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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

Spektral Summer Reading List 2016: Part II

Spektral Summer Reading List 2016: Part II

Welcome to Part II of our Summer Reading List, featuring book recommendations from some of today's brightest artistic minds! You can find Part I here.

Nadia Sirota (yMusic, ACM, Alarm Will Sound Violist, Q2: Meet the Composer Host)
Queen of the Night by Alexander Chee
"This book is so fucking great. It’s a sort of rags to riches story about Lilliet Berne, a self-made, secretly American, former prostitute star of the Paris Opera in the late 19th century. All I ever wanna read is like historical fiction and shit about kids trying to make it in showbiz and omigod does this scratch that itch. Plus it’s written good."

Tim Munro (Flutist, Raconteur)
And After the Fire by Lauren Belfer
"A page-turning detective novel where the detectives are musicologists, and the dead body is a newly-discovered (fictional) Bach Cantata, one with an abhorrently anti-Semitic text...need I say more?"

Spektral Summer Reading List 2016: Part I

Spektral Summer Reading List 2016: Part I

We asked our musician friends and fellow creatives for their BEST recommendations for summer reading, and WOWZERS did they deliver! Wondering what the 1st violinist of the Guarneri Quartet, director of the Pitchfork Festival, and New Yorker Magazine classical critic think you should bring to the beach? Dig in, and call your local bookstore to have them ready the forklift!

Arnold Steinhardt (Guarneri Quartet 1st violinist)
My Brilliant Friend by Elena Ferrante
"I just finished reading My Brilliant Friend by Elena Ferrante. It is part of her or his Neapolitan Novels, a series of books that tracks the friendship of two girls through their lives. I said his or her because nobody knows who Elena Ferrante really is. The story takes place in Naples, Italy in the 1950’s. Warning: the dazzling writing and the heart stopping action is addicting. I’ve just started the second novel, The Story of a New Name."

Mike Reed (Drummer, Composer, Pitchfork Festival Founding Director)
Spinning Blues Into Gold: The Chess Brothers and the Legendary Chess Records by Nadine Cohodas
"I’m hoping to finish the book Spinning Blues Into Gold: The Chess Brothers and the Legendary Chess Records. I’m always trying to find the deeper histories of Chicago and it’s translation into the music communities that were created here. Since the city is one built on segregation it also helps to show the connectivity that people don’t see or have forgotten."

HACK Unpacked

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!


"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.


Between 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."




(Re)Arranging the Seven Last Words

This Holy Week marks the third year that Spektral Quartet has played Haydn's "The Seven Last Words of Christ".  We view it as a yearly tradition and approaching this incredible work, full of reverence and depth, is humbling every time.  However, while billed as adapted by Haydn, the quartet version of this masterpiece has moments of thorny voice leading and awkward doublings, while leaving out some interesting lines from the chorus and orchestra original.  We have our suspicions that an eager publisher hired out the creation of this quartet version to make a quick buck.  
So, we decided to engage our friend Joe Clark to arrange a new version for string quartet, while maintaining as much of the original as possible.  Below, Joe describes his process and shares a bit about what it meant for him to grapple with this work. Tonight, we debut the new version at University of Chicago's Rockefeller Chapel.

I began exploring Haydn's Seven Last Words of Christ by researching the history of the work's inception, revisions, and publication. Since there were many different arrangements of the work during Haydn's own lifetime (for orchestra, solo piano, string quartet, and choir), there were a lot of places one could start and a lot of resources to refer to.  Since I didn't want to radically reinterpret the quartet treatment, I used the Trautwein plates of the string quartet version as a point of embarkation and began entering that score, in its entirety, into Finale. I received some assistance with this step from my friend and copyist Jeff Schweitzer.


I then cross-referenced each measure of the newly entered score against the 1801 Breitkopf und Härtel choral version: my primary source.  Throughout the project, I also referred to the Bärenreiter Kassel edition of the orchestral score, and the Edition Peters and Henle urtext editions of the string quartet. And, just in case I needed a second (or third or fourth) opinion, I made a Spotify playlist of every version of the piece I could find.


One of the reasons I love arranging is that each project is different and requires different ways of assessing musical problems and thinking both creatively and practically.  Sometimes, the principle challenge of a project will come from adapting an idea for a large ensemble to a smaller instrumentation (or vice versa). Other times, a challenge will arise translating material from one instrumentation to one with radically different strengths and limitations.  However, for this project, those kinds of broad issues were not particularly applicable since I was adapting a work for string quartet for, well, string quartet.


Instead, the challenges that I encountered  were making changes that would fix tuning, balance, voice leading, textural consistency, contrapuntal clarity, etc. while being subtle, stylistically appropriate, and always respectful of what Haydn, a master of the string quartet, put on the page. I was extremely fortunate that the Spektral Quartet prepared a list of passages in the work that were especially thorny and I was surprised when I found some considerable inconsistencies between the string quartet and choral versions: sections originally marked fortissimo marked pianissimo, missing melodies in the winds, omitted chord tones from the tenor line, etc.


I sent  finished drafts of each movement to Dr. Cliff Colnot, who would edit my work.  It was Dr. Colnot who introduced the quartet and me, and I have been very fortunate to work with and learn from him on many projects. After implementing those changes, I sent the score to the quartet, who then played through the work and offered thoughtful suggestions, which resulted in the final version of the score.


Arranging "The Seven Last Words of Christ" required focus and fastidiousness, but the process was very meditative. I found myself suddenly recalling memories of observing Lent as a child: attending "The Stations of the Cross" devotions, traveling to different churches on Holy (Maundy) Thursday, and fish on Fridays. Regardless of one's faith, there is a beauty in remembering dying and their last moments. I am very thankful for the opportunity to work on this project with the Spektral Quartet and I look forward to our next collaboration.

Last Words?

a guest post by Elizabeth Davenport, Dean of Rockefeller Chapel

The first time I heard Spektral Quartet play I thought, “It would be out of this world to get these guys to come and play at Rockefeller Chapel.” And now it’s happening! Seven days from now, to be precise: March 28, 2013. They’re going to play Haydn’s Seven Last Words of Christ in the context of a dramatic liturgical moment of the year – the Tenebrae of the night before Good Friday, a night when we strip the Chapel bare of all the extras, candles and fabrics and silver.

Rockefeller Chapel is a vast space. The word “chapel” conjures up an intimate space, but it really means a private space – like the chapel of a stately home, or of a hospital, or of an airport… or, in this case, of a university. Rockefeller Chapel is the spiritual and ceremonial center of the University of Chicago, where the Spektral Quartet is ensemble in residence.

Rockefeller Chapel is a place where we engage in art and performance on a large scale, matching its eighty-foot high arches and resonant stone with grandeur of sound and beauty of image and word. It’s a place where we speak to the nobility of our human quest for meaning and our great capacity for awe, as generations before us intended for us to do. It’s a place where people of many different traditions find a spiritual home. Designed after the shape of a great medieval cathedral, it’s used today in ways which mirror the world’s changing patterns of human religious encounter. But, as it was at the beginning, it’s still a place where the liturgical seasons of the Christian year are observed, along with its many other uses.

And so we gather for the solemn ceremonies of Holy Thursday – a short, stark, bare celebration at the altar, with bread and wine and hardly any music, and then the sounds of Haydn, the slow movements of the Seven Last Words, ringing through the gradually darkening building in the première of a new Spektral arrangement prepared by their friend and collaborator Joe Clark. And with it, the last words of Christ as recorded in sacred text, juxtaposed with poetry. We use poetry often at the Chapel, finding in its art a means of touching truths of new kinds (in an era where once unquestioned beliefs no longer make sense to many). On this night, we will use poetry written at or after the unthinkable death of one too young to die – a mother mourning the death of her son, which is after all part of the time-honored script of the crucifixion.

Last words. One poem for each “word,” and the closing heart-rending words of Psalm 22 (“my God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”). The terrible knock at the door in the early hours of the morning… the police officer standing there and saying, “I’m sorry.” And then il terremoto, the earthquake, the fast, furious presto, the sudden, sharp end.

It’s an experiment, like much of what we do. We haven’t done Holy Thursday quite like this before, and Haydn’s cherished work hasn’t been played quite like this before. But in this space, and on this night, the script is rewritten. Rewritten for today, for now, for the mothers who have lost their sons and daughters, for the young caught up in the violence that tears us apart, now as then.

We read and we listen – and perhaps we gain some new insight into the old, old story, and for sure we hear afresh Haydn’s achingly beautiful writing. And we mourn for the lives lost, for the tragedy of it all. And yet, even in despair, we find some fragment of hope – some chord that lifts us out of our reverie, some new thing, some sense (as is the promise of Easter) that there is more to come.

If you’re anywhere near Chicago on March 28, I hope you’ll be there (7 pm at Rockefeller Chapel at Woodlawn and 59th). And if you’re not anywhere near Chicago, please make your travel arrangements now. You should not miss the Spektral Quartet offering their magnificent artistry in this most wondrous of spaces on this most solemn of nights… with their very own re-imagining of this beloved music.

Shining the Artistic Spotlight on a Decade of War

By Guest Bloggers Arlene and Larry Dunn

Well past the 10-year mark, we are engaged in the longest war in our nation’s history. We have spent at least $1.5 trillion dollars prosecuting war in Iraq and Afghanistan – much more if you count the full costs, such as the interest on the debt to borrow this money. Hundreds of thousands of soldiers have been deployed, many multiple times. Over 6,000 have died, and another 42,000 wounded. At least 132,000 Afghan and Iraqi civilians have died as well. And yet the large majority of American citizens are oblivious to the stark realities of these wars and only a very small percentage of us actually serves.

On May 23 and 24 in Chicago, Spektral Quartet, in collaboration with High Concept Laboratories, presented Theatre of War. This artistic effort to raise the level of discourse about our wars was scheduled just days after the NATO Summit, where our leaders negotiated our future military commitments in Afghanistan. All ticket proceeds from the event were donated to the Vet Art Project ( to support their vital mission.

Theatre of War was a disquieting evening in which artists from a variety of genres brought forth elements of our nation's wars in Iraq and Afghanistan to an awestruck audience. Music, film, poetry, and drama were presented without breaks and with a request to the audience to hold their applause until the end. We were reminded of the nightly TV News reports during the War in Vietnam which brought the horrors of war into our living rooms every evening. That war affected everyone. Young men of all backgrounds were drafted. Everyone knew someone in uniform or waiting for a call from the local draft board.

For us, the knockout punch of the evening was the combination of Richard Mosse’s film "Killcam" and George Crumb’s Vietnam-era string quartet "Black Angels." “Killcam” juxtaposes two settings. Injured soldiers recuperating at Walter Reed Hospital are enthusiastically playing a video war game, with images that look eerily like combat locations in Iraq. Interspersed are scenes from actual Iraq war footage (via LiveLeaks). Men and vehicles are blown up by missiles delivered via remote control. The targeting crosshair images in these clips are nearly identical to the crosshairs in the video game being played at the hospital. But these are real people getting blown up by real explosives and really dying. Frightening enough just to look at, it is even more disturbing that these deaths were caused by antiseptic remote control.

Shortly after ”Killcam,” Spektral Quartet performed “Black Angels,” the original raison d’etre for Theatre of War. In this extraordinary piece for amplified string quartet, the musicians are challenged far beyond the standard bowing and plucking techniques. They used a panoply of accoutrements from thimbles, small bells, and glass rods, to tuned wine glasses of various sizes. At times they also chanted number sequences in several languages, in loud bursts or almost at a whisper. Crumb wrote this piece about the Vietnam War. The opening, THRENODY I: Night of the Electric Insects, was startling and terrifying, thrusting us into the jungle theater of that war. Quiet interludes were suddenly disrupted by shrieks of sound, like a surprise attack by guerrilla fighters. Death is ultimately portrayed in near silence; the stunned audience was held in it’s thrall. It is hard for us to imagine a more deeply committed performance of “Black Angels.”

The other most moving piece of the evening was “Blackbird,” a short story by Virginia Konchan, adapted for the stage by High Concept Laboratories Artistic Director Molly Feingold. Mitch Spalding, a soldier struggling with post-traumatic stress, is about to be redeployed. He finagles the Army for access to psychiatric counseling before he departs. But he finds no healing in it. Dustin Valenta, as Mitch, ably portrayed the anxiety plaguing soldiers overdosed on combat. He personified the human cost of serving in today’s military. Jeremy Clark, as the psychiatrist, maintained a cool, detached demeanor. He repeatedly stated “Good,” as Mitch reeled off examples of how bad things are, callously invalidating Mitch’s every emotion. ”Blackbird” powerfully illustrated the disconnect, not just between the soldiers and the general public, but also between those who serve and the people assigned to help them bear that burden.

The evening’s other components -- pianist Lisa Kaplan’s nerve-jangling performance of Drew Baker’s “Stress Position,” two additional Mosse films, and readings of poems by Wislawa Szymborska -- each contributed meaningfully to making Theatre of War a momentous achievement. We commend Spektral Quartet and their artistic partners for their boldness in holding these troubling realities up to the light for the audience to confront. So where does that leave us?

No matter where one stands on the rightness or wrongness of our continuing military actions, we are going about this in an irresponsible way that is not healthy for our society. We owe it to our “Mitches” that we fully understand what we are asking them to do in our names, whether they are shrugging into a kevlar suit for face-to-face combat in Afghanistan or sitting down at a remote control drone command center in a bunker in South Dakota. And we owe it to ourselves to demand from our elected officials that decisions about committing the lives of our soldiers and our treasury to war-making must be vigorously debated in the public square.

As to where we ourselves stand, we are deeply troubled. If we are going to war, we believe we should pay for it, and we do not mean by deluding ourselves that we can tax-cut our way to growth to cover the costs. We have to stop abusing our military families with endless deployments. We are driving them to despair. We hear people say: “They volunteered to serve; they knew what they were getting into.” That is simply unacceptable, self-delusional crap. We worry that the military actions we are taking are doing as much to prolong our problems with terrorism as they are to stop them. As we write this article, we are learning in the New York Times ( that our President is directly involved in the decisions about who will get death-by-drone rained down upon them. On the one hand, we are heartened that at least he is taking personal responsibility. But we find the whole secret drone strike campaign legally dubious and morally suspect. And if nothing else, it is hard to imagine a more effective terrorist recruiting tool.

We are grateful to Spektral Quartet for helping our community to confront these difficult issues. We fervently hope this leads to more serious public discourse about our ongoing commitments.

Arlene and Larry Dunn are avid fans of a wide range of contemporary arts and music endeavors as well as life-long social activists. They are frequent contributors of “audience perspective” blog postings for ICE, the International Contemporary Ensemble. They live in rural LaPorte County, Indiana.   Follow them on Twitter: @ICEfansArleneLD