Spektral Quartet Traverses the Ethereal and Corporeal in ‘Chambers’

ChambersWhat do the scratch of a needle on a record, the flutter of hummingbird wings, and the honking horns of a traffic jam all have in common? They’re just some of the innovative aural images you’ll find on the Spektral Quartet‘s debut album, Chambers.

Released on the city’s first contemporary art music cassette tape label, Parlor Tapes+, Chambers includes six contemporary works by Chicago-area composers. The Spektral Quartet (violinists Austin Wulliman and Aurelien Pederzoli, violist Doyle Armbrust, and cellist Russell Rolen) has melded  cohesive creative vision with technical mastery for a fascinating journey through the worlds of the ethereal and corporeal.

The opening work, Hans Thomalla’s Albumblatt, is constructed of sounds you wouldn’t imagine coming from stringed instruments. Glissandos undulate through a zero gravity atmosphere. The wee-wah of a French emergency siren repeatedly approaches and recedes. Sustained quarter tones struggle for dominance. The notes dissipate into wind sighing through a tunnel, then harshen like a needle scratching a record. After the scratches fade, pinpricks resolve into an eerie microtonal chorale. The scratches return, intensifying  as though a spaceship is being is being ripped apart. Finally, everything disintegrates into barely audible whispers.

I heard the second work on the album, Ben Hjertmann’s String Quartet No. 2, Étude, when the Spektral performed at the University of Chicago. The piece, which calls for the players to “shred” on their instruments with guitar picks, is as much of a thrill ride on the recording as it was in the live setting. The ephemeral opening finds the upper strings sustaining static chords. Cellist Russell Rolen navigates deftly through increasingly fervent multidirectional swoops. Then, all four musicians rip into their strings with guitar picks. This recording’s close placement of the microphone lends a wonderful immediacy to the percussive articulation. The players punctuate the rhythmically complex pizzicato by stomping their feet, adding a flamenco-esque flavor. Later, the performers uses their bows for scratching sounds similar to those from Albumblatt. The end of this work finds violist Doyle Armbrust applying his technical prowess to a chromatic solo which resembles the Prelude of Bach’s G Major Solo Cello Sonata twisted in a fun house mirror.

Eliza Brown’s String Quartet No. 1 is the polar opposite of the earthy Hjertman.  The work is translucent and intricate, like a jellyfish’s tentacles following the currents of water. Occasionally, the gossamer sounds coalesce into passionate outbursts.

Gut-wrenching moans and the flutter of hummingbird wings sway from side to side at the beginning of Chris Fisher-Lochhead’s Dig Absolutely. The moans then evaporate into ethereal harmonics. Periodic ricochet bow strokes skitter across the landscape. After moments of stillness, chords inhale and exhale before sinking back into moans. The music fades into barely audible harmonics at the end.

On the heels of the Fisher-Lochhead’s breathy finale, four raucous chords jolt the ear at the start of Liza White’s “Zin Zin Zin Zin”. This work is based on Mos Def’s scat of the same title from The Roots’ song “Double Trouble”. The instruments engage in a spirited conversation packed with belligerent cluster chords, Bartok pizzicato and rhythmic stomping (audio of this track is embedded below).

The final work on the album, Marcos Balter’s Chambers, was first commissioned for placement on a concert between Beethoven’s Quartet Op. 18 No. 6 and Bartok’s String Quartet No. 4. The high-pitched tremolo harmonics of the first movement glimmer like iridescent colors on a bubble. The second movement descends from its predecessor’s stratosphere into lively pizzicato and abbreviated cluster chord surges. Chambers’ last movement revisits the previous sections’  rapid pizzicato, pearlescent harmonics, and cluster chord surges. The chords suddenly balloon into a romantic atonal serenade. A harmonic interlude leads into an intricate yet resonant traffic jam. The harmonics then return for a delicate ballet with a pizzicato melody. Finally, all of the instruments embark on a pizzicato canon which ends abruptly, as if an invisible hand has pressed an “off” button.

Chambers is fascinating , and it’s a must-have for any new music fan. The album is available as a limited-edition cassette tape, which includes an immediate download of the album in the high-quality format of your choice (MP3, FLAC, and more), plus unlimited mobile access using the free Bandcamp listening app. It can also be purchased purely as digital album. Visit parlourtapes.bandcamp.com to buy the album. It’s also available on Amazon, iTunes, and Google Play, although these retailers do take a major portion of the proceeds.

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