Spektral Quartet and Pretty Monsters Steamroll into Summer in Chicago
For its season-ending Sampler Pack, the Spektral Quartet invaded another iconic Chicago venue not often associated with classical music: The Hideout, a self-described “last hold-out of the rebel club.” To amp up their street-cred, the Spektrals invited composer-bassoonist Katherine Young and her Pretty Monsters band to open the show on Saturday, June 29, 2013. Taking the concept of “warm-up act” quite literally, Pretty Monsters built up a heady load of steam that paved the way for Spektral Quartet — violinists Austin Wulliman and Aurelian Pederzoli, violist Doyle Armbrust, and cellist Russell Rolen — to ignite some summer-welcoming heat of their own.
Katie Young honed her bassoon chops at Oberlin Conservatory and went on to study composition at Wesleyan University with Alvin Lucier and Anthony Braxton, a giant of Chicago’s music legacy in his own right. She is currently a DM candidate in composition at Northwestern University, working with Lee Hyla and Hans Thomalla. Pretty Monsters is just one of Young’s outlets for her vast musical imagination, which she says incorporates “curious timbres, expressive noises, and kinetic structures to explore the dramatic materiality of sound, constantly shifting ensemble energies, and the tension between the familiar and the strange.” Pretty Monsters delivered on all this promise with a searing set, primarily of Young’s compositions from their eponymous 2012 CD.
Emblematic of the Pretty Monsters sound world was Crushed. A solo violin opening by Erica Dicker (Young’s schoolmate at Oberlin and Wesleyan) established a circular melodic figure with an undulating rhythm, punctuated by percussionist/drummer Mike Pride, first on cymbals and glockenspiel, then the drum set. Guitarist Owen Stewart-Robertson entered in a supporting role, then took the fore with a twangy line full of bent notes. Throughout the piece Young provided a rumbling bottom texture as she played her bassoon sitting on the floor while manipulating her distortion pedal by hand. They closed their set with a work that was almost sweet by contrast. Unplugged from their electronics, Dicker and Young traded a lovely melody of mostly sustained tunefulness. Stewart-Robertson commented tartly with bowed guitar, while Pride inserted bell tones, intermittently striking a variety of metal objects. Pretty Monsters is making exciting, innovative music. We are sure to hear more.
The Spektral Quartet’s Sampler Packs are a light-hearted ploy to lure in new listeners to contemporary music by mixing freshly-minted works with enduring classics in pop-song-length bites (perhaps a concession to an increasingly ADD society). Spektral typically offers these as season openers and closers, in more crowd-friendly venues than the concert hall. The Hideout fit that objective perfectly.
The new music centerpiece on the bill was the world premiere of Alex Temple’s Behind the Wallpaper, a cycle of four short songs for amplified voice and string quartet, featuring guest vocalist Constance Volk (who is also a flutist in Ensemble Dal Niente). Temple, also a DM candidate at Northwestern, states in her notes to the singer in the score: “The songs in Behind the Wallpaper are based on an aesthetic of emotional repression, as opposed to emotional expression. Keep the anxiety implied by the lyrics muted and subtle.” The overall effect was an unemotional exposition of emotionally fraught situations, a kind of antithesis to Harvey Pekar’s comic book series American Splendor which hyper-dramatizes the mundane.
Looking a bit like a daytime-staid librarian with a secret afterwork life, Volk sang her affectless part to perfection. Midnight Bus began the cycle with an eerie dreamlike theme, then evolved with touches of pop-song styling. “You had to take the midnight bus. It stopped at all the dying malls…” Volk sang. In Unnatural, Volk’s facial expressions told the tale that her singing hid: “…you make me feel like an unnatural woman.” In Tiny Holes, our subject has seen something unfathomable. “Now you can’t look at the showerhead,” Volk repeated three times. “It looks like it has a disease.” For This American Life, the text switched from second person narrative to blurted exclamations, filtered through Auto-Tune to an other-worldly effect. “This tall passer-by is wary. This dead dog is underground.” Throughout, the quartet played Temple’s shifting, skittery score with fierce dedication and support for their colleague.
Sandwiched around Temple’s piece were new and recent works by other Chicago-connected composers. The set opened with Liza White’s Zin, Zin, Zin, Zin, which explores the social phenomenon of multiple people speaking at once, but never quite together. The world premiere of Stephen Gorbos’ Passage Through the City, was based on field-recordings he made in numerous Chicago locations while he was in residence at the High Concept Laboratories arts incubator. Ben Hjertmann’s Quartet #2, Etude was a high-speed, high-risk endurance test for both the players and their instruments.
As midnight loomed and exhaustion set it, we had to leave before the Spektrals played the final new piece of the evening, the world premiere of Francisco Castillo Trigueros’ Tlal. Fortunately, our friend (composer) Dan Dehaan was able to provide a report.
“Tlal opened with a descending shroud of shimmering harmonics that violently collapsed another world upon the audience. Auspiciously amplified and accompanied by crackly and creaky electronics Trigueros maintained a forceful manipulation of the ears perspective, dramatically shifting from frightened-whirls to insectual-investigations climaxing with a homophonous bludgeoning which sent the sounds into retreat. As I stood applauding the performance I was thankful for the bizarre civility of the Sampler Pack audience and I felt much safer here in the Hideout than in the world of Tlal.”
Sounds like we missed something rather extraordinary. We hope we get another chance to hear it soon.