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Spektral Quartet give difficult music a friendly face

Contemporary classical compositions can seem forbidding, but this Chicago group meet their audience halfway.

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At Constellation on March 29, 2014, Chicago string ensemble Spektral Quartet celebrated the launch of a charming and savvy project called Mobile Miniatures, for which the group had commissioned 47 composers to write short pieces intended as cell-phone ringtones. The quartet played in the usual spot on the floor, surrounded on three sides by seating, but they'd set up a lot more than just their chairs and music stands. To the left and right of the performance area, toward the back of the room, the audience could use headphones to audition recordings of the ringtone compositions at iPad listening stations. Tiny tables among the musicians held a half-dozen kitschy, old-fashioned land-line telephones, among them novelty models shaped like lips or a doughnut.

Spektral's three short live sets of ringtones, enlivened by anecdotes and explanations from the players, included two pieces composed spontaneously during the concert by Marcos Balter and Chris Fisher-­Lochhead, based on audience ideas submitted on scraps of paper. Between sets, attendees were encouraged to use the listening stations or pick up one of the phones, each of which played a selection of music chosen by a cultural figure such as MCA curator Naomi Beckwith and poet Virginia Konchan. Spektral also rented a British-style phone booth from a local prop house, but because they couldn't fit it through the doors of the venue, they had to leave it in the van.

Everyone listened raptly during the live performances, but most of the evening felt like a party. The crowd, largely in their 20s to 40s but dotted liberally with older folks, circulated in the performance area as though it were a social mixer rather than a concert; the musicians stayed in the thick of it, mingling and answering questions. Spektral performed just 15 ringtones (including the pair from Balter and Fisher-Lochhead), not all 61 they'd commissioned, but they've made the whole set available for purchase on their website—they make great replacements for the trite presets on a typical cell phone.

Because Spektral recorded them, most feature only strings, though a few add voices or electronics. Tyshawn Sorey's "Alert," one of the shortest pieces, is a discordant three-note warning that lasts just two seconds (the longest Mobile Miniature is a little more than a minute), and Anna Thorvaldsdottir's "Into Light" is an ethereal yet astringent five-second ascent. The wide range of composers involved includes Chicagoans Shulamit Ran, Augusta Read Thomas, and Jonathon Kirk, celebrated New Yorkers David Lang, Nico Muhly, and Sarah Kirkland Snider, and folks from the improvised- and pop-­music worlds such as Tomeka Reid, Nicole Mitchell, Deerhoof's Greg Saunier, and Julia Holter.

Mobile Miniatures illustrates one of Spektral Quartet's most appealing and significant qualities. Though violinists Austin Wulliman and Clara Lyon, violist Doyle Armbrust, and cellist Russell Rolen are all adventurous, unimpeachable musicians, that's basically standard equipment in contemporary classical ensembles today—what sets them apart is their willingness to meet their audience halfway. They don't water down their repertoire, but they're happy to share what it is they love about the work they play—and they consistently find new ways to make their concerts fun, engaging, and serious all at once.

Next weekend Spektral play two dates to celebrate their new album, Serious Business (due Friday, January 29, via Sono Luminus), whose cover uses a black-and-white photo of the group striding purposefully toward the camera in dark suits and ties—except that Armbrust is falling on his ass. On the back cover, he rolls around in pain, but his comrades ignore him, instead looking with concern at his dropped instrument.

Humor plays a big role in the new album, just as it does at Spektral's performances and rehearsals. "The music on this album—we have three new pieces that are all extremely challenging and a piece of classical music by Haydn that everyone knows how it should sound and how it should sound good," says Armbrust. "So you have four pieces that are very difficult." I'm talking with the group in Wulliman's Rogers Park apartment, above the basement space where Spektral practices. "In the rehearsal room, unpacking these pieces is daunting from the beginning," Armbrust continues. "Our way of balancing out the stress or difficulty of working through some of these pieces initially is just to be cracking jokes nonstop, and I think that comes out when we're onstage. And with this being a humor-­themed album, it made sense not try to hold that back."

Much of what makes Spektral especially accessible and user-friendly doesn't depend on the originality of their approach but rather their personality. New-music artists have been performing in nontraditional venues since at least the early 60s, whether because they were shut out of conventional concert halls or simply hated their formal stuffiness; one of Spektral's first shows was at Ukrainian Village rock club the Empty Bottle. Since the early 80s, the Kronos Quartet have been deviating from stylistic orthodoxy to tackle material from other genres and traditions, and Spektral do that too: they joined jazz pianist Billy Childs to play the string parts from his 2014 Laura Nyro tribute album, Map to the Treasure, for a concert this fall, and they continue to collaborate with French nuevo tango accordionist Julien Labro, with whom they made the 2014 album From This Point Forward (Azica).

And of course humor has been part of classical music for a long time too: Serious Business includes Haydn's String Quartet Opus 33 no. 2 from 1781, affectionately nicknamed "The Joke" for the false endings in its jaunty final movement. And the new pieces around it on the album are hardly buttoned-down stuff. New York composer Sky Macklay delivers on the promise of her title for "Many Many Cadences" with a giddy pile-on of dizzying descending phrases. The Ancestral Mousetrap by Dave Reminick (leader of Chicago math-rock band Paper Mice and one hell of a composer) requires the group to sing the absurdist Russell Edson poem of the title while playing the jagged, mind-­warping music. Hack by Fisher-­Lochhead borrows many of its rhythms and pitch relationships from meticulous transcriptions of bits by famous stand-up comedians, including Lenny Bruce, Sarah Silverman, Rodney Dangerfield, Richard Pryor, Redd Foxx, and Tig Notaro; the composer gives the strange shapes that result a dazzling harmonic grandeur. When Spektral premiered the complete piece as part of last May's Comic Cadences program, they screened videos of the bits before each short movement.

The appearance of the Haydn quartet among the newer pieces on Serious Business is characteristic of Spektral's programming approach, but they're aware of its pitfalls. "We try to avoid what is referred to in certain circles as the 'shit sandwich' of programming, which is two familiar works surrounding something new and unfamiliar on the inside," says Armbrust. "You see that a lot, at least in the mainstream. And certainly there are groups that play the whole span, as we do. But it's really about what just gets us off, which is jumping in between these sometimes wildly different styles of playing, where different techniques or different ways of approaching the music are necessary. It keeps a fire under our ass at concerts, and I think that adds to the level of creativity or inspiration."

Even the terms that define the "shit sandwich" are part of the problem, in Armbrust's opinion. "The funny thing about even talking about this is that we're sort of talking about it in the framework of how it's been talked about in the past, which is this binary of new and old," he says. "Ultimately what we're trying to do is get rid of the binary. Not putting one thing up against another thing, but actually having some sort of time line on any given program where we get to see a wider range of things happening."

Spektral's original members met in 2009, when Wulliman and Rolen were in grad school at Northwestern University. Wulliman noticed that Chicago Chamber Musicians was looking for a string quartet in residence. "I'd always wanted to be in a string quartet, personally," he says. "So I was like, 'What the heck, I'm going to throw some people together and apply for it.' I knew Doyle and Russ, and I didn't know any other violin players that I was fired up to play with—but they knew [founding violinist] Aurelien [Pederzoli] from playing together in Anaphora Ensemble back then. We all got together with a couple of six-packs and a stack of music and started reading. We applied for that thing, and it didn't happen, but we had a good enough time that we decided that we should try to find a couple reasons to do concerts."

Spektral chose a name and formally launched in 2010, but it took time for the group's public persona to blossom. "We realized a big part of the mission was to be opening up the process and who we were to the audience, whether it was onstage and talking to people or in how we communicated through the press or through social media," says Wulliman. "We were trying to make our wacky personality all on the surface and not hidden from people—not put a facade of seriousness in front of the art, but burst out with whatever color there was to ourselves."

That has manifested itself in Spektral's eclectic programming, in the self-effacing explanations of pieces that the members share at concerts, and in the group's commitment to finding connections—sometimes playful but always rigorously thought out—between works separated by a couple years or a couple centuries. From the beginning the quartet have also emphasized the work of Chicago composers.

"We had this incredible number of young composers around the city that were doing super outstanding work and were eager to be able to write for string quartet, and so it was really symbiotic early on," says Armbrust. Spektral's 2013 debut album, Chambers (Parlour Tapes), features music the group had commissioned during its first few years from some of the region's brightest young talent, including Fisher-Lochhead, Balter, LJ White, Eliza Brown, Ben Hjertmann, and Hans Thomalla.

One measure of Spektral's growing success in the years since is that they've begun commissioning works from composers elsewhere in the country, including George Lewis, Wet Ink's Sam Pluta, and jazz saxophonist Miguel Zenon, who first worked with the group on the Labro project and is now writing an album-­length piece for Spektral that will get its world premiere at this year's Hyde Park Jazz Festival. (They've also had their first and only personnel change: in 2014 Lyon moved here from New York to replace Pederzoli, who'd left amicably to pursue other projects.) But Spektral remain loyal first and foremost to Chicago.

Fisher-Lochhead credits Spektral for some of the daring choices he made while writing Hack. "I certainly would not have pushed the envelope as much as I did if I were writing for another group," he says. "Having worked with the Spektrals for over five years (and having worked with Austin for twice that), I developed a certain amount of familiarity with them: what they are good at, what they like playing, what they are willing to try (and in which areas I can challenge them without violating the sense of trust that we have built over the years). I wrote things of a level of difficulty or complexity that I had never written before, but to be honest, I never doubted that they would be able to pull it off."

Reminick went to school with Wulliman at Northwestern, but his connection to Spektral has been cemented by more than just long acquaintance. He especially appreciates their willingness to stick with a piece over the long haul. "For many new-music groups, the premiere is the first and last time they play a piece," he says. "I can't speak for every composer, but that model just doesn't work for my music. It's rare to find a group like Spektral who will take the time to grow with a work, performing it many times over the course of an entire season and beyond. So much of The Ancestral Mousetrap requires precise rhythmic synchronization and hocketing between the four performers, and making that work and feel natural takes a great deal of time."

Pianist Amy Briggs, a lecturer and artist ­in residence at the University of Chicago, advocated for Spektral to come aboard as fellow artists in residence in 2012—and that ongoing residency has turned out to be a major factor in boosting the quartet's fortunes, so that the four of them now make their living from the group. At the U. of C. they operate like adjunct faculty, coaching student musicians and playing student compositions. "I feel that we were lucky to snag them early into their career as a quartet," says Briggs. "Though I knew most of them as individuals (with whom I'd gigged in MusicNOW and elsewhere), I was taken from the beginning by the quartet's enthusiasm, energy, precision, and humor. Spektral proves that you can play serious music well and still be lighthearted, fun people. They are serious about music, but don't take themselves too seriously, and I think this helps them relate to student musicians."

The residency also helps further one of Spektral's other important aims. "We want to be a Chicago institution, and we really want to be Chicago-focused," says Armbrust. "We want to continue elevating the kinds of dates we do on the road, rather than the number of them. We don't want to be on the road all year. We want to have a really strong presence here and be seen as something that Chicago is proud of."

That local presence is key, adds Wulliman, and it means more than just playing a bunch of concerts around town. Spektral want to represent Chicago in all its variety and vigor. "There's a reason we put out a Chicago season brochure and are very focused on our Chicago audience, and I don't anticipate that changing," Wulliman says. "We are definitely interested in working with national and international composers, and we don't want to become insular in what we do, but we are also very committed to supporting the younger composers here in Chicago—and hopefully, as our own organization gets stronger and there are more resources, support them financially."

Correction: This piece has been amended to add a description of Sky Macklay's "Many Many Cadences."

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