Spektral Quartet, Serious Business


spektral

OK, bear with me here for just a moment.  The proliferation of string quartets (and by that I mean the grouping of musicians as a performing entity) has been positively dizzying over the last 30 years.  For those who grew up with the standard Julliard Quartet, Guarneri Quartet, etc. there were just a few outstanding names in this genre.  However since the advent of the new quartets like Kronos and then Turtle Island, Arditti,etc. the field has expanded rather prolifically. Couple this with a boom in string quartet writing notably Elliot Sharp, John Zorn, Wolfgang Rihm. Elliot Carter, Peter Maxwell-Davies, Ben Johnston among many others and I was filled with some trepidation upon receiving this disc for review.  I mean, how many things can you do with a string quartet?

Apparently there is a great deal more to be explored in this genre.  I am happy to say that these folks are up to the task as are the composers whose work they present.  Serious Business is some seriously interesting music performed with serious skill by this new quartet, the Spektral Quartet.  They are the string quartet in residence at the University of Chicago, itself a venerable place for new music.

We start here with a piece by Sky Macklay called Many Many Cadences (2014) a piece that seems to come from a similar place to that of the work of Conlon Nancarrow with intricate rhythms within a somewhat conservative tonal idiom.  The title is suggestive of Gertrude Stein (Many, Many Women).  It was commissioned for the Spektral Quartet by the Walden School.  The piece is immediately engaging and ultimately satisfying.

The second piece, The Ancestral Mousetrap (2014) by David Reminick features a less common use of a string quartet in that there is a vocal component. This is not the vocalist component pioneered by Schoenberg in his second quartet.  These vocalizations are performed by the quartet.  This is no simple feat either because the vocal writing is itself a challenge in its rhythmic complexity.  The piece resembles a little opera and indeed the text by poet Russell Edson is here called a libretto.  This piece was commissioned by the Spektral Quartet.

The third piece here is an unusual choice (and the only one not commissioned for the Spektral Quartet) which is explored in the liner notes .  Haydn’s Quartet Op. 33 No. 2, subtitled “The Joke” is one of the relatively few examples of attempts at program music (vs absolute music) to be found in the classical era.  First, no one will buy this disc just for the Haydn. Second, many collectors will already have this Haydn piece in their collection.  But with that said this is a lovely performance of one of the emblematic pieces of music that created the need for the performing ensemble known as the string quartet and it is a lovely performance as well.  I will leave it to other listeners to read the program notes and get into the rationale about its inclusion here.

The final piece, Hack (2015) by Chris Fisher-Lochead is perhaps the most unusual of the lot in that the composer uses vocal inflections by a collection of comedians (yes, comedians) as the source for his rhythmic and melodic contours and creates 22 separate pieces about 16 comedians (some get more than one piece).  This piece requires more concentration by the listener but, like any well-written piece, it reveals more of itself with repeated listenings.  The Barlow Endowment at Brigham Young University commissioned this piece for the Spektral Quartet.

The Spektral Quartet is Clara Lyon, violin; Austin Wulliman, violin; Doyle Armbrust, viola; Russell Rollen, cello.  The recording, as with every Sono Luminus release I’ve heard is glorious and lucid.

Young American Inventions: Music by Steven Ricks


Young American Inventions (New Focus FCR 158)

Young American Inventions
(New Focus FCR 158)

Let me say at the beginning here that this disc contains music of a rather experimental nature.  It has underlying complexities and this is not the kind of CD one would have playing at most parties except perhaps to clear the room.  That being said this is not bad music but it is challenging listening.

I had not been familiar with Steven Ricks (1969- ) or his music prior to receiving this disc for review.   Ricks earned his B.M. in Composition in 1993 from Brigham Young University, and M.M. (also in composition) from the University of Illinois at Urbana in 1995, a Certificate of Advanced Musical Studies from King’s College in 2000 and  Ph.D. from the University of Utah in 2001.  His teachers have included Morris Rosenzweig, Sir Harrison Birtwistle, Bill Brooks, and Michael Hicks.

He is currently on the Board of Advisors of the Barlow Endowment, and an Associate Professor of Music Theory and Composition at BYU where he also directs the Electronic Music Studio.  His works fall primarily into the realm of the “electroacoustic”.  His training and interests seem to put him into orbits that likely include Milton Babbitt, Mario Davidovsky, Lejaren Hiller and perhaps Salvatore Martirano (all, by my definition, great composers but difficult listening and with electroacoustic outputs primarily).

I must confess that I know relatively little about the forefront of electronic music these days and I am working on catching up on this history (which seems to exist almost completely separate from classical music per se).  Even the hybrid of “electroacoustic” music seems, for this writer at least, to remain rather marginal in terms of its listening audience and its prevalence in the concert hall.

Now, having loaded the reader with these prefaces, apologies and excuses, I move on to the music itself.

I listened numerous times to the tracks on this disc.  Sometimes I listened with direct intention and concentration, other times I listened with this disc playing ambiently (can I use that term here?) whilst pursuing other tasks (not recommended).  The music is assertive and, at times downright intrusive.

I get the feeling overall of a great deal of experimentation and complexity that nearly raises Milton Babbitt’s famous question, “Who cares if you listen?”.  Certainly the composer and performers care but that doesn’t rule out the likelihood that this music may speak to a limited audience who are better trained and more familiar with these techniques/ideas.

What I like about this disc, though, is that bold, experimental, doesn’t matter who is listening approach.  Were it not for such innovation a lot of good musical ideas would never have been expressed.  This music is experimental and perhaps more than a little “inside”, meaning that other composers/scholars might get things that the average listener would probably miss.  Call it an adventure.

Curiously I was/am intrigued by Ricks’ interest in algorithmic composition (an iffy genre as well, I know).  I was pleased to find that he has available for free download on his site a program he wrote called Universal Music Machine and I have been rather entertained by it both as a compositional tool and as a teaching/learning method.   And I promise to post mp3 files of any masterpieces I might generate.

There are 9 separately identified pieces here written between 2001-2014.  Two are multi-movement works and all but two involve electronics in performance to some degree.

The opening track, Ten Short Musical Thoughts (2002) serves well as an introduction.  It makes use of sampling and of algorithmic composition.  Indeed these are short musical ideas with some spoken word comments integrated with the music.

If you are not watching/listening closely you may miss the transition between the opening track and the next, “Young American Inventions” (2007) for solo piano and electronics.  The title, a mashup of David Bowie’s “Young Americans” and Steve Martland’s “American Inventions” reflects Ricks’ eclectic interests and fascination with both contemporary classical as well as popular culture.  Pianist Scott Holden navigates the challenging keyboard part accompanied by the electronic score.  Here is where Ricks’ work reminds me of Mario Davidovsky’s “Synchronisms” series.

The four movement, “Extended Play” (2007) continues the pop culture references as the composer states that those four movements are intended to mimic or approximate the four tracks which are found on most vinyl EP productions.  The ensemble composition, which is also full of more specific references to both classical and popular music, is executed by Flexible Music and is the most easily accessible work on this disc (to this listener’s ear).

“Ossifying (Keeping us from…) (2012), listed as “electroacoustic” is a piece of sound art like the opening track (no live performers in the concert hall here) and is one of the most experimental pieces on the disc.  It seems both deeply personal and inextricably self-referential.

“Geometria Situs” (2012) is the musical portion of a multimedia work called “WRENCH” which was written for and performed by Hexnut.  Mezzo-soprano Michaela Riener handles the delicate vocal lines with grace and ease.

“Sounded along dove dôve” (1999) is the last of the non-live “electroacoustic” pieces and, like its predecessors, is similarly cryptic and self-referential, a puzzle perhaps, in which the components of language itself are used as determinants of the settings of the texts.

A bit of an “aww” moment occurs with “Waves/Particles” (2008) which is performed by the Canyonlands Ensemble conducted by the composer’s former teacher Morris Rosenzweig.  Rosenzweig founded the ensemble in 1977.  This is both homage and acknowledgement between the two generations of artists.  It is lovingly played.

“Young American Inventions REMIX” (2014) invokes another pop culture metaphor of remixing a song.  This is another iteration/elaboration of the material in the earlier version of this piece.  Scott Holden is the soloist once again with the electronics.

“Stilling” (1997, rev. 2011) is a piece for solo piano.  This is described by the composer as being an impressionistic piece, perhaps a sort of tone poem.  The language is thorny and modern.  The very capable pianist here is Keith Kirchoff.

The lucid liner notes are by Jeremy Grimshaw.  The New Focus recording is clean and clear.  So if you enjoy adventures in experimental/electroacoustic music this is your disc.