The Spektral Quartet Keeps Moving Forward

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EXPERIMENTS IN LIVING / BRAHMS: String Quartet No. 1. SCHOENBERG: String Quartet No. 3. CRAWFORD SEEGER: String Quartet. PLUTA: binary/momentary logic: flow state/joy state. CHEUNG: The Real Book of Fake Tunes for Flute I String Quartet. C. LEE: Spirals. G. LEWIS: String Quartet 1.5: Experiments in Living / Spektral String Quartet: Clara Lyon, Maeve Feinberg, vln; Doyle Armbrust, vla; Russell Rolen, cello; *Claire Chase, fl; +Charmaine Lee, voc/electronics / New Focus Recordings FCR270

The Spektral Quartet, the Chicago-based avant-garde string quartet celebrating its 10th anniversary this year, generally specializes in modern music, thus I was rather startled to see that this new CD opens with, of all people, Brahms. But this is Brahms as you’ve never heard him before: fast, edgy, played in almost a percussive style..even edgier, in fact, than the Belcea Quartet’s recording. It may startle and shock you, but it will not leave you complacent. That I can guarantee.

Next up is the Schoenberg Third String Quartet, but although this is a very peppy and energetic reading, I didn’t feel that it got under the skin of the music as well as the recording by the Schoenberg String Quartet on Chandos. Following this is the String Quartet by Ruth Crawford Seeger, certainly one of the most advanced modern composers of her day; interestingly, the first movement of her 1931 String Quartet sounds so much like Schoenberg that you’d have a hard time believing it was not written by him. One difference in her writing, at least to judge by this performance, is a more lyrical feel to the melodic line. The music is just a bit less angular, particularly in the first movement which has several legato passages for the strings, but both the construction and the harmonic language are atonal. Another difference is that it is not consistently 12-tone or serial. Since I have no other recording of this in my collection, I can’t make any A/B comparisons with others, but it seems to me a very well-phrased and –interpreted performance. The second movement is particularly interesting, consisting of a series of long-held overlapping notes that create an eerie drone effect. Here, one can tell that this is not music by Schoenberg.

The piece binary/momentary logics by Sam Pluta (b. 1979) is even weirder, music that literally flies all over the place, sometimes with distorted playing by the strings. This piece sounds like electronic music without the electronics, but because it was NOT played by electronics I enjoyed it for what it was. Despite its odd, edgy character, if one has good ears one can easily follow what Pluta is doing, since the piece stays in one essential harmonic range. The most arresting and interesting aspect of this piece is its use of rhythms, which are constantly shifting and changing at the speed of light. I can imagine that this was one hard piece to rehearse! I’ll bet that each quartet member practiced his or her solo part until they were blue in the face, then worked just as diligently to put the pieces together. To characterize it in one phrase, the music literally bounces all over the place, yet it has a forward progression that, distortions aside, make musical sense. At the seven-minute mark the rapid pace slows down a bit as the cello and viola (playing in its low range) have long-held notes while the violins, in their extreme upper register, scream at them in protest. A very interesting work; it almost sounds like people screaming at each other on Twitter.

Anthony Cheung (b. 1982) contributes The Real Book of Fake Tunes for flute and string quartet, but the manner in which Cheung uses the flute almost makes it sound like a third violin fluttering along in the stratosphere. The liner notes suggest “whiffs of jazz harmony,” but whiffs are all we get; this music is not jazz influenced in any appreciable manner, but it is interesting in its own way. Oddly, however, I found myself feeling bored by the fifth piece, which to my ears really didn’t go anywhere.

But if you think that any of the preceding music was strange, wait until you hear Charmaine Lee’s ultra-bizarre Spirals for string quartet, electronics and spoken voice. This one sounds like a computer eating itself alive or perhaps even imploding. Definitely not my cup of tea, but fascinating in the same sort of way that watching a bad car wreck can be.

We end with String Quartet 1.5: Experiments in Living by George Lewis (b. 1952). This also sounds very electronics-like, in fact a bit too much for my taste as the music really doesn’t seem to have any direction until around the five-minute mark, when things change and we get was sounds to me like variations on the strange figures that had come before.

So there you have it. Definitely not your mother’s string quartet album!

—© 2020 Lynn René Bayley

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