Noise is nothing new. Since Luigi Russolo’s L’Arte dei Rumori in 1913, noise has been an integral part of a composer’s toolbox. And if one considers that percussion instruments have this same character, noise has been a part of music since music was first made.
Noise is still seen as signifying something experimental or avant-garde, though it’s actually integral to the status of nearly all contemporary classical works. But new music in New York over the past couple of decades has been dominated by the tonal forms of minimalism, post-minimalism, and neo-romanticism, with only occasional hints at what is happening elsewhere.
Friday night at Bargemusic, Chicago’s Spektral Quartet delivered an invigorating and involving reminder of just how broad and deep the range of contemporary classical music is, via outstanding playing of equally outstanding new and recent works from Hans Thomalla and Beat Furrer.
The first of the two pieces on the program was the New York premiere of Bagatellen for String Quartet, written expressly for Spektral by Thomalla. A connected sequence of nine short works derived from fragments of other music, violist Doyle Armbrust described the foundation of the piece as “Rauschen,” which he, via Thomalla, translated as white noise.
Rauschen is used in German for the technical varieties of noise, but as a noun and verb it also translates as “swoosh,” “rustle,” and “sough.” Those more accurately described the experience of this alluring piece.
By design, the Bagatellen exist primarily at a fluid point between silence and purposeful noise. Spektral traversed a range like Blake’s world in a grain of sand, from subliminal sustained sounds to whispers and harmonics, to gentle phrases briefly rising out of the barely visible textures.
The piece holds itself at a dreamlike point, working like a beta-wave generator to draw in one’s consciousness. Beyond their technical accomplishments, Spektral’s understanding and embrace of the qualities of the music was deeply impressive.
Furrer is a composer of stature and influence who is strangely absent from the New York concert scene. Spektral played his 50 minute String Quartet No. 3, from 2004.
In the program notes, Furrer used an analogy from crime fiction: an accident victim has lost his short-term memory and must piece together fragments of events to uncover his wife’s killer. Violinist Austin Wulliman offered his own analogy in short remarks before the group began playing: String Quartet No. 3 represented an organic experience, possibly of a tree or other plant, with musical events capturing growth and change.
While useful, neither engaged with the form of the piece, which is outside any direction or development. The music doesn’t build structure through time, repetition happens in the moment with a handful of gestures, with no recollection of past events. There is no story.
But the piece is indeed organic, modeling things like movement and bodily—though not necessarily human—processes, though without memory. There is instinct; the music might be the portrait of the interior experience of a creature that experiences time in an entirely different way than we do, like a dog or a cat, or an insect.
This is really nothing more than a high concept way to describe something that is almost indescribable: 50 engrossing minutes of scrapes, snaps, churning, and silence. About midway, there is a fragment of a 16th century hymn, and all the quiet music and empty space feels structurally secure, as if the details of a standard work were erased, but the overall order remained.
Under the command and concentration of Spektral, the duration seemed much shorter—the music insinuated its way into a twilight state, a drowsy consciousness that took in all external stimulus on an equal plane, with no priorities on attention. The group’s playing was full of tension and nervous energy, making this Rauschen something like a low-level fire, simmering and crackling behind a grate, it’s warmth everywhere and nowhere.
- George Grella