Spektral Quartet served up a multi-layered sandwich of new and old music in their third annual Sampler Pack concert at The Empty Bottle club in Ukrainian Village on Chicago’s west side on Wednesday, August 29, 2012. In their typical eclectic fashion, Spektral interleaved the “spicy meats and cheeses” of fresh scores from composers Jenna Lyle, Daniel Dehaan, Chris Fisher-Lochhead, and Hans Thomalla (all of whom were present) with classic pieces of “bread” from Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, Verdi, and Hugo Wolf.
Spektral Quartet is Aurelien Fort Pederzoli and J. Austin Wulliman (violins), Doyle Armbrust (viola), and Russell Rolen (cello). Formed in 2010, they are one of Chicago’s most ambitious and innovative string ensembles with an artistic ambition to challenge timeworn preconceptions about what is classical music, who listens to it, and where it is played. They aim to cover the full breadth of the String Quartet catalogue, old and new, engaging a wide range of audiences in traditional and unexpected venues.
Since their inception, Spektral has opened each season with a Sampler Pack concert at The Empty Bottle, Chicago’s funky-chic hotspot for all kinds of cutting-edge music. The combination of a casual club atmosphere and presenting the music in essentially pop-song length segments made the Sampler Pack an easy-to-love kickoff for the Chicago new music season. It drew a sizable, enthusiastic crowd eager to have their ears bent with interesting sounds.
The high points of the evening were the just-completed pieces from up-and-coming young Chicago-based composers Daniel Dehaan and Jenna Lyle. Dehaan, who has just entered the Doctorate of Music program at Northwestern University and teaches electronic music production and composition at Columbia College, introduced his Sterile Contaminant as representing a quantum leap in his music composition process. The name derives from his determination to contaminate his music with sterileness, meaning to streamline the notation and avoid unnecessary instructions. He sees this as part of his maturing as a composer, learning to have more trust in the musicians who will perform his work. In the hands of the Spektral Quartet, Sterile Contaminant sprung to life. A viola-led opening, with spastic jump-bowing accompaniment from the other players began a slow, gradual evolution of the pitch elements of the piece. A gradual crescendo of volume built as the music loped at a sauntering pace. Dehaan challenged the players to deftly utilize their entire instruments with varied bowing techniques up and down the neck and over the bridge. The piece concluded with a gradual shift to a section of spare and quiet notes, fading away.
Jenna Lyle is also a doctoral student at the Bienen School of Music at Northwestern. She is an accomplished soprano as well as composer. Her Inkblot, scored for string quartet and soprano, is a musical narrative about the individual struggle we each face to reckon with our self-perceived inadequacies or idiosyncrasies.
As a key element of the piece, Lyle, as vocalist, and violinist Wulliman used simple electronics she fashioned out of a stethoscope and a set of cheap headphones. Wulliman used the stethoscope, with a condenser microphone attached, to produce the sound of his heartbeat, providing the central rhythmic core of the piece [see also Richard Reed Parry's music, Ed.]. Lyle reversed the directionality of the headphones, turning them into a contact microphone she held against her throat to amplify the physical sounds of her singing. The string instruments were also modified with “sul tasto” and “normale” felt wrapping to subdue the pitch and achieve a timbral unity with the hissing somatic sounds produced by Lyle and Wulliman.
The players aptly evoked the inner workings of the human mind striving for integration of the intentional self with the inherent self. The strings played hyper-kinetically, alternating passages working with and working against the heartbeat. Lyle gutturally sang a text extracted from several poems by Chicago writer Virginia Konchan1.
My body has never been my body
My horse is my body; my body, my horse
A heart splayed by a knife
Our feet bleed, buoyant, the body at its task
Motion understood is philosophy deferred
Do not look to me for answers
Lyle broke up her sung passages with wordless primal gulps and gurgles in her throat, ending the piece with a bravura solo improvisation to the beat of Wulliman’s heart.
The evening’s other contemporary pieces were also well crafted and compellingly played. Albumblatt, by Hans Thomalla, a professor at Northwestern, explores the temporal nature of music in a dialectic process. Starting with a melodic line passed from player to player, it rotated through the ensemble in a fugal manner, sounding as if coming from a slow-rotating Leslie speaker. The intensity rose from increasing bow pressure, then receded until the sound became the pure scratching of horsehair dragged across tensioned metal wire. The process then reversed and slowly a perceptible melodic line reappeared. Chris Fisher-Lochhead’s arrangement of James Blake’s pop earworm I Never Learnt to Share explored the tension between fundamental musical elements emerging from his transcription of the piece and the unique nuances realized in the recording. To our ears, this arrangement was quite effective and more interesting than the original material.
Spektral’s dedication to intermixing classic pieces with music of the moment is tremendously effective in providing the audience with the context of the long arc and extraordinary breadth of the String Quartet canon. They played the classical pieces on the Sampler Pack menu not with stilted reverence but with deep familiarity and affection. Among this evening’s fare, the Allegro molto finale to Beethoven’s Opus 59, No. 3 stood out. In this spirited piece, the Spektral Quartet proved that, all these years later, Beethoven is still badass enough for The Empty Bottle or any venue you can name.
Spektral Quartet’s Sampler Pack was the first of several contemporary music events to be offered at The Empty Bottle this season. The new Unfamilair Music Series is being curated by Doyle Armbrust and will include concerts by Ensemble Dal Niente, the Q Ensemble, Access Contemporary Music, and the City of Tomorrow.
1 Text for Inkblot was extracted from Virginia Konchan’s poems Love Story and The Rose-Way in Giverny originally published in The New Yorker, Aqualung (originally titled Napoleon Sings Along To Aqualung), and Annus Mirabilis of Mäda Primavesi as yet unpublished.