 51 No. 1” (1873). As to its quality, we rely on Tchaikovsky, who called Brahms “a giftless bastard” whose music lacked emotion (he hated Debussy too); Wagner, who said he plagiarized Beethoven’s style; Edward Hanslick, who labeled his music “leathery;” and the crowds who jeered the composer early in his career. Today, everyone knows how terrible Brahms is, which is why no one has listened to him for over a hundred years ~ until this past weekend, when Spektral Quartet rescued him from the scrapheap of forgotten composers.
So which art card best represents Brahms? Four are offered; could it be the person with a moon in the chest, or the disjointed Ophelia floating down the river, or the woman with woods exploding from her arms? We’ll go with the image reminiscent of the Bride of Frankenstein, in which the streaks of white hair are replaced by rivers, as if intellect is exploding from a head too small to hold it in. Now let’s pick a pair of words: let’s try earthy and fertile. These word cards are a music reviewer’s dream; in search of the proper adjective, simply shuffle and peruse.
The connections you choose are the right ones, writes the Quartet. There are no improper links; these are Experiments in Living, a proper pareidolia. The Quartet sees connections between old music and new, art and sound, sound and word. They are aided by prolific collage artist øjeRum, a composer who has been known to release multiple albums in a single month. This is a generous way to showcase his art, which has already graced dozens of albums. Perhaps the best comparison is to Dave McKean, cover artist of The Sandman, whose tarot deck relays a similar mood. A free pairing / playlist option is offered on the Quartet’s website, along with copious details, all of which, amusingly, may be ignored.
What is good music? Who gets to decide? We do, of course! Just kidding, all we do is chime in. While it’s safe to say that Arnold Schoenberg’s “String Quartet No. 3, Op. 30” (1873) and Ruth Crawford (Seeger)’s “String Quartet” (1931) have been accepted as canonical, it’s also fair to call Spektral Quartet’s renditions exquisite; and for some modern listeners, a revelation. These compositions fill what would under other circumstances be the first of two discs, the difference being that these works are not meant to have a designated batting order. One may approach them from a Cageian perspective, tossing the cards like an I Ching; one may pick and choose; one may even limit the playing time to a suggested 15 to 55 minute session. Their presence on vinyl or disc would be limiting. If Spektral Quartet does have a rule, it is that there are no rules.
So let’s get to that new music! As a member of the Wet Ink Ensemble, Sam Pluta is already an established name, and “binary / momentary logics: flow state / joy state” allows him to show off his playful side. Spektral Quartet apologizes for the fact that there will be “no hit singles” from this album, but why not? And what is a hit single anyway? It’s a hit if we say it is, and this one has Top of the Pops written all over it. Everyone loves dissonance, sudden timbre changes, abrupt strokes of the bow and the vast borderland between electronic and organic. Once one has listened to all the great 19th and 20th century auteurs, Pluta fits right in. And as Brahms has proven, accessibility and simplicity need not be barriers to (eventual) popularity. Looking at the cards, we choose skittering, glitchy and gutsy. Who’s having fun now? We are.
Wow, we would not want to fall off that bookcase. Okay, now back to the music! Anthony Cheung‘s “The Real Book of Fake Tunes” is highlighted by the sublime flautist Claire Chase. These five brief movements, each short enough to be a single (okay, we’ll let it go) continue the sense of experimentalism with humor and verve. The zesty trills and somber strings flirt with one another, suggesting that they are not so easily pigeonholed. Methinks the violin doth protest too much. The lines blur between past and present, an advantage of composition untethered to populist preferences. The music is brash and bold; for an image, we need something confrontational. The giant eye and dark coats of Card #7 fit the bill, although they are tagged Schoenberg. Now we seek a link between the two, not difficult to find, especially between Schoenberg’s fourth movement and Cheung’s third.
Born in 1991, the youngest composer on the set is a testament to the fact that brilliance determines its own schedule. Offering the album’s only vocal piece, Charmaine Lee leads the quartet with trills, pops, growls, gargles, breath and other onomatopoeia, sounding like a cross between Minions, a Coke can and a balloon. The “hi”s at the end are charming. For this, we need a 21st card; why not draw our own? The Quartet “closes” the album with George Lewis‘ “String Quartet 1.5: Experiments in Living,” ostensibly the title piece, although also ~ should one choose to play it first ~ an overture. If sounds had words (and thanks to the smaller cards in the deck, they do!), these notes might correspond to the utterances of Lee, the garbled tragedy of 19th century reviews, or the reactions of your friends, who really, really want you to choose something else to play. That is, until you break out the cards, play the game, compare notes, and establish the case that accessible and inaccessible, popular and unpopular, durable and disposable are all functions of perception. By (literally) shuffling the deck, Spectral Quartet calls the assumptions of listeners to task while providing multiple access points for appreciation. (Richard Allen)
— Richard Allen, 9.01.2020
The Spektral Quartet, the Chicago-based avant-garde string quartet celebrating its 10th anniversary this year, generally specializes in modern music, thus I was rather startled to see that this new CD opens with, of all people, Brahms. But this is Brahms as you’ve never heard him before: fast, edgy, played in almost a percussive style..even edgier, in fact, than the Belcea Quartet’s recording. It may startle and shock you, but it will not leave you complacent. That I can guarantee.
Next up is the Schoenberg Third String Quartet, but although this is a very peppy and energetic reading, I didn’t feel that it got under the skin of the music as well as the recording by the Schoenberg String Quartet on Chandos. Following this is the String Quartet by Ruth Crawford Seeger, certainly one of the most advanced modern composers of her day; interestingly, the first movement of her 1931 String Quartet sounds so much like Schoenberg that you’d have a hard time believing it was not written by him. One difference in her writing, at least to judge by this performance, is a more lyrical feel to the melodic line. The music is just a bit less angular, particularly in the first movement which has several legato passages for the strings, but both the construction and the harmonic language are atonal. Another difference is that it is not consistently 12-tone or serial. Since I have no other recording of this in my collection, I can’t make any A/B comparisons with others, but it seems to me a very well-phrased and –interpreted performance. The second movement is particularly interesting, consisting of a series of long-held overlapping notes that create an eerie drone effect. Here, one can tell that this is not music by Schoenberg.
The piece binary/momentary logics by Sam Pluta (b. 1979) is even weirder, music that literally flies all over the place, sometimes with distorted playing by the strings. This piece sounds like electronic music without the electronics, but because it was NOT played by electronics I enjoyed it for what it was. Despite its odd, edgy character, if one has good ears one can easily follow what Pluta is doing, since the piece stays in one essential harmonic range. The most arresting and interesting aspect of this piece is its use of rhythms, which are constantly shifting and changing at the speed of light. I can imagine that this was one hard piece to rehearse! I’ll bet that each quartet member practiced his or her solo part until they were blue in the face, then worked just as diligently to put the pieces together. To characterize it in one phrase, the music literally bounces all over the place, yet it has a forward progression that, distortions aside, make musical sense. At the seven-minute mark the rapid pace slows down a bit as the cello and viola (playing in its low range) have long-held notes while the violins, in their extreme upper register, scream at them in protest. A very interesting work; it almost sounds like people screaming at each other on Twitter.
Anthony Cheung (b. 1982) contributes The Real Book of Fake Tunes for flute and string quartet, but the manner in which Cheung uses the flute almost makes it sound like a third violin fluttering along in the stratosphere. The liner notes suggest “whiffs of jazz harmony,” but whiffs are all we get; this music is not jazz influenced in any appreciable manner, but it is interesting in its own way. Oddly, however, I found myself feeling bored by the fifth piece, which to my ears really didn’t go anywhere.
But if you think that any of the preceding music was strange, wait until you hear Charmaine Lee’s ultra-bizarre Spirals for string quartet, electronics and spoken voice. This one sounds like a computer eating itself alive or perhaps even imploding. Definitely not my cup of tea, but fascinating in the same sort of way that watching a bad car wreck can be.
We end with String Quartet 1.5: Experiments in Living by George Lewis (b. 1952). This also sounds very electronics-like, in fact a bit too much for my taste as the music really doesn’t seem to have any direction until around the five-minute mark, when things change and we get was sounds to me like variations on the strange figures that had come before.
So there you have it. Definitely not your mother’s string quartet album!
— Lynn Bayley, 9.04.2020