Friday 19 February 2016

The Spektral Quartet wear their musicianship lightly, bringing just the right touch to bizarre and humorous works by composers as diverse as Sky Macklay, Dave Reminick, Joseph Haydn and Chris Fisher-Lochhead on a new release from Sono Luminus

Since its inception, the Spektral Quartet has become known for its forward-thinking ideas including the Mobile Miniatures project, which drew together more than forty composers from across the US including David Lang, Augusta Read Thomas, Nico Muhly and Shulamit Ran to write ringtone-length pieces for download to mobile devices. In addition to finding vehicles for bringing classical music into everyday life, the Spektral Quartet has a preference for close-proximity seating and delivers the majority of its Chicago concerts in vibrant, unconventional venues in order to maximise inclusivity.

The Spektral Quartet whose members are Clara Lyon and Austin Wulliman (violins), Doyle Armbrust (viola) and Russell Rolen (cello), are ardent advocates for composers within their home city. The group recorded its debut album, Chambers, in 2013 featuring works by Hans Thomalla, Marcos Balter, LJ White, Chris Fisher-Lochhead, and Ben Hjertmann.

That same season saw the release of the South American jazz and tango-themed From This Point Forward with bandoneon and accordion virtuoso Julien Labro and saxophone luminary Miguel Zenón. Spektral Quartet appears on Swiss violin soloist Rachel Kolly d’Alba’s 2015 record, Fin de siècle, performing Ernest Chausson’s Concerto for Violin, Piano, and String Quartet.

January 2016 saw the release of the group’s fourth full-length album, Serious Business for Sono Luminus , an illumination of humour in classical music including Josef Haydn’s The Joke quartet and inventive new commissions from Dave Reminick, Sky Macklay, and Chris Fisher-Lochhead.

CD and Blu-ray Audio disc
DSL - 92198
New York-based composer and oboist, Sky Macklay builds cadence on cadence in her humorous work, Many Many Cadences (2014) The Spektral Quartet open with a descending motif, incisively and dramatically played and repeated, eventually interspersed with decorative ideas that slowly change the overall nature of the cadences. She has created a surprisingly engrossing and entertaining work, cleverly taking a simple, though buoyant idea and finding much that is different, especially when a slow drifting figuration is developed around the theme. The motif slowly falls and rises, bringing a playful feel to the music, as if to say ‘look at all this, see what the theme can be made to do.’  The music later re-finds its faster more strident nature as the theme scrambles ahead, repeating the descending motif, ever more over the top, before quietening to scramble to the coda on pizzicato phrases.

This is a hugely entertaining work that would be extremely popular in a recital.

David Reminick is a composer and performer living in Chicago who is singer and guitarist for the Chicago-based post-punk band Paper Mice. The Ancestral Mousetrap (2014) is described as ‘for singing string quartet.’ It features poems by the “godfather of the prose poem in America,” Russell Edson (1935–2014) whose idiosyncratic body of work is populated with strange and intriguing ideas.

Killing the Ape opens on a slurred rising motif, right up to the higher register of the instruments where it hovers before introducing fragmented ideas. The music moves through some hard edged dissonant passages before slowing to a single repeated pizzicato note. A voice adds words against hard edged string sounds bringing a bizarre, humorous edge.  The rising motif re-appears at the end.

A group of voices bring the text for The Old Woman's Breakfast over a rhythmic expressive string theme in this short bizarre movement.  

For Oh My God I'll Never Get Home staccato voices declaim the comic text against equally fast moving strings that bring discordant sounds.  

Pizzicato strings open Bringing a Dead Man Back Into Life in a fragmented theme over a deep cello line, soon finding a terrific, rhythmic nature. A voice enters with the text ‘It’s beginning to smell…’ you need a well-developed sense of humour here. There is a rhythmic string theme with rhythmic stamping of feet before the voices lead on against an astringent theme. Later the strings of the quartet bring a quivering almost like a shiver.

The Ancestral Mousetrap opens with a hushed string motif but soon rises up with unison voices that are accompanied by sliding string phrases. There are some finely written string passages between vocal contributions that themselves are more lyrical here. Again a sense of the ludicrous is evident with the music creating a sentimental feel to point up the odd text, before rising high up to disappear.

There are no texts provided in the booklet but this is a very bizarre and often hilarious work for those with a suitable sense of humour.

Joseph Haydn (1732-1809) was not the first serious composer to bring humour to his music but is certainly the most famous. His set of six string quartets that make up Op.33 were completed in 1781. In the Allegro moderato of the String Quartet in E flat, Op.33 No. 2 ‘The Joke’ there is a sprightly opening with the Spektral Quartet raising a smile in this finely shaped performance, alive to Haydn’s every dynamic and rhythmic change, bringing a brightly lit buoyancy.  These players bring a really infectious, playfulness to the Scherzo: Allegro. The trio section is really quite hilarious in the way the slurs are shaped and handled as well as the momentary rests. There is a beautifully done Largo e sostenuto with this quartet not digging too deep, keeping a sense of overall proportion, an overall lightness of mood. The Presto moves ahead with a lightly phrased, rhythmic joyousness. The Spektral Quartet’s timing in the false endings is perfect, leaving one never quite sure when the end will arrive. Their light touch and timing in this work is wonderfully spot on.

Chicago based composer and performer Chris Fisher-Lochhead’s focuses on collaboration, humour, experimentation and tradition. His work for string quartet, Hack (2015) is built around the comic cadences and delivery of a number of comedians – not all will be universally known. In four sets, Set. 1 opens with Lenny Bruce in a strangely off beat, sliding motif with pauses and sudden forward rushes. Sarah Silverman brings a slightly gentler theme with strange little phrases over a held note before the lively pizzicato phrases over sudden fragmented bowed ideas bring Dave Chappelle along with creaking string sounds and a sudden repeated pizzicato idea.

George Carlin opens Set. 2 with sudden dynamic surges along with strident chords.
Robin Williams 1 brings a slightly melancholy yet bizarrely fragmented theme as well as sudden manic rushes forward. Strange melancholy slides again feature in Dick Gregory a less driven section with a rather wistful nature before the music moves almost seamlessly into Professor Irwin Corey with melancholy, slightly out of tune dissonant melody.

Rodney Dangerfield 1/2 leaps in with a scramble of ideas to introduce Set. 3 before
the gritty textures of Sam Kinison appear, punctuated by bounced bows and slides. There is a brief quizzical motif to Rodney Dangerfield 3 before we roll into Redd Foxx with a sudden series of strident phrases leading to a more flowing idea before the almost machine gun delivery from the strings. Rodney Dangerfield 4/5 brings another brief sudden outburst before the fragmented, pizzicato points of sound of Kumail Nanjiani before increasing in intensity.

Another sudden outburst and series of little surges takes care of Rodney Dangerfield 6/7 to make way for the delicate, dissonant phrases of Mort Sahl that slowly find their way forward. Rodney Dangerfield 8 brings the briefest of little flourishes before Susie Essman reveals a rather sad little idea, slowly developing and bringing faster, more dynamic phrases. This set concludes with the sudden darting phrases of Rodney Dangerfield 9.

Set. 4 opens with Richard Pryor, a dissonant melodic theme with a quizzical little idea on higher strings. It develops some lovely moments, melancholy and with little slurs. Robin Williams 2 has forward rushes to little peaks or climaxes, punch lines perhaps, sometimes astringent and manic. Ms. Pat is a riot of overlaid lines with a pizzicato cello line before we move to the final piece Tig Notaro with gentle little phrases, ephemeral in nature and gently using sudden little surges creating a strange quality that just fades.

This wonderfully inventive work is cleverly put together and stands well as a whole.  And just when you think the disc is over there is a very brief glimpse of the conclusion of Haydn’s quartet – which makes you wonder if it’s actually finished yet.

This new release will not be for everyone. You need a certain kind of humour, sometimes black humour. But why shouldn’t classical music raise a smile even a resounding laugh?  The Spektral Quartet wear their musicianship lightly, bringing just the right touch to these works.

The talented Spektral Quartet are brilliantly recorded in HiRes sound made at Sono Luminus Studios, Boyce, Virginia, USA on CD and Blu-Ray. 

Notes on the music are equally laid back and humorous. 


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