Now in their fourth season, Spektral Quartet is currently ensemble-in-residence at the University of Chicago and already a well-known champion of Chicago composers, including the six whose works are featured on the group’s first commercial disc release. Since I heard Spektral perform at Chicago’s Empty Bottle this August, I’ve been intrigued by their homebrewed approach to contemporary music. Their first CD offering (also available on cassette, for those with an ’89 Volkswagen Golf or similar playback device) is not only a calling card for the group’s formative artistic collaborations but also a richly detailed portrait of Chicago’s up-and-coming contemporary music scene.
The album’s title, Chambers, is a wry play on the tradition of chamber music that Spektral Quartet is working so intensely to update via their performances at nontraditional venues, but it also reflects the very distinct sonic spaces that each of the six composers recorded here create with offerings mostly under ten minutes in duration. Hans Thomalla’s Albumblatt (2010) plunges us right into a fascinating space without preamble, with an initial pizzicato gesture igniting a series of melting lines that recede almost as quickly as they materialize. Familiar tricks of the contemporary composer’s trade such as extended timbral effects and microtonal inflections are made personal and fresh in Thomalla’s hands—for example, a series of glissandi combined with interesting bowing patterns make for an aural impression that is particular and sharply imagined rather than generic. At times these sliding figurations almost take on the character of mechanical sirens before fading to a whispered, chorale-like passage made tense by extremely slow bow speed, sounding something like a quiet scratch-tone. In the glissandi and spun-tone sounds, Spektral reveals a remarkable sense of control and a nuanced range of expression, qualities that place the quartet in the distinguished company of groups including the JACK Quartet and Kronos in their heyday.
Ben Hjertmann’s String Quartet No. 2, Etude (2013) is the most recently composed piece featured on this recording and also opens with a backdrop of glissandi against which an arching violin line unfolds and elaborates (one of four solos for each quartet member woven into the composition). Before long a more rhythmic section erupts, marked by pizzicato strumming (with guitar picks!) and complex, prog-ish meters giving the effect of a wild guitar jam. These percussive sections are where the piece’s personality really comes out—including foot-tapping and quartet members hissing through their teeth, deftly wedded to the sounds produced on their instruments. A dramatic violin cadenza dissolves into a sustained array of languid artificial harmonics that end with an abrupt and abortive crescendo to the faintest stirrings of mezzo-piano; surely one of the more original endings I have heard, with each gesture obsessively shaped and brought into focus by the quartet.
Eliza Brown’s String Quartet No. 1 (2011) begins with fingered tremolos and flickering harmonics and is marked overall by the purity and simplicity of its crystalline textures. Making its argument in more direct and unadorned terms than the previous works on the album, this is no textbook minimalism but a work in which textural variety is ably engaged with a richness of sound often lacking in similar music of such apparent and beguiling plain-spokenness. Brown’s quartet has something of a surprise ending as well, with a bracing dissonance all the more rewarding because it was saved for exactly this effect, with shadings of microtonality resolving to a luminous C Major.
Chris Fisher-Lochhead’s Dig Absolutely (2010) likewise opens with an interlocking network of glissandi (perhaps the unifying sound of the entire album, although handled with different expressive impact by each composer recorded here). Straining and wailing with the inflections of pop vocalism, the piece strikes an enchanting balance between aspects of vernacular expression and contemporary experimental music. For one thing, Fisher-Lochhead writes some incredibly specific and constantly varied rhythms, giving the whole affair a sense of improvisatory looseness more characteristic of roadhouse performance than the concert hall. The members of Spektral draw this feeling into the aural foreground, playing with a kind of “reckless precision” (to paraphrase a Tuck Andress guitar album) that is often difficult for trained classical musicians to achieve with conviction. Also bearing a strong pop influence (although neither work wears this influence on its sleeve or as a form of gimmickry) is Liza White’s 2012 Zin Zin Zin Zin, inspired by Mos Def’s scatting on The Roots’ “Double Trouble.” Beginning with onomatopoeia of the titular four syllables, White’s composition employs inventive techniques such as dead bow-stops and a crunchy harmonic palette of cluster-based chords to create the feeling that we are experiencing pitchless grunts and shouts rather than musical lines. This is the shortest work recorded here and also the most kinetic; the music is passed around the quartet like a superball with great virtuosity, only to slink away at the end in four breathless puffs of sound that mimic the work’s opening. It’s a tour de force of quartet writing that manages to make a vivid impression in under four minutes.
Marcos Balter’s Chambers (2011), which concludes the disc, is—like much of the composer’s work—highly gestural in its musical rhetoric while also pervaded by a feeling of stasis; the work’s three short movements are masterful at establishing moods but do very little to develop their initial gestures as the music unfolds, opting instead to offer three snapshots that invite the ear to linger. The first movement presents faintly shimmering harmonics in a cycling pattern, almost marked with the regularity of breathing or the steady “lub dub” of a heartbeat. This is by far the most minimalistic movement anywhere on the album with an extremely slow rate of change, yet investing its near-stasis with an incredible sense of urgency and suspense. The second movement is initially marked by pizzicato, the crisp notes of the high violin strings contrasted with the rounder, boomier sound of the cello’s low strings to great effect, before a series of cluster chords emerge out of nowhere. The work’s third movement likewise begins with pizzicato in a funky, dance-like groove, against which sagging string lines in canonic imitation animate the feeling of suspended time—whereas the previous movements sometimes feel a bit confined to their respective small chambers, this one feels like a larger room where anything can happen and, as such, provides a great conclusion to this sampler of young Chicago composers.
Spektral Quartet is moving up the ladder fast, and I can only suspect that this is the first of many recording releases for the group. It’s rare for an ensemble with such a predilection for contemporary music to also exhibit such a strong lyrical impulse, and this tendency—amply evidenced on Chambers—sets Spektral apart from many other players on the new music scene. I look forward to hearing them present an album that blends contemporary music with other offerings from the traditional quartet repertoire (their live performances of Verdi and Puccini selections made an impression just as strong as the contemporary works recorded on this disc). After all, what Chicago is perhaps most in need of is an ensemble that can perform the classical repertoire with the same commitment, nuance, and ferocity with which it champions contemporary composers, and the Spektral Quartet is a more sincere and viable candidate than most in bringing these two oft-separated worlds together.