Reconditioning the String Quartet: An Interview with Wadada Leo Smith


There are certain artists with whom you dream of coming into orbit, and Wadada Leo Smith is finally in our galaxy. Clara and I went to see his trio play Constellation a while back, when the Cubs were winning at sportsball or whatever – so it was a small house – and both of us were struck by the patience and nuance with which he infused his performance. Every note felt purposeful and considered, and more importantly, honest.

We feel very fortunate that he was willing to fly out for our upcoming Once More, With Feeling! series this Sunday (3/4), and we know that if you stop by, you'll leave with a changed and inspired brain to tackle your own creative projects – to dig in and uncover what it is you have to express.

Our correspondence with Wadada has been voluminous, so we thought we'd take a step back and ask him about his musical journey more help get our – and your – head in the game for what is likely to be a singular night of creativity and music-making.

Doyle Armbrust: Can you take us back to the origins of your life as a composer?

Wadada Leo SmithI began to compose at the age of twelve. My first composition was a work for three trumpets. When I felt the need to compose music I did not ask anyone to teach me or show me how to make a composition.

I started with the "notes" that I knew and went from those "notes" to other "notes" to make my composition.  After completing the score I asked two friends who also played the trumpet to play the music that I had composed. I learned from hearing that music within days after composing the music. From that moment to today I have never asked anyone, teachers or musician friends that I know, to show me what to do in a composition.

After composing my first piece of music, I went to my school's library to research what a composer did, and to look for information on other composers. After that I realized that I was a composer.....that wrote scored composition, and that composing was what I did. Over the years and with hundreds of compositions I continue to work on using my inspiration, skills, research and dream state to make the best art that I can. Soon I will have twelve string quartets. When my eleventh, (a set of six quartets) is finished, hopefully by the end of September, I will finish that quartet.

DA: Even though you were self-taught, you must have had influences, right?

WLS: Yes. I started composing string music in 1964 after hearing string quartets by John Lewis and  Ornette Coleman. Charles Ives and Bela Bartok and Debussy's music also played a part in my research of quartet music. And although these composers came later, after I had already started to write for the string quartet they all had an impact.

I saw in Debussy's works a larger possibility for creativity then I did in the music of Arnold Schoenberg and the Austrian school of composition. Coleman's music had the greatest influence, because his music and string quartet writing offering a fresh vision of how to employ freedom and creativity with the force inspiration to create a work of art – an idea that seem far from the formalized way that composers of Europe and the concert music schools of composition in the United States.

Lewis's string quartet music reflected a very good example of those schools of thought, and was clear enough to show me that I did not want to compose in that way. Ives's works suffered from him not hearing much of his music in performance; and his uses of "folk music" sources was also something I was not interested in doing. A lot of his works look at the same issues and often would have the same "tunes" imbedded in his works. And yet there are major master works coming from him: the fourth symphony, the piano sonatas, and
Three Places in New England are some of my favorite music.

DA: What inspired you to write for string quartet, specifically? 

WLSMy vision of music creation is in the string quartets. I understand something about the history, and the beginning of European music and string quartet writing. But what interests me about this history is that I can take those instruments out of their historical context, and recondition those instruments in a different world view, with a different meaning through my use of making art. And, because I came up in rural, segregated Mississippi, I don't need to prove anything to myself or others about composing. Therefore being mostly isolated in my development as an artist, it allowed me to be opened enough to consider any idea – a dream state where I am able to pursue any research that I feel is necessary to make sense to me in my art.

DA: So within this somewhat historically-codified realm of the string quartet, where does that freedom reveal itself?

WLSA majority of my string quartets have some language of the creative elements, Ankhrasmation, and a look at the ensemble form and what that investigation means – the collective ideas as to how to put the music together as a unit. Even in cases where there are clearly written lines, the artists in my RedCoral Quartet use their imagination to construct or shape the music lines, and therefore it's flow.

My scores are essentially non-metric, and a full page is a "bar" with no down and up beats.
Part of the horizontal flow of the music comes from the score but within ensemble the leadership shifts from person to person as the decisions for continuity keep changing from page to page.

DA: One of the elements that drew us to your ninth quartet is that it is inspired by four important women in history.

WLS: My String Quartet No. 9 is tribute to four women: Ma Rainey, Rosa Parks, Marian Anderson and Angela Davis, all of whom have had a profound effect on the arts, and who provided social commentary. They were activists concerned with the ideas of liberty and freedom for all people in America and around the world.

Chicago Tribune: Spektral Quartet confirms Schoenberg's power in stirring concert

 (photo credit: Erin Hooley for Chicago Tribune)

(photo credit: Erin Hooley for Chicago Tribune)

"The first great upheaval in modern concert life occurred more than a century ago, in Vienna, with the 1908 premiere of Arnold Schoenberg’s Second String Quartet, which elicited booing, heckling and laughter.
Audiences today are much more polite, though the consequences of the score’s emancipation of dissonance still are felt in concert halls, as many listeners are yet to warm to music that Schoenberg and his disciples felt was historically necessary.
But few can warm to scores that are not being played, so the Spektral Quartet has created an important series of programs presenting all four Schoenberg quartets surrounded by some of the richest music written by others around the same time. Saturday night’s stirring concert at the University of Chicago’s Fulton Recital Hall placed the Schoenberg Second Quartet among works by Anton Webern and Bela Bartok.
There was to have been a progression from the first work Webern wrote under Schoenberg’s tutelage, the “Langsamer Satz” of 1905, to Bartok’s First Quartet, which was contemporaneous with Schoenberg’s Second (on the concert’s bottom half). But travel considerations because of snow forced some rearranging of the order of pieces, with Bartok ending the program, creating a slight letdown.
Not that the playing was anything but ardent, precise and expressive throughout. Yet many in the audience were in no mood for anything after the transcendent Schoenberg and did not return from intermission. This was an unexpected confirmation of the Schoenberg’s power. All it requires are keen and committed performers, which it got in the Spektral and soprano Kiera Duffy."

Read the entire review here

Escaping the Straightjackets of the Past: A Conversation with soprano Kiera Duffy

Kiera Duffy.jpg

When we programmed Arnold Schoenberg's String Quartet No. 2 for this season, we decided to shoot for the moon in the soprano realm. We're still a little astonished that Kiera Duffy agreed to join us, given that the bands that typically lay claim to her calendar include the Berlin Philharmonic, Metropolitan Opera, and the Lyric Opera. In addition to a profound fluency in 20th century and contemporary music, we should say that Kiera is also a most chill hang. Rehearsals have been artistically stimulating, and also gut-bustingly entertaining. Schoenberg's 2nd is a life-and-perspective-altering piece for all of us, so we thought we'd ask her to go a little deeper on the subject.

Join us on February 10th at UChicago's Fulton Hall for SCHOENBERG THE EMANCIPATOR: a FREE performance of Schoenberg's String Quartet No. 2, Bartók's String Quartet No. 1, and Webern's Langsamersatz.


Doyle: You were our first round draft pick (look at me, pretending I understand sportsball), and yet there isn't exactly an abundance of sopranos willing or able to tackle this landmark piece. How did it become a part of your repertoire?

KieraWell, I'm very flattered that I was in the first draft! I like your sportsball talk!

I first performed the piece at Marlboro about 8 years ago. When they asked me to do it, I pretty much died, because I had studied the piece in college and was gobsmacked by it. But the recording that I had heard back then was with the giganto-voiced Evelyn Lear – I just assumed, based on that, that it was a piece that would never be in my rep. I soon would discover, however, that it had been recorded, as much modernist and contemporary repertoire has, by many different types of voices. Not just giganto.

Lucky for me, I got to perform the piece again with the Academy Program
[now titled Ensemble Connect] musicians at Carnegie about 4 or 5 years ago, with your very own Clara Lyon (!), and I just sang it again with the Solera Quartet this past November.

Every time I sing this piece, I am left by more satisfied and more mystified by it.

DA: So, Schoenberg 2. This is like late-Beethoven good. The last movement is nothing short of revelatory. How does a piece this magnificent remain mostly on the fringes of the mainstay rep?

KDI wish I knew. I'm with you on the late-Beethoven good. It is extraordinary and I weep every time I hear the "postlude" of the final movement. I don't know if it's the "Schoenberg" name that scares people away from programming it? I think a lot of people don't realize that this period in Schoenberg's development – 1907/1908 – is not in the language of the much later serial/dodecaphonic stuff, which, I admit, can be challenging to listen to. This work still has one foot in late-Romanticism while also crossing into atonality. And it's that combination that I find so personally thrilling. 

DA: Like Beethoven, it seems that Schoenberg had such a strong aesthetic and architecture in mind that the limitations of the instruments didn't really concern him. What is particularly challenging about the vocal writing in this piece?

KDAs is the case for Erwartung or Pierrot even, Schoenberg seemed to have no understanding of or (more likely) care for issues of balance between the voice and the ensemble. Sometimes the instrumental textures are a very dense thicket of sound through which my (again: not giganto!) voice is trying to peep through. What this means in practical terms is that we can't always obey Schoenberg's dynamic markings exactly as he wrote them (sssh, don't tell Arnie!). The other challenge – also very typical of Schoenberg – is the very wide vocal range. I think the first movement covers more than 2 octaves and the second movement is about the same. You've got to have sufficient color and sound in the low, middle, and high parts of the voice to sing Schoenberg.

DA: You recently joined the faculty at Notre Dame. I would imagine that you are encouraging your students to engage with Modernist and contemporary rep. Why is this important to you?

KDI am, in fact, teaching a course right now on 20th and 21st Century Vocal Literature and Performance Practice (MSM 60449/MUS 40449, in case you were interested...) and I'm absolutely loving it! When I went to school, this rep just really wasn't talked about much aside from a few hours dedicated to Wozzeck and Rake's Progress. But I don't think I'd heard about Ligeti or Stockhausen or Berio or even Saariaho or Ades until well into my professional life. I'm trying to make sure that that doesn't happen to our students, particularly because new music is being programmed so much more than it was even 20 years ago. So there's that.

Doing modernist and contemporary repertoire can be extraordinarily challenging, musically, technically, intellectually (though, to be clear, contemporary music is not always thorny or difficult to listen to), but it is *immensely satisfying* when you feel you have "conquered" these pieces. The other great thing about singing newer music is that you aren't wearing the straightjacket of centuries' worth of past performances. I would lose my mind if I had to sing bel canto. I mean, can you imagine having to sing the Mad Scene from Lucia with Joan Sutherland in everybody's ear or Casta Diva with the spectre of Callas or Caballe hanging around?! Awful!

Finally, I think the opportunity to work with an actual, living, breathing composer is so important. It is the thing I like most about singing repertoire of this time. The collaboration in it. As a performer of western "classical" music, you usually miss out on the genesis of the thing, so to have an opportunity to part of that is so nourishing. And I find it helps me connect better with the canonic composers. You realize that Mozart or Beethoven were also living, breathing people, and their pieces were not inevitable, as they can sometimes feel. 

DA: We discovered in rehearsal that you, Russ and I all have children around the same age. What is the most preposterous or funny thing your son has exclaimed when hearing you practice?

KDOkay, so my kid hates when my husband and I sing. Like HATES it. I don't know if it hurts his little ears or  if it's because we're not paying attention to him (probably the latter). But the second that we make a peep, he screams at the top of his lungs "NOOOOOOOOOOOOO!!!!!" And because he is actually running the show at our house, we comply with his demands.

WFMT: 10 Best Live Performances in 2017

WFMT Vector Logo.png

In 2017, we – alongside our friends in Third Coast Percussion and Lincoln Trio – played live on WFMT to celebrate each group's having been nominated for a Grammy Award last year. We're pleased to share that the station has included that broadcast as one of its '10 Best Live Performances at WFMT in 2017!'

Listen to all of the Top 10 broadcasts here

Chicago Tribune: Chicagoans of the Year 2017

Spektral Tribune.jpg

"Chicago’s Spektral Quartet continues to explode the stereotype of how a classical string quartet should behave.

Violinists Clara Lyon and Maeve Feinberg, violist Doyle Armbrust and cellist Russell Rolen make it their mission to break free of constraints so that they might pull in new and more diverse listeners to the music they love.

Even for a polished chamber group that’s known for its boldly creative ways, 2017 was a watershed, and its singular achievements made the Spektral our choice as outstanding classical ensemble of the year.

No other local group made new and unfamiliar music so compelling an aural adventure. And not just new music: The Spektral brought as much finely calibrated vitality to Haydn as it did to Elliott Carter.

Its biggest coup of the year was a performance of Morton Feldman’s visionary five-hour String Quartet No. 2 (1983), in March at the Museum of Contemporary Art. Spektral’s acute concentration stopped time in its tracks.

October marked the launch of another cutting-edge Spektral venture, a season-long cycle of the four demanding string quartets of Arnold Schoenberg.

The real game-changer, however, was the quartet’s launch of three new concert series bringing fresh formats to unusual venues across the city.

The Dovetail series aims to foster cultural exchanges on the South Side, just as Once More, With Feeling tucks a composer conversation between performances of that composer’s music.

Then there’s Close Encounters, a series that includes everything from a concert with cocktails in a private Frank Lloyd Wright home, to painting instruction from an art professor while you listen to the quartet performing a commissioned work.

Just the sort of hip interdisciplinary mashup Spektral can bring off better than just about any other classical string quartet around, and a prime example of how the group made the impossible possible in 2017."

Read about all of the Tribune's 'Chicagoans of the Year' here

National Sawdust Log: Best of 2017 – National Sawdust Highlights

"This spirited, personable Chicago string quartet came calling with a wide-ranging program amiably titled “Playing Out.” Offering as its calling card a New Yorker’s piece as arranged by a current Chicagoan (Arthur Russell’s “I’m Hiding Your Present from You,” reworked by Katherine Young), the quartet reinforced bonds between the two cities in major pieces by George Lewis (Chicago-born, New York-based) and Anthony Cheung (a longtime New Yorker now teaching at the University of Chicago). And you’ll surely recall that flutist Claire Chase, who performed in Cheung’s piece, initially established the International Contemporary Ensemble in both Chicago and New York. A clever, appealing work by Chicago-based Samuel C. Adams filled the bill; the New York Classical Review ran an attentive account by David Wright."

Read the entire article here

Chicago Classical Review: Top Ten Performances of 2017

Spektral MCA.jpg
"In just a few short years, the Spektral Quartet has established itself as Chicago’s premiere string quartet. Personnel changes have only bolstered their status, especially Clara Lyon coming aboard as first violinist.
In March the adventurous ensemble brought to Chicago the belated local premiere of Morton Feldman’s six-hour String Quartet No. 2 at the Museum of Contemporary Art. Spektral managed to shave nearly an hour off of Feldman’s epic canvas, yet the performance never felt rushed, and the players (violinists Lyon and Maeve Feinberg, violist Doyle Armbrust and cellist Russell Rolen) brought polished refinement, scrupulous focus, and a terraced array of dynamics to Feldman’s score, exploring the extreme degrees of pianissimo where most of this music lives."

Read the entire article here

The Way We Were...

I suppose returning to Eliza Brown’s String Quartet No. 1 is getting me all nostalgic. 

Remember that, at the time we first performed this piece, less than a year had elapsed since we were just a weirdo bro-down that bought sixers of beer and sightread quartets. We titled the concert Break Right Through That Line as a nod to our (well, 3 out of 4 of us, anyway) alma mater’s fight song, and we even had a cake made with the concert poster edibly printed on the fondant.


It was Russ’s final recital before collecting his DMA at NU–and this bears mentioning–one of the faculty members on his committee didn’t want to pass him because it was a concert featuring…SHOCK! HORROR!…all contemporary music and he wasn’t playing solo. His name wasn’t Capt. Cranky Pants, but it might as well have been. Way to promote initiative and entrepreneurship, Captain!

This has to go down as one of the only DMA recitals at Northwestern that filled a hall, and it firmed up our commitment to champion the music of Chicago composers. And hey, the performance really isn’t half-bad, either!

It’s just a little vertigo-inducing to imagine how much we’ve changed since that day in 2011. There are the obvious elements, like bringing on two incredible new violinists, not hearing crickets each time we apply for a grant, and getting our ensemble name spelled correctly in emails (92%?). And then there are the perhaps less obvious ones. Like the trust and wordless communication that is only earned from years of being on stage together. That sounds kind of grand, but I just mean that the six years since that performance have added up to something. 

So of course the way that we play Eliza’s first quartet has changed since then. I recall that when we recorded it for our debut album, Chambers, Russ was riding a pony of playing-harmonics-sans-extraneous-noise deep into the sunset…which made me want to scream that, yeah, well, his shoes did not compliment his belt so well…and now this sort of picking nits is standard, and encouraged. We would apply the same rigor to this generation of music as the Mozart quartet we were playing at the time. Oooh boy…I am not posting that Dissonance video.

We have so much more to tell you–and of course, so does Eliza–and this is the reason we created the Once More, With Feeling! series at Constellation. There’s always more to the story than what you hear in a performance, and our aim is to take you deep inside a single piece of music. Not just to give you the backstory, but to show it to you from the inside, out. We considered titling the series Inside Out during an early brainstorming session, but Disney shut it down via a text message from their Future Crimes division.

- Doyle


featuring composer Eliza Brown

Friday, Dec 1
Tickets here


Classical Voice of North Carolina: Spektral Quartet Transforms Esoteric Repertoire to Vibrant Performance

CVNC logo.jpg
"There are many string quartets seeking to reinvent the ensemble as the relatable, hipster cousin of stuffy chamber music. The approach of playing pubs, flashmobs, and videogame tournaments certainly makes chamber music more accessible by meeting audiences where they are, but sometimes by sacrificing more adventurous music. On the other hand, some old guard ensembles seem to be stuck in a traditional approach, expecting the audience to make all of the effort to understand and contextualize the repertoire.
Spektral Quartet takes the best of both worlds; the ensemble performs challenging works in a way that makes them intense, personal, and accessible. In a performance sponsored by Carolina Performing Arts, this ensemble married the emotional intensity and energy of the modern approach with the traditional expectation that the listener is equally responsible for investing intellectually in their own artistic experience. Spektral Quartet's marketing is quirky, their interpretations deeply felt, their repertoire challenging (for both performers and audience), and their program notes erudite and thorough. The overall effect was a heady brew that teased the brain and wrenched the heart."

Read the entire review here

Chicago Classical Review: Spektral Quartet packs the house for Schoenberg

Chicago Classical Review.jpg
"The beauty of Spektral Quartet’s impassioned performance was that it served both sides of Schoenberg’s music so well. As led by the group’s superb first violinist Clara Lyon–who also wrote the perceptive program notes–the players were fully in synch with the rhapsodic lyrical flights.  
Yet the musicians also conveyed the sense that the breakdown of tonality is right around the corner—in the fin de siecle decadence of the waltz fragment played by Lyon and Armbrust about ten minutes in; the buzzing high harmonics that seem to anticipate Ligeti; and the unsettled repose of the penultimate Langsame Viertel section.
Spektral Quartet gave the belated Chicago premiere of Morton Feldman’s six-hour String Quartet No. 2 last March, so Schoenberg’s unbroken three-quarter-hour work is a comparative bagatelle.
Still, this is an epic, hugely challenging score and Spektral put it across with bristling fire and conviction. The communicative playing kept the music moving forward, naturally leading one on to the next episode. The final section was joyous in its bumptious high spirits, and, with an artful deceleration, they conveyed the spare, quiet solace of the coda, beautifully played by all.
The Spektral musicians were equally eloquent advocates for Brahms’ Quartet in C minor on the first half."

Read the entire review here