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HACK Unpacked: Part 1

HACK Unpacked: Part 1

On May 30th at Constellation, we premiere a commission of staggering scope, Hack, by Chris Fisher-Lochhead. Maybe you remember the proof-of-concept we posted for this piece last year, featuring comedian Richard Lewis? It’s gotten a lot bigger since then, and given the intricacies of the project, we thought we should hear from Chris himself. Dig in!

CFL“In the spring of 2011, I started making musical transcriptions of routines by some of my favorite standup comics.  At the time, I was beginning to get interested in the purely musical characteristics of speech, and standup comedy, as a medium that demands a heightened, even exaggerated use of speech and encourages idiosyncrasies of style, was a perfect arena for such an exploration.  For several years, the idea of using these transcriptions as the basis for an original piece of music hung around in the background until finally, with the support of my friends in the Spektral Quartet, it came to fruition in the form of a large, multi-movement work for string quartet entitled Hack.

The first question one might ask about a string quartet based on the deliveries of standup comics is “why?”  To answer that, I first have to say a few things about speech and music in general.  When we create and interpret meaning in speech, we are relying on how something is said at least as much as (if not more than) what is said.  It is these mini-performances that people are constantly putting on that can swing the meaning of a sentence from dire earnestness to arch sarcasm.  In my opinion, the ability to detect these sometimes very subtle differences in tone and cadence is the same sensibility that allows us to appreciate and understand music.  At times, instrumental music can be alienating without the familiar foothold of words or images, but it is my belief that anyone who can find meaning in human speech has the tools to understand and interpret what is going on in that music. Hack is an attempt to make those connections evident.

One of the perks of writing a piece like this is that I got to watch hours and hours of standup comedy and call it composing.  As someone who knows and appreciates a wide variety of standup comics, it was a difficult task to choose a set of performers and bits to use for this piece.  In order to make that decision, I used three main criteria:

Is it funny?  This is extremely subjective, I know, but it would seem to me pedantic and wrong-headed to work with a clip that I didn’t personally find funny.  Given that the premise of this project is to explore how comedians use speech to effectively communicate with their audience, an unfunny bit would seem to fall short of effectiveness.

Does it have musical potential?  There is some comedy that I find extremely funny that would not prove particularly apt as a source of material for this piece.  I love the comedy of Steven Wright, but his style (dry, atomistic, absurd one-liners delivered in a monotone) is not particularly fertile for musical exploration.  This does not, of course, mean that there is only one type of delivery that has musical potential; I wanted at least to have some sense of how I could treat the bit as music.

Does it fit within the musical world of the piece?  Part of my decision related to how well the musical material contained within the bit fit within the overall arc of the piece.  Despite the fact that the piece is composed of 22 self-contained modules, I still want it to work as a coherent whole.  In some respects, this came down to how I treated the fragments, but I also wanted to be sure that the material I was working with supported the piece’s sense of unity.  In counterbalance to the need for unity, it was also important that I explore a variety of different deliveries.  The standup comic spends years honing an onstage persona, and the way they deliver their bits is an extremely personal and important part of their act.  I wanted to be able to emphasize the musical differences between the breathless, accusatory delivery of George Carlin and the perforated, deadpan delivery of Tig Notaro.

In the end, I wound up with the following list of comedians whose material I had settled upon: Lenny Bruce, Sarah Silverman, Dave Chappelle, George Carlin, Robin Williams, Dick Gregory, Professor Irwin Corey, Rodney Dangerfield, Sam Kinison, Redd Foxx, Kumail Nanjiani, Mort Sahl, Susie Essman, Richard Pryor, Ms Pat, and Tig Notaro.

CFL-Bruce-ScoreBetween picking the material and treating it musically (which I will cover in an upcoming post), is the sensitive process of transcription.  The musical properties of speech that I am interested in do not inherently exist on paper.  We imbue what we say with a musical impetus in the moment of speech and hardly ever think about how one would quantify or notate it.  As a result, transcription of speech is always a creative act.  I make certain choices about how I am going to translate speech into a written medium that invariably alter the source material in some way.  For example, in one situation, it might be best to track the rhythmic emphasis of a passage by using a constantly shifting meter while in another, it might be best to establish a regular tempo and notate rhythmic emphasis as syncopated accents against the prevailing beat.  In my transcriptions, I do not pretend to be capturing the essence of speech in notation (a futile endeavor); I use notation to record the collision of speech (a chaotic and unruly object) with the tidy regularities of music notation.  In the example below, I have included the transcribed source material for the opening four bars of the piece.  This source material, taken from Lenny Bruce’s 1961 performance at Carnegie Hall, in this case has been adapted as a cello solo.”

LENNY BRUCE: SOURCE MATERIAL

LENNY BRUCE: MOCKUP

The New York Times: Julia Holter and the Spektral Quartet in the Ecstatic Music Festival

The New York Times: Julia Holter and the Spektral Quartet in the Ecstatic Music Festival

27HOLTER-superJumbo“First it was brusque, then eerie and sly. Julia Holter and the Spektral Quartet shared the Ecstatic Music Festival concert on Wednesday night at Merkin Concert Hall in a program that lingered in the cloudy zone where contemporary composition meets the pop song. In its sources and allusions, the concert took for granted the broad-spectrum musical erudition of current composers: hip-hop, medieval motets, Broadway, Impressionism, dubstep.

 

Playing on its own, Spektral — a string quartet from Chicago — brought one piece, Liza White’s “Zin zin zin zin,” that got its title and its rhythmic thrust from a rap by Mos Def, and another, by Chris Fisher-Lochhead, that radically rearranged a moody electronic lament by James Blake, “I Never Learnt to Share,” along with Stravinsky’s “Concertino” from 1920. There was also Dave Reminick’s “Oh My God, I’ll Never Get Home,” which had the quartet singing a poem by Russell Edson about a man falling to pieces as he walks, with heaving music to match.

Each piece was introduced, with an explanation, by a quartet member; the violinist Clara Lyon smiled as she praised the “weird things happening” in “Concertino.” The pieces had a shared palette: dissonant and clenched, with fleeting moments of delicacy giving way to more tension. The quartet played attentively, poised or just harsh enough, savoring the suspense; none of the new pieces overstayed. They were confident miniatures, rich in implications.”

To read the whole article, click here

The Village Voice: Julia Holter and Spektral Quartet Embrace the Surreal for Ecstatic Music Festival

The Village Voice: Julia Holter and Spektral Quartet Embrace the Surreal for Ecstatic Music Festival

julia-holter-lindsey-rhoades“While at times it was difficult to get a firm grasp on “Wallpaper,” there was also a sense that Temple wanted it that way — somewhere between avant-garde composition, mysterious artifact, and sci-fi thriller. Even at a time when genre tends to blur and bend, it’s still rare to see performances as unique and risky as this, and the combo of Holter’s bewitching vocal delivery and Spektral Quartet’s spirited strings provided an especially stirring showcase for the work.”

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Bad Entertainment: Julia Holter & Spektral Quartet

Bad Entertainment: Julia Holter & Spektral Quartet

“One of the greatest strengths of the current generation of young classical composers is their willingness to test the boundaries of what “classical” vocal music is supposed to sound like. Holter may not sing in a traditional classical style, but in Monday’s concert she maintained incredible control over a voice that gave ideal expression to both Temple’s and her own writing. Meanwhile, in both the vocal and instrumental pieces, the Spektral Quartet demonstrated meticulous technique alongside a real zeal for the music they were performing. After Monday’s debut of this program in Saint Paul, Holter and the quartet will repeat it tonight as part of New York’s Ecstatic Music Festival and again tomorrow night in two performances in Chicago.”

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Chicago Tribune: Alex Temple’s voice comes alive

Chicago Tribune: Alex Temple’s voice comes alive

spektral_quartet_2 (credit-Drew-Reynolds)“Chicago composer Alex Temple said she usually writes about “characters who are removed from society, dropped out or view the world in an askew way.”

 

Her new “Behind the Wallpaper” uses surreal metaphors to narrate an unexplained transformation that reflects her own journey. Singer-songwriter Julia Holter and the locally based chamber ensemble Spektral Quartet will premiere the piece next week. All of them are also outsiders in their own ways.”

To read the whole article, click here

New Music Box: THE SPEKTRAL QUARTET GOES TO PIECES (AND ROTS)

New Music Box: THE SPEKTRAL QUARTET GOES TO PIECES (AND ROTS)

Snowpocalypse Antidote poster“Reminick’s score, and its performance Saturday night, was bracing, original, and often jaw-dropping. The first movement, “Killing the Ape,” offers a startling take on the soli/tutti vibe of a concerto grosso, as violinist Austin Wulliman and violist Armbrust each alternate between his usual instrument and a second, gamba-style instrument held between his legs. This movement makes excellent use of the ultra-slow bow speed that creates an unpitched click from individual “grains” of the bow hair. Armbrust, in particular, got his bow to click so loudly that several audience members jumped. All this was delivered beneath Lyon’s ballsy, unaffected delivery of the sung text. In terms of singing in The Ancestral Mousetrap, this is Lyon’s big jazz solo, and her earnest, amateur lounge singer vibe was appealing.”

To read the whole article, click here

Chicago Sun-Times: LADY GAGA, TONY BENNETT, U2, SLEATER-KINNEY AMONG THE 2015 CHICAGO CONCERT SEASON HIGHLIGHTS

Chicago Sun-Times: LADY GAGA, TONY BENNETT, U2, SLEATER-KINNEY AMONG THE 2015 CHICAGO CONCERT SEASON HIGHLIGHTS

Sleater-Kinney_AMA.JPG“Opposites still attract. Local chamber ensemble Spektral Quartet adds to its avant-garde repertoire (including a ringtone project and live sampler packs of old-school and super modern classical works) by partnering with Pitchfork favorite Julia Holter. The electronic artist helps debut Alex Thomas’ new composition, “Behind the Wallpaper.””

To read the whole article, click here

 

American Composers Forum: An Interview with Doyle Armbrust of Spektral Quartet

American Composers Forum: An Interview with Doyle Armbrust of Spektral Quartet

Spektral Quartet“The American Composers Forum is pleased to co-present “Behind the Wallpaper” by composer Alex Temple, performed by The Spektral Quartet and Julia Holter on February 23, 2015 as part of the Liquid Music Series in the Twin Cities. Chris Campbell, the Operations Director of the label of the American Composers Forum, innova Recordings, recently spoke with Doyle Armbrust from Spektral and asked him to share his thoughts about the mysterious and lyrical “Behind the Wallpaper” and a few other topics.

How did Spektral’s involvement in “Behind the Wallpaper” come about, and is there anything to keep in mind or listen for when we hear it February 23?

Behind the Wallpaper came about like the vast majority of our commissions do…we were keen to work with a specific composer. Alex Temple, who is based in Chicago, has an uncanny knack for uncovering the oblique, the humorous, and even the sublime through the idiom of pop musics. While she’s hip to Lachenmann and Ligeti, etc etc etc, Alex doesn’t rely on a bevy of extended techniques to create anticipation and the feeling of something new. As a performer, it’s a wondrous thing, to see a score that doesn’t look like the blueprint for the next particle accelerator, and yet has the audience (and the players) buzzing long after the show is over. That isn’t to say we don’t thrive on those kinds of pieces. It’s just that Alex has found a peculiar, devastatingly honest way of delivering music.”

To read the whole article, click here

 

Q2 Music: 10 Imagination-Grabbing, Trailblazing Artists of 2014

Q2 Music: 10 Imagination-Grabbing, Trailblazing Artists of 2014

Spektral Quartet“One of the coolest and craziest new-music projects of the year came from Chicago’s Spektral Quartet. In March 2014, the ensemble blew up in pockets everywhere with “Mobile Miniatures” – over 45 ringtones, alarms and mobile alerts commissioned from a who’s who of outside-the-box 21st Century music makers, from Pulitzer Prize winner David Lang to onetime MacArthur fellow George Lewis to Deerhoof’s Greg Saunier and, best of all, quite a few composers from whom I’d never heard (and am glad I have now). Insanely innovative gimmick aside, it’s really good music and a brilliant, cross-discipline introduction to today’s freshest voices. My girlfriend really hates waking up to extended string techniques, though.”

To read the whole article, click here

Bent Frequency hosts Spektral Quartet for dazzling concert of avant-garde music

Bent Frequency hosts Spektral Quartet for dazzling concert of avant-garde music

IMG_4483-credit-Mark-Gresham-1024x640“Spektral Quartet gave Crumb’s “Black Angels” a vivid, compelling performance. The group was an excellent complement to Bent Frequency, and the pairing of these two ensembles on a common stage will surely go down as one of the programming coups of the calendar year.”

To read the whole article, click here

The Courier-News: Side Street Gallery summons Spektral Quartet

The Courier-News: Side Street Gallery summons Spektral Quartet


Side Street Studio Arts“For the next two hours, the artists of Spektral Quartet delivered one amazing performance after another, challenging our notions of what to expect from a string quartet, and pushing the boundaries of what’s musically possible.

 

Aptly named “The Sampler Pack” because of its variety, the nine-part program spanned almost 200 years of music history, and included works ranging in length from five seconds to more than ten minutes, punctuated by impromptu remarks from the musicians themselves.

 

In contemporary pieces from Philip Glass and Bernard Rands, the ensemble tightly synchronized their body language and breathing, displaying what violinist J. Austin Wulliman later described as a “group mind” that can only be formed after innumerable hours of rehearsal together. Violinist Clara Lyon, the newest member, meshed seamlessly in this, her first appearance with Spektral.”

To read the whole article, click here

Chicago Classical Review: Lee Hyla receives a zealous musical tribute at Northwestern

Chicago Classical Review: Lee Hyla receives a zealous musical tribute at Northwestern

“Hyla seems to relish the fashioning of pithy titles, but the final work presented is more traditionally labeled, his String Quartet No. 4. A model for the piece seemed to be Elliott Carter’s String Quartet No. 2, with each instrument adopting distinct personalities, and alliances shifting with assent or anger. He also fleetingly conjured Bartok with a nod to a famous theme from his Concerto for Orchestra in the viola line. The Spektral Quartet gave a vivid and idiomatic reading of an engaging work that amply rewarded their considerable preparation.”

To read the whole article, click here

Seen and Heard International: Pushing the South American Envelope

Seen and Heard International: Pushing the South American Envelope

Seen & Heard Logo“What distinguished this effort from others in the “classical-plus-whatever” genre is the Spektral musicians’ technical expertise. Trained at institutions as diverse as the Paris Conservatoire, University of Southern California and Northwestern University, they have tackled everything from Haydn to Brian Ferneyhough to Lee Hyla, as well as some of today’s most interesting younger composers like Hans Thomalla and Marcos Balter.”

 

To read the whole article, click here

 

Chicago Magazine: Chicago’s New Music Scene Cuts Loose

Chicago Magazine: Chicago’s New Music Scene Cuts Loose

“One of the most popular series is run by the virtuosic string ensemble Spektral Quartet. These concerts, called Sampler Packs, intersperse single movements or short works with stage chatter over the course of an evening. In June, Spektral set up its Sampler Pack at the Hideout as a choose-your-own-adventure for the audience, with the program printed in installments on balloons. As the audience chose a piece, the musicians popped the balloon with the corresponding work written on it.”

To read the whole article, click here

We get all Barbara Walters with our new violinist, Clara Lyon

We get all Barbara Walters with our new violinist, Clara Lyon

Press releases and headshots are all part of the equation when a quartet brings on a new member, but they tend to feel a bit matter-of-fact, don’t they? We know you’re going to love our new violinist’s playing, but we’d like to give you a peek into Clara’s personality and backstory before you see her on stage. With Dan Rather, Barbara Walters and Chris Farley as my unwitting mentors, I set out to ask the incisive, hard-hitting questions:

Clara Dancing

Doyle: Hi Clara, and welcome to the wonderful family of misfits that is Spektral Quartet! Let’s dive right in. New Kids on the Block, or Backstreet Boys?

Clara: Wow, starting off with a bang I see! I am delighted to say that members of both bands are coming out with a collaborative album soon, so this terrible choice is one I don’t have to make!

DA: When did you start playing the violin?

CL: Around my 3rd birthday.

DA: You come from a musical family, right?

CL: Yup – many of my family members are professional musicians, and almost all of them play something! I grew up jamming with them and having sing-alongs. Apparently, music dates back a while in our family – the earliest that I know of was my great-great grandfather’s family. He was a bass player with 13 kids, and they made up a vaudeville-style orchestra to play for movies (which were all silent at that time, of course).

DA: Do you remember when you first knew you wanted to chase this crazy career path? Keep Reading →

Announcing Our New Violinist

Announcing Our New Violinist

The Spektral Quartet is pleased to announce our newest member, violinist Clara Lyon. A musician of exceptional ability, Ms. Lyon arrives in Chicago for the start of our 2014/15 season having just completed a fellowship with Ensemble ACJW, a competitive two-year program in joint partnership between Carnegie Hall, the Juilliard School, the Weill Music Institute, and the New York Department of Education.

Clara headshot

Ms. Lyon received her Bachelor’s degree in violin performance at the Juilliard School as the student of New York Philharmonic concertmaster, Glenn Dicterow, and went on to complete both masters and doctorate degrees at SUNY Stony Brook University with teachers Soovin Kim, Philip Setzer, Pamela Frank, and Philippe Graffin. Chamber music has always been central to Clara’s artistic life, and she has worked closely with members of the Emerson, Guarneri, and Juilliard quartets. She is currently co-director of the Kneisel Hall Chamber Music Festival’s “Together in Music” program, a new community-rooted initiative that will foster musical conversation and dialogue in the town of Blue Hill, Maine.

Keep Reading →

Announcing Our 2014/15 Season: AMPLIFY

Announcing Our 2014/15 Season: AMPLIFY

2014-15 Spektral brochure cover(photo credit: Elliot Mandel)      

The Spektral Quartet leaps into the 2014/15 season ready to amplify the audience experience, its list of exceptional collaborators, and the creation of ambitious new works for string quartet. Four large-scale, bold new pieces by some of the most imaginative composers writing today are revealed throughout the year in the interactive, inviting, and inclusive way Spektral audiences have come to expect. Balancing the traditional (Beethoven, Dvořák, Webern, Haydn, Stravinsky…) with the new (Reich, Ligeti, Crumb, Rands, Cheung…), the quartet’s fifth season, AMPLIFY, promises cherished favorites and brand-new sounds aimed at the ears of the expert and the newcomer alike.

Keep Reading →

Sampler Pack at The Hideout: Photo Blog

Sampler Pack at The Hideout: Photo Blog

We were talking before the Hideout show on Saturday and agreeing that the Fall seems like ages ago. It’s been a massive season for us, recording four albums and landing our first European concerts. Ultimately, though, it’s about our home crowd in Chicago, and our final concert of the season felt like a big hang in a living room…one that contains a stage and serves beer, anyway.

We are grateful to our friend, photographer Elliot Mandel, for covering the evening and giving us permission to share his excellent shots. Be sure to check him out on his website! Keep Reading →

Chicago Sun-Times: Classical Highlights for June

Chicago Sun-Times: Classical Highlights for June

Sun-Times logo“The daring quartet ventures to a well-known rock venue for one of its Sampler Pack concerts in which it juxtaposes radically different kinds of music, such as Georg Friedrich Haas’ “Dido” with singer-songwriter Townes Van Zandt’s “Pancho & Lefty.””

 

 

 

 

 

To read the whole article, click here

Pitchfork: Mobile Miniatures

Pitchfork: Mobile Miniatures

Pitchfork“Normally my iPhone ringer is set firmly to “off,” but I recently changed it to a new piece by the esteemed composer and one-time Pulitzer finalist Augusta Read Thomas. It’s a 35-second, anxious tangle of pizzicato and odd-angled violin and cello lines called “You’re Just About to Miss Your Call!” It really captures the existential panic that its title describes.

 

Thomas’s piece was commissioned by the Spektral Quartet, an enterprising Chicago-based string ensemble that recently decided it wanted to populate the world’s iPhones with contemporary classical music. For what they’re calling the Mobile Miniatures project (“Your mobile phone is our newest concert venue”), they contacted 46 composers. For anyone who follows the world of contemporary classical, it’s an embarrassment of riches: everyone from Bang On A Can co-founder David Lang to Nico Muhly to indie figures like Deerhoof’s Greg Saunier and Julia Holter.”

To read the whole article, click here