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.

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The Biggest Sound, Paul Dolden’s Eclectic Musical Visions


This new Starkland release (due out on July 29th) is actually the second time that Paul Dolden‘s music has appeared on the label.  The groundbreaking Dolby 5.1 surround audio DVD with images,  Immersion (2001) contains his Twilight’s Dance (2000).

Paul Dolden is a multi-instrumentalist born in Ottawa, Ontario, Canada in 1956.  He has worked as a musician since age 16 playing violin, cello and electric guitar. His work has been described as post-modern, the new complexity, electroacoustic and ambient but none of these descriptors can give you a clue as to how his music actually sounds.  In addition to his instruments he makes extensive use of recording technology and sampling techniques.  But Dolden is not a tinkerer with a laptop and Garage Band software.  His music appears to stem from a variety of influences and ideas which embrace acoustic instruments, tape techniques, digital editing, alternate tunings, rock, classical, jazz and perhaps other influences as well. His album L’ivresse de la Vitesse (1994) was listed in Wire Magazines list of “100 Records That Set the World on Fire”.

L'ivresse

 

This was indeed his breakout release.  Two previous albums are essentially retrospectives of his work.  ‘Threshold of Deafening Silence’ (1990) contains works from 1983-1989.  And ‘Seuil de Silences’ (2003) contains works from 1986 to 1996.

Seuil de Silences (2003)

Seuil de Silences (2003)

Threshold of Deafening Silence (1990)

Threshold of Deafening Silence (1990)

 

 

 

 

He followed L’Ivresse with ‘Delires de Plaisirs’ (2005).  Both his biographical sketch on electrocd.com and his Wikipedia page were both created by Jean-François Denis, the Montreal based producer of the empreintes DIGITALes label which released most of Dolden’s recordings along with a treasure trove of music by mostly Canadian electroacoustic composers.  There is a great deal more to Canada than hockey.  There is a rich musical culture which inscrutably is very little known in the United States.  This new release would be welcome if only for its making some of the best of that culture better known.

Delires de Plaisirs (2005)

Delires de Plaisirs (2005)

Dolden has written over 30 commissioned works for various ensembles from chamber groups to symphony orchestras.  His works have been played by the Espirit Orchestra (Canada), Phoenix Orchestra (Switzerland), the Stockholm Saxophone Quartet and the Bang on a Can All Stars.  He has been most favorably profiled in The Village Voice and Wire Magazine.

So this Starkland release is the fifth CD devoted entirely to Dolden’s work.  His work appears in several collections, most notably the sadly out of print  Sombient Trilogy (1995) which places Dolden’s work in context with many of his peers including Maggi Payne, Dennis Smalley, Stuart Dempster, Elliott Sharp, Ellen Fullman, Maryanne Amacher and Francis Dhomont among many others.  Perhaps the San Francisco based Asphodel records will re-release this set or it could even wind up on one of those treasure troves of the avant-garde like Ubuweb or the Internet Archive.  It is worth seeking out.

Dolden’s work is pretty consistently electroacoustic, meaning it contains live musicians along with tape or electronics.  And while this is still true on the disc at hand ‘Who Has the Biggest Sound?’ would be difficult to stage in a live setting.  Its dense complexities would require very large forces.  The specter of Glenn Gould and his ultimate reliance on studio recordings rather than the unpredictable nature of live performance looms here.

The album is very competently composed, produced, mixed and mastered by Paul Dolden.  The recording is consistent with the high sonic standards by which Starkland is known.  Executive producer Tom Steenland contributes the appropriately enigmatic cover art.  Starkland’s genius here is in promoting this amazing artist.

Back cover

Back cover

This disc contains two very different works, each in several sections. ‘ Who Has the Biggest Sound?’ (2005-2008) is the major work here.  Dolden’s intricate methods are put to very effective use in this sort of virtual electronic oratorio describing the search for the sonic Holy Grail with mysterious poetic titles to each of the 15 different sections.  In my notes taken during multiple listenings (this is not a piece I think most listeners will fully grasp the first time through, I certainly did not) I struggled to describe this music.

In it I heard some of the collage-like elements of John Cage’s Roaratorio and Alvin Curran’s Animal Behavior.  Certainly there are elements of free jazz and the sort of channel changing style of music by the likes of Carl Stalling and John Zorn.  I flashed back to the overwhelming complexity of a live electronic performance I once heard by Salvatore Martirano and felt nostalgic for the sounds of Robert Ashley’s similarly electroacoustic operas.

Repeated listenings revealed more depth and coherence.  Dolden reportedly spent hundreds of hours in the studio mixing this magnum opus so I didn’t feel badly that it initially eluded my intellectual grasp.

The second work ‘The Un-Tempered Orchestra’ (2010) is described in the liner notes as owing a debt to Harry Partch and while that’s certainly true I would suggest that it owes a debt to other masters of microtones such as  Ben Johnston, Alois Haba, Ivan Wyschnegradsky and perhaps even La Monte Young, Tony Conrad, James Tenney and John Schneider among many others.  It is cast in six sections which, curiously, do not have the poetic titles accorded to the sections of the previous work and which are generally ubiquitous in Dolden’s output.

That being said, Un-Tempered Orchestra in its six brief sections shares much of the same sound world as the former work.  It is more intimate in style and is similarly difficult to anchor in any specific tradition.  It is in part an homage to Bach whose Well-Tempered Clavier celebrated the introduction of equal temperament tuning which would become the standard tuning system for the next 200+ years.  This is a deconstruction, if you will, of that system and explores some of the endless possibilities of alternate tunings.

This is a fascinating and intriguing release which will spend many more hours in my CD player.  It is a great new addition to the quirky but ever interesting catalog of Starkland Records and a welcome example of a composer at his peak.  It is available though the Starkland Records website as well as through Amazon.  Highly recommended.