Serious Business Remixed (Part II): Dominic Johnson vs. David Reminick

Next up in our series of Serious Business remixes features the one-and-only Dominic Johnson. Dom is a fantastically versatile artist, and listeners may remember that our first-ever remix of anything ever was his re-tooling of Marcos Balter's "Chambers" from our debut album.

Now available for (free) download to all of you is his re-tooling of David Reminick's "Killing the Ape" movement from The Ancestral Mousetrap. It's a sexy little lounger that masterfully transforms our bow clicks...and we hope it makes your evening a swinger.

Dominic Johnson (electric violin) and Searchl1te at Harris Theater

Dominic Johnson (electric violin) and Searchl1te at Harris Theater


Serious Business Remixed (Part I): Max Tamahori vs. David Reminick

To celebrate Serious Business being on the GRAMMY ballot, we've commissioned some of our favorite electronic artists to remix tracks from the album and let you download them for FREE!

First up is the incredible Max Tamahori, who you may have seen spinning late-night around Chicago. Max chose to reimagine David Reminick's "Bringing a Dead Man Back Into Life" from The Ancestral Mousetrap as an even more sinister, club-ready banger. Listen and download your copy below!



Thank you for your considerably considerate consideration...

A League of Extraordinary Violinists (Part IV): James Lyon

This violinist feature needs little-to-no introduction because it's Mr. Clara's Dad! We are very fortunate to be working with the exceptional James Lyon for our Ear Taxi shows, and given his role as violin prof. at Penn State, we expect to learn a thing or fifteen from the experience. Keep reading for string technique secrets, TMZ-level dirt on Clara, and some USDA Prime dad jokes. This run with Jim is going to be an absolute hoot!

Doyle Armbrust: Hi Jim! At one point in your career, you were a member of a quartet with a rather unusual framework. Can you tell us a bit about it?

James LyonYes, for seven years I played in the Harrington String Quartet out in west Texas (insert obligatory yeehaw here).  HSQ had three missions: (1) to bring the glories of the string quartet repertoire to the good people of the Texas panhandle (B) to serve as string faculty at West Texas State University (now West Texas A&M) (3) to serve as principal players in the Amarillo Symphony (D) to go where no string quartet had gone before…whoops, NASA wanted us to keep that top secret! I guess I eventually got the proverbial seven year itch and we moved to beautiful central Pennsylvania where I have taught violin and chamber music for 25 years now! (insert nature sounds and the purr of a friendly mountain lion).  It was an honor to be associated with the fine musicians of the HSQ and we have remained friends as members have gone on to play in the St. Lawrence Quartet, the Montreal Symphony, San Francisco Opera, and the like.

DA: One of the videos we viewed before inviting Clara to audition for the group was of a Haydn quartet, performed by 4/5 of the Lyon clan. Is chamber music with the family pretty much the best thing ever?

JL: Chamber music is music of great intimacy and it often cultivates a family-like closeness among members. I am sure that the Spektral Quartet often strolls in the park together, bakes pies together, and all drink from the same glass at parties, right? Seriously, there is NOTHING like playing with family members, because over the years you develop your own little codes for communicating – almost telepathic really – that is very, very cool and quite rare.  There is a directness of communication through music that goes beyond words that is magical to experience with anyone and doubly so when with a family member.  

DA: What is your favorite violin-related Clara story...the one that gets told at the Thanksgiving dinner table every year?

JLWell, on Turkey Day we always tell the tale of how our ancestor Clarabelle McGillicutty Lyon made peace with the Native Americans at Plymouth Rock by playing “Bile Dem Cabbage Down” with such alacrity that they all enrolled their children in violin lessons with her! As for our own Clara, one of my favorite stories involves me practicing Bruch Violin Concerto to play with the Hershey Symphony many years ago when Clara was still pretty young. She came into the room and said, “That was out-of-tune, Dad.”  To which I replied, “Yeah, I guess it was. But it is normally fine.”  At which Clara said, “No – it is ALWAYS out-of-tune!”  Out of the mouths of babes…

DA: What is the most creative (or convoluted) excuse one of your students has given for not being prepared?

JLWell, the ol’ “dog ate my music” excuse is a favorite and if my memory serves me correctly it has only been tried on me once. The thing is – it was actually true!  This was long before the internet and therefore being able to find the music online and print it up was not possible or even conceivable at that time. Nowadays students have to be much craftier, like: “I was seeing if I played better after half a glass of wine, as Carl Flesch suggests. I did, so I wanted to see if I was even better after a whole glass. Well, by the fourth glass I was sounding really, really good, but unfortunately I passed out.  So I couldn’t practice any more - it’s not my fault, Professor Lyon.”  (This excuse is never actually accepted, but it is only even listened to from students 21 years of age or older.)

DA: Is there an element of string playing that you think is particularly that many of us perhaps overlook?

JLI have always wanted to declare a thumb awareness week!  You know, complete with placards that say things like “Thumbs are Fingers Too,” and “Thumbs – the Forgotten Fingers!”  Our thumbs seem to count for so little in string playing that we don’t even number them like we do our other fingers. But tension in any of our fingers or in either hand always involves tension in the thumb muscle.  A relaxed thumb almost magically relaxes the rest of the hand. I learned this from cellist Paul Katz who said he learned it from his Tai Chi teacher. And it’s yours for free right now! 

DA: Which Muppet character do you most identify with?

JLOne of my favorite movies of all time is Muppet Treasure Island.  Though for obvious reasons I have always identified with Jim Jim Jimmy Jim Jim Jim Jim, he is technically not a Muppet character. So I suppose I will go with Fozzie Bear, whose incessant puns are nearly as awful as my own. Fozzie doesn’t care if other people love his puns, he just loves being himself by trying to be punny!

DA: Let's assume you've been granted one track on Carl Sagan's gold record, to be rocketed into space in the hopes of reaching other lifeforms in distant galaxies. Which track of which recording do you choose?

JLI was pretty disappointed when my recording of Barry Manilow’s timeless masterpiece “Weekend in New England” (sung to the accompaniment of the Turner Ashby High School Choir) wasn’t selected for either Voyager 1 or 2, due to Manilow’s extreme jealousy. But I am pretty much over that now, thanks to my therapists Dewey Listen & Ann Sharge-Alott . But, and I am quite serious in saying this, I think Spektral Quartet’s recording of Sky Macklay’s “Many, Many Cadences” is among the coolest things I have ever heard! The ensemble is SO tight, the articulations S0 precise, the piece is SO FUN to listen to, that I believe the rest of the universe deserves a chance to it.    

DA: Thanks, Jim! Looking forward to our Ear Taxi ride together!

A League of Extraordinary Violinists (Part III): Mathias Tacke

For our first concert on the upcoming Ear Taxi Festival, we've been working feverishly on brand-new commissions from George Lewis, Tomeka Reid, and Samuel Adams with none other than Mathias Tacke. Mathias has been a coach of ours since the early days of Spektral, and his years as violinist with the (hometown heroes) Vermeer Quartet and Ensemble Modern have presented us with tremendous insights into repertoire new and old. He's also generally pretty quiet...until he comes out swinging with a zinger. It's been a true pleasure to work alongside a mentor, and we certainly threw a ton of music at him for our first foray together.


Doyle Armbrust: Hi Mathias! As one of our coaches in the early life of the quartet, you are a violinist we are particularly excited to be working with this fall. I'm wondering what it feels like to be sitting in with a string quartet after playing for so many years with the Vermeer?

Mathias TackeI am actually more aware of the many years - almost nine - without having a quartet, since the Vermeer retired in 2007.  It feels great to play with you guys - I do miss that life!

DA: Would you say we have more, or less stylish haircuts than your former Vermeer colleagues?

MTHard to say - for fair comparison, I would need to see you without that beret.  But you should never underestimate the percentage of your audience willing to attend your outlandish concerts just to admire your stylish haircuts!

DA: You were telling us in rehearsal the other day about your audition for Vermeer, which given our current violin search, took us by surprise. Can you tell us a little bit about how long and drawn out it was? 

MTThe four of us knew of each other but had not really met before.  On my way back to Germany from Santiago de Chile, I stopped in Maine, where the Vermeer Quartet traditionally spent the summers to learn new repertoire for the next season and to perform at the Bay Chamber Music Festival.  The “audition” was really not that long:  We read four or five different quartets into the afternoon and had a conversation over lunch.  Musically we connected right away, and I guess we all figured that finding out more about each other would take years anyway.

DA: You were also a member of Ensemble Modern. Who was the most interesting (or challenging or hilarious) composer you worked with in the room while in the group?

MTWithout a doubt, György Kurtág.  These were the most interesting, complicated, exhausting and also rewarding rehearsals.  Some of his music is reminiscent of Anton Webern in the sense that there can be a whole drama incapsulated in one note.  Kurtág was always searching and had very precise ideas at the same time, which at times was not without contradiction.

DA: Given all the teaching you do at NIU, I'm curious how new music plays a part, or doesn't, in what your students choose to play.

MTThat depends on the individual student, and learning to play the violin still involves mostly traditional repertoire up to a certain level.  But we do have a New Music Ensemble at NIU, and George Crumb’s “Black Angels” has been performed by students!

DA: On a scale of zero to bananas, how excited were you when Germany won the World Cup in 2014?

MTBananas?  Papaya!

DA: What was the last concert you saw that really moved you? 

MTA recital with one of my favorite musicians, pianist Murray Perahia playing at Pick Staiger about a year ago.

DA: Can you teach me to play an f-natural in tune?

MTOh God, which one?  There are so many!

Live Painting of Hyde Park Jazz with Miguel Zenón

Credit: Brian Jackson / Chicago Tribune

Credit: Brian Jackson / Chicago Tribune

We are still glowing after our debut at Hyde Park Jazz, performing Miguel Zenón's "Yo Soy La Tradición" to an enthusiastic and packed house! Miguel's eight-movement suite, steeped in traditional music from his native Puerto Rico, is deceptively challenging in its rhythmic and harmonic complexity...and when you're on stage performing with the composer blowing solos that can melt steel...well, it was a thrill ride in every sense of the term.

You may have seen Howard Reich's review in the Chicago Tribune, in which he boldly states that Miguel should submit this piece for Pulitzer consideration. All we can say is, we concur with Howard. It is a riveting piece that curves through blistering virtuosity and elegant lyricism with total ease.

One unexpected highlight of the show was being approached after we left the stage by artist Lewis Achenbach, founder of the Jazz Occurrence project. Lewis draws in real-time during performances, and we were really taken by his kinetic chalk renditions of our quintet. We thought you might like to take a peek:

Chicago Tribune: Hyde Park Jazz Festival review - Music embraces a neighborhood

Photo credit: Brian Jackson / Chicago Tribune

Photo credit: Brian Jackson / Chicago Tribune

The centerpiece of the festival brings a capacity audience to a hush for the world premiere of Zenon's "Yo Soy La Tradicion" ("I Am Tradition"). Commissioned for the occasion by the Hyde Park Jazz Festival, the piece elegantly blurs distinctions among jazz, classical and folkloric music. Substantive yet accessible, rhythmically intense but often melodically soaring, "Yo Soy La Tradicion" shows Zenon — as in previous work — finding inspiration in the musical, cultural and religious rituals of his native Puerto Rico. Yet this is no kitschy appropriation of familiar dance forms. Instead, Zenon has crafted a vast work in which meter, tempo, texture and instrumental technique are in constant flux. Certain passages bristle with complex interactions between Zenon and the Spektral Quartet. Others prove disarmingly direct by virtue of their poetic melodies or buoyant rhythms or extended passages of hand claps for all the musicians. Zenon has built forward motion into the string writing so deftly that you never really miss the rhythm-section accompaniment that typically drives small-ensemble jazz. It's a major work that ought to be recorded, and Zenon should enter it for the Pulitzer Prize music competition.

Read the whole article here

A League of Extraordinary Violinists (Part II): Eliot Heaton

A League of Extraordinary Violinists (Part II): Eliot Heaton

Next up in the cadre of phenomenal violinists sitting in with us at the top of this season is Eliot Heaton, who was recently named concertmaster of Michigan Opera Theatre. Before he launches into his first concert there (Bizet's Carmen), Eliot is joining us for our appearance at Hyde Park Jazz (9/24/16), during which we'll be world-premiering Miguel Zenón's Yo Soy La Tradición. We had an absurdly good time working with Eliot this summer for our Parks District project, and can't wait to dig into Miguel's blistering tunes with him.

What better way to introduce you to this incredible talent than through a chat with Eliot himself!

Spektralcurricular |Event 01|: White Sox Game

Spektralcurricular |Event 01|: White Sox Game

We are launching a new, extra-musical element to the Spektral season this year: Spektralcurricular. What is it, you ask? It's a quarterly hang with the quartet doing something awesome that doesn't involve our instruments. There's never enough time after a show to have a real convo with our audience – who we love like Kanye loves Kanye – so we'll be setting up nerdy field trips and boozy hangs to accomplish just that.

A League of Extraordinary Violinists (Part I): MingHuan Xu

A League of Extraordinary Violinists (Part I): MingHuan Xu

As we traverse the audition experience to find our new violinist – a process which has been way more entertaining than we ever expected, by the way – we have a few shows at the top of the 2016/17 season for which we'll need subs. The Spektral Quartet Trio is not a viable option for most presenters, apparently.

Fortunately, we happen to know a deep roster of outstanding violinists, and we're using this as an excellent excuse to play with them. First up is MingHuan Xu, who audiences will know from her performances as a member of Ensemble Dal Niente as well her duo appearances with pianist Winston Choi (with whom we're playing quite a bit this season!).

Always Read the Comments

Photo credit: David Bontumasi

Photo credit: David Bontumasi

Earlier this summer we were invited to perform at the Ravenswood Manor Park concert series – a charming series in which Rolling Stones cover bands are the more typical fare – and we had one of the most charming summer shows in our history. The skaters who took a break from kickflips to creep up behind us for a listen to Schubert, and the three-year-old kid who danced his little heart out really made playing with the sun in our eyes totally worth it.

Some days later we received an email from a woman who found herself amongst the picnic blankets that night. She authors a gratitude blog, and felt inspired to capture her experience while listening to us steer through Mendelssohn and Reich. Having a member of the audience put her thoughts to virtual paper, so thoughtfully and poignantly, is something both lovely and unique.

Below is an excerpt from Deborah Hawkins's No Small Thing blog. If you feel inspired to write up your own review or thoughts on one of our shows, send it to us...we love it!

"On this perfect mid-summer night’s eve, in a park only blocks from where I spend far too many nights on my couch tuned in to whatever options Comcast is offering, I gave in to the spell of the Spektral Quartet.

Here were top-notch musicians bowing their way through works by Schubert and Steven Reich (a peer of Phillip Glass).

Even before a member of the group shared a few remarks about their philosophy, I had already slipped into appreciation mode. It seems, in grokking on this site-specific concert, I was the perfect audience for what they wanted to impart.

When sitting down to listen to trained musicians, it’s automatic to tune up your listening senses.

The precision of their runs, their changing pace and dynamics seemed to render the natural noises of the environment (the sound of the descending gates at the nearby train crossing, pets and their people enjoying the park) especially BEAUTIFUL."


Read the entire piece here