It’s been a big season for Chicago’s vivacious and much-admired Spektral Quartet… a Grammy award nomination for its latest recording, preparations for playing one of the most challenging works in the string quartet repertoire, and a National Sawdust debut coming up on April 21. We invited Doyle Armbrust, the quartet’s founding violist (and one of the earliest Log Journal contributors), to share his thoughts about the group’s current doings.
I can’t think of any more profound contradiction to the Grammys than Morton Feldman’s Quartet No. 2 (1983).
Our good buddies (and Chicago neighbors) in Third Coast Percussion took home the prize for their superlative Steve Reich album… and we took home some indelible memories of the circus that is the Grammy Award Ceremony. A few highlights:
> Hosting the Nerd Grammys (i.e. every category one doesn’t see on the live TV broadcast), was a fairly salty Margaret Cho, who perhaps started… celebrating… the festivities a bit early in the day.
> When one enters the grounds as a nominee, one is taken past a gauntlet of press – a press that will feign interest, or not – before passing in front of a diminutive bleachers of enthusiastic personae who will cheer at equal volume for whomever passes before them. It reminds one of the professional mourners in Greece, but/and is delightful nonetheless.
> Regardless of how I might feel about the merits of some of the music being awarded, I was in awe of the Cold War-level arms race that is pop music. To stand out in this oversaturated convocation of talent, a performer must commit to antics and visuals on a stupefying level. It really is impressive. Even during the most offensively pedestrian song of the night, a duet between Keith Urban and Carrie Underwood titled “The Fighter,” I found myself desirous of the seizure-inducing hi-def cube in which they galumphed. I am not of the persuasion that classical/new music is better than, or more rigorous than pop music. This experience cemented that stance.
> Beyoncé has more stage craft than any other performer working today.
> I’ve talked at least as much doo-doo as you, dear reader, about awards shows such as this, but I’d be lying if I said anything other than: It feels pretty great to be treated like a minor celebrity for a day. We make music in this niche of which a percentage of a percentage of the population cares about. A little affirmation goes a long way when it’s shined on a lifetime of underpaid and under-noticed work. It may still be meaningless, but it is incredibly fun.
> Favorite moment of the night: Tribe Called Quest on stage with Busta Rhymes. Most artists and presenters were dispiritingly cagey in their acknowledgement of our current political situation. Tribe and Busta Bust made no bones about it, though, compelling the Staples Center crowd to get on its feet and chant, “Resist. Resist. Resist.”
What does any of this have to do with Spektral playing Feldman’s six-hour Quartet No. 2? Literally nothing. Well, other than spectacle, of course.
We’ve been hosting open rehearsals at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago, where this Chicago premiere (FOR A PIECE PUBLISHED IN 1983!) is taking place, and the most frequent question we field is, “Why did you decide to subject yourself to this?”
It’s a legit question, and the legit answer is that we’re fascinated and perplexed and intimidated by it. We’re a string quartet. Our entire rehearsal model is built on minimizing risk and the unknown, and here we are presenting a piece at one of the most esteemed institutions our city…without having ever played the thing in its entirety. (That is on advice from our friends in the FLUX and Calder Quartets, who have been very generous with their guidance). We literally don’t know if we can make it through the inevitable neck/shoulder/lower back/hand/butt pain that seemed pretty intense even during a two-hour excerpt. But that is exciting! It brings us closer to the audience–who we will be relying heavily on for energetic support–in terms of knowing the outcome.
Quick sidebar: if you’d like to go full-nerdsauce on this piece, I’d recommend reading Jennie Gottschalk’s Experimental Music Since 1970, the consumption of which will just make your life more wonderful, in general. Also, George Grella’s primer over on Chicago Classical Review is a fantastic inroads.
There are stretches of the second quartet that inspire thoughts like, “For the love of all that is holy, can I just play some goddamned Schubert?” There are moments like page 22, which is some of the most transcendent music I’ve ever played (especially in the context in which it appears). There are moments in which one curses the name “Morty” for writing F-flat/E-natural/D-double-sharp and tucking a clef change so close to the meter marking that the entire thing looks like a perverted hieroglyph. And there is this immense sense of accomplishment at attempting a piece that is, for now, at the edges of human capability.
This sends the brain into some odd places. If you are familiar with Spektral, you know we like to make self-effacing videos, and this project was just begging for one.
When slightly terrified of a piece, we find it best to funnel that terror into something ridiculous. We admire the piece, love the questions this piece asks about our perceptions of time, and promise to report back on how it goes.
Spektral Quartet performs Morton Feldman’s Quartet No. 2 at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago, on March 11 at 6pm (details), and at the Toledo Museum of Art on March 25 at 5pm (details).
Doyle Armbrust is the founding violist of Spektral Quartet and a core member of Ensemble Dal Niente. His writing has been published by Crain’s Chicago Business, Chicago Magazine, Music + Literature, and Q2 Music. Contact Doyle at email@example.com.