Jacob Bancks: Approaching the Quartet

This Friday, Spektral takes to the road for a day of masterclass and performance at Augustana College in Rock Island, IL. We’re very much looking forward to premiering a new work by Jacob Bancks, entitled Canticle, who I’ve known for several years since he was a student at the University of Chicago and I played Messiaen’s Quartet for the End of Time with his wife Kara, an excellent clarinetist.  Here are some thoughts from him about his personal approach to composition and the string quartet genre.

JAW: In approaching a new work for string quartet, do you find the tradition of the repertoire inspiring or encumbering? What are your favorite quartets and did you draw any inspiration from them for this work?

JB: A lot of composers talk about being weighted down by Mozart, Shostakovich, whomever, when writing string quartets. Honestly, I never let old, famous works in any genre get in my way; that would be like my three-year-old daughter getting her crayons jumbled by the specter of Picasso. And plenty of people can’t tell the difference between the two anyway. There are however a few canonical string quartets that I’m constantly engaging, in this project and elsewhere. As a nerdy undergrad I went up to Performers’ Music on Michigan Ave. and devoutly bought that red faux-leather volume of the complete Bartók quartets like it was the Book of Common Prayer. Every couple of years I go back to those, and my mind is newly-blown; they’re like six new works each time I hear them. Of late I’ve also become an unwitting fan of Joseph Haydn’s quartets. I tell my theory students, Haydn’s like your dad: you think he’s boring now, but the older you get, the more grotesquely fascinating he will become. And I always go back to Beethoven, especially Op. 130 (B-flat Major) which is personally very sentimental to me, and Op. 131 (C-sharp Minor), which I find both exhilarating and baffling. But my real string quartet fetishes of late, which might be obvious from the new work for Spektral, have been Ravel and Debussy. They each wrote only one quartet: why mess with perfection?

JAW: How did you approach putting pen to paper for this work? Did you begin with an idea of the piece as a whole or smaller moments?

JB: In this particular piece, I started with several musical images that I attempted to shape into a cohesive whole. The centerpiece of the work is this temperamental, bold, coarse cello solo, which has the other instruments responding in various stages of confusion and amazement. The rest of the piece centers on two basic ideas, both of which are transformed through the lens of the cello solo: excruciatingly slow, solemn polyphony; and uncontrollable, quietly nervous flickering.

JAW: How has life as a composer changed with your new role as a faculty member, compared to your past life as a composition student at University of Chicago?

JB: I loved UChicago, so leaving was hard. I was actually teaching for two terms before I came back to defend my dissertation, which was when it struck me that I had spent the last six years around some of the most brilliant musical minds on earth. But Augustana has been an ideal gig for so many reasons: I have excellent colleagues, I enjoy my students, my class sizes are small, and I have been able to build a composition program essentially from scratch. And I can swim to Iowa any time I want. Teaching has, without question, made me a better composer. For one, I nag my students enough about their productivity that I’ve started expecting more out of myself as well. And I love teaching undergraduates from all kinds of backgrounds: there’s nothing like playing Firebird for someone who’s never heard it before, or helping a student progress from barely reading notes to beginning to digest works of Berio and Feldman within a couple of years. More than anything, teaching keeps me constantly working toward expressing only the most worthwhile ideas with clarity, passion, and coherence, which is exactly what I hope for in my music as well.

A Very Open Conversation

Last Thursday, we pulled Verdi’s String Quartet out of the pile of quartet parts in our respective studios and rehearsed it for the first time in over two months.  But, this was no normal quartet session hidden away in one of our living rooms, we intended to do work on the slow movement in front of a small audience.  Our goal was to get them immersed in our process, and have them learn about the way we do work. 

We had first tried this concept at the Scrag Mountain Music Festival in December and were eager to try some of its possibilities out in the Music Institute of Chicago’s lovely Nichols Concert Hall in Evanston.  So, we decided it would be great to have our inquisitive board member Natalie Bontumasi on hand as the non-performer moderator.  We also invited the inimitable Hans Jensen to provide his deep brand of thinking into the musical ideas and string playing issues at hand. Both are pictured here:

Mathias Tacke, a former member the venerable Vermeer Quartet, was also on hand providing thoughtful and provocative comments:

While we learned from what our mentors had to offer, we also picked up new thoughts from our audience’s insights and questions as well.

We even got in a few laughs.

We’ll definitely be doing this again, in many subtly different forms, in the hopes that exposing the inner workings of what we do can provide new sources of inspiration for both the audience and ourselves.

Being Weird in Normal

As we exited the Chicago suburbs, and the corporate jungle evaporated, I found myself excited by all the shockingly open space in Illinois.  We were on our way to Bloomington/Normal for an appearance on the Red Note Music Festival at Illinois State University.  During our time there, the students were highly receptive and energetic at our master class and composer readings, not to mention the engaged and interested audience for our evening concert of works by Carter, Balter, Fisher-Lochhead, Dehaan and Thomalla.

Sometimes you’re acutely aware you’re arriving somewhere much different than home:

Our Monday arrival at ISU and Russ in action coaching Ligeti’s solo sonata:

Backstage before Monday evening’s concert, things sometimes get a bit punchy:

A view of downtown Bloomington from my Tuesday morning run:

Tuesday afternoon’s composer readings included feedback from the venerable Joan Tower in the lovely concert hall at ISU.

Winter storms could not stop us from a swift return to the windy city:

Red Note Festival

This March finds us taking a slice of Chicago down-state to Illinois State University’s Red Note Festival for new music.  We’ll bring some of our favorite Windy City composers to Bloomington, including Chris Fisher-Lochhead, Hans Thomalla, Daniel Dehaan and Marcos Balter. We’ll cap off the concert with a performance of a piece that’s quickly working its way into our favorite repertoire: Elliott Carter’s String Quartet No. 2, a work of astonishing breadth of expression and compositional command.

The festival features a full week of performances and a bevy of performing artists, including featured guest composer Joan Tower.  We’ll be at ISU for two days, with a range of activities including master classes for string students and readings of new works by student composers.  We’re looking forward to more than just bringing our repertoire to this new place, but discovering the culture around newly composed music at ISU and hearing the new sounds their students are dreaming up.

Illinois State University’s Performing Arts Center.

A Winter Week at U of C

Our week at University of Chicago started with a fantastically fun chamber music reading party with some of the chamber music students in the Music Department.  Music by Bach, Mendelssohn and Handel was followed by pizza. (Click the pics for enlarged versions.)

And, the week ended with an epic quartet-fest: three great new works by U of C Graduate students, and our dear friend Albumblatt, by Hans Thomalla.

Minty Fresh Quartets

A primo benefit to being a quartet that plays loads of new music is that we get first-looks at minty fresh scores. Our UChicago New Music Ensemble concert this Saturday is exactly that, and we are all impressed by the imagination and polish of the music featured by their talented composition students.

Phil Taylor‘s Spandrels is alternate doses of tranquility and eruption, draped across an architecture that keeps the listener satisfyingly rooted in the present. Jae-Goo Lee’s Cold and Sharp pulls the camera in tight, examining a shivering and delicate world through microscopic-seeming string techniques. Andrew McManus has proven himself to be a major talent at writing for strings, and his The Sacred and the Profane moves through shades of prismatic harmonics, jazz-like jaunts and vital rhythmic counterpoint before disappearing altogether.

Esteemed Northwestern University faculty composer Hans Thomalla‘s Albumblatt has quickly become a cornerstone of our repertoire, and we are thrilled to be bringing this perspective-warping piece to Hyde Park to round out the program. Imagine glissandi originating from separate corners within the quartet, converging at microtonally-constructed major chords for just an instant. It makes us throw our hands up and shout, “It’s SO GOOD!” every time we rehearse it.

Saturday, Feb. 16 at 8 PM.  FREE!

University of Chicago – Fulton Recital Hall (map)

1010 E. 59th Street, Goodspeed Hall, 4th floor

Austin wrote about Hans’ piece previously on the blog, and you can see us playing it live at Northwestern University here:

Juicebox: Bypassing Preconceptions

Norman Lebrecht, of the blog Slipped Disc, was kind enough to show interest in our experiences at Juicebox and asked for some thoughts about the experience.  Here’s what Doyle shared:

3-year-olds love Elliott Carter…at least the 3-year-olds found scurrying beneath the iconic Tiffany dome of Preston Bradley Hall on Friday morning. Chicago’s Department of Cultural Affairs and Special Events (DCASE) has launched a fresh new series with the intention of immersing toddlers and their caregivers in contemporary music, dance and theatre, cleverly titled “Juicebox,” and Spektral Quartet is thrilled to have been the lead-off ensemble. We are also still wiping Cheerios dust off our strings.

What seems clear to DCASE, and certainly to our quartet, is that listeners have to be taught to bristle or sneer at certain flavors of music. Take Carter’s Quartet No. 2, which tends to elicit some of the more emphatic responses, from ecstatic to cynical, from our audiences. We’ve developed larger-than-life character descriptions for each instrument’s role, a self-composed play synopsis for the movements, and had open conversations with each other about the piece in front of the audience prior to performing it in an effort to create a foothold for first-time listeners. This has been encouragingly successful. On the other hand, tell toddlers, “This piece is awesome,” play it with gusto, and their response is, “THIS PIECE IS AWESOME!”

For our Juicebox debut, Spektral excerpted Thomas Adès’s Arcadiana, Hans Thomalla’s Albumblatt, and Marcos Balter’s Chambers in addition to the Carter. With the help of Spektral violinist Austin Wulliman’s mother Phyllis, who translated our ideas into Toddler, we approached each composer as an explorer. Adès explores the alchemy of painting into sound: parents here rocked with their children back and forth during the fog-veiled gondola ride of Arcadiana’s first movement. Thomalla explores the sounds around him in everyday life: violinist Aurelien plays the bariolage measures, likening it to an ambulance siren, and dozens of tiny eyes widen. Balter explores the world as if through a microscope: Phyllis encourages the children to look skyward, and has them pick out a tiny snowflake from among the myriad details of the brilliant, colored glass dome. Finally, the fourth movement and conclusion of Carter’s each-instrument-as-independent-character masterpiece is introduced as four people all talking simultaneously, not listening to each other until the second violin reins in the proceedings and restores order. After all, what’s a kid’s concert without an under-the-radar morality lesson?

At a concert of Mozart for (primarily) septua- and octogenarians the previous evening, one well-intentioned but concerned gentleman asked, “Tonight you’re playing for an enthusiastic group of old people who love this music. Who comes to your other shows?” Spektral Quartet has been focused on breaking the fourth wall since its inception, commandeering bars as performance spaces and experimenting with seating the audience up-close, encircling the quartet. We’ve also prioritized playing works by emerging and local composers, so we were able to respond confidently that our audience is young and open-eared.

Ultimately, it can be distilled down to this: bypassing the need for “un-learning” preconceptions about new music is why the Juicebox series is a powerful artistic venture, and one we will continue to support.


A Juicebox for Chicago’s Preschoolers

A Juicebox for Chicago’s Preschoolers

No need to call a babysitter for Spektral’s next concert!

We are thrilled to be the lead-off ensemble on the Chicago Dept. of Cultural Affairs brand-new series, Juicebox. Created for pre-kindergarteners and their parents, Juicebox is bringing some of City’s most cutting-edge new-music/theatre/dance under the Tiffany dome at the Chicago Cultural Center, transforming it into a kid-friendly performance space. Cheerios in a ziploc? Bring ‘em. Feel the need to dance or squeal? Go for it! Forgot your wallet, Mom and Dad? It’s free!

Guiding Spektral’s all new-music set is early childhood development ace (she raised Austin, after all), Phyllis Wulliman. Conjuring narratives and inspiring children to interact with the music, Phyllis and the Quartet will take the audience on a voyage through the brilliant and evocative scores of Elliott Carter, Hans Thomalla and Thomas Adès.

So pack those diaper bags and join us for a morning of new-music hoopla!* 

WHERE Chicago Cultural Center
Preston Bradley Hall
78 E Washington, Chicago

WHEN Friday, Feb1st, 2013


*misbehaving parents will be asked to sit in time out chairs for a period of 15min.

Launching the Logan Center

Launching the Logan Center

We’re incredibly excited, thrilled, pumped up and stoked to be playing one of the first concerts in the amazing new Reva and David Logan Center for the Arts at the University of Chicago.  If you’re reading this blog, you probably know that we were recently named Ensemble in Residence at U. of C., so it feels particularly fitting to be launching our brand-spanking-new residency with a performance in a brand new venue.  There’s an entire festival of events this weekend, and we hope we’ll see you in the Performance Hall for our show on Friday.

But, this building is way more than just a new concert hall.  This is a ten story building with a unique “Performance Loft” on the 9th floor with this view (clicking photos makes ‘em get big!):

It’s an architectural wonder with many amazing corridors and open spaces:

It asserts itself in the Hyde Park landscape boldly:

And, it has space for a full range of artistic activities.  But, that’s not why you’re here.  We’re so excited about the new concert hall in this building.  We had the chance to try it out last spring (before it was fully completed) when the team from Kirkegaard Associates was in town to see how their work was sounding.  Here we are, getting used to a stage we hope to take many times:



An Exciting Announcement

Hey all!

We are excited to announce that the University of Chicago’s Department of Music has appointed us “Ensemble-in-Residence” beginning this fall!   We will be performing in concerts, giving workshops, coaching chamber music, and collaborating with the vaunted composition department all year long.  Read our full press release below, and we hope to see you in Hyde Park some time this season.

All best,
Aurelien, Austin, Doyle and Russ

For immediate release:

The Spektral Quartet is thrilled to announce its new post as Ensemble-In-Residence at the University of Chicago’s Department of Music beginning in the 2012/2013 academic year. Having served as orchestral, chamber and private lesson coaches for the University’s string students during 2011/2012, the Chicago-based group will become Hyde Park regulars in both pedagogical and performance capacities through this formalized position.

Champions of new music, and specifically Chicago composers, Spektral will be working closely with the University’s composition faculty and students through its participation in the New Music Ensemble. The University Chamber and Symphony Orchestras will receive regular sectional coachings from the foursome, as will the student string chamber ensembles, who will be given professional guidance and rehearsal technique primers through Spektral’s interactive workshops. Each academic quarter, the quartet will perform its signature new-cum-traditional concerts for the neighborhood’s residents, faculty and students.

The Spektral Quartet inaugurates its new relationship with University of Chicago with a performance of works by Hugo Wolf, Joseph Haydn and George Crumb as part of the Logan Launch Festival, celebrating the opening of the brand-new Logan Center for the Arts and its acoustically excellent Performance Hall.  The concert takes place on Friday, October 12, at 8:00pm at the Reva and David Logan Center for the Arts, 915 E. 60th Street.  Admission is free.

The new David and Reva Logan Center for the Arts

Readings at University of Chicago

Yesterday, we had the pleasure of reading pieces by three University of Chicago students during an open session in Fulton Hall.  Moderated by Director of Performance Studies Barbara Schubert, we gave feedback and advice to the composers and fielded questions from the lively observers.  Here’s a picture we snapped of us tuning while the audience filed in from a short break: