Photos by Dan Mohr for Experimental Sound Studio
Spektral Quartet makes a habit of premiering, performing, and re-performing works, giving Chicago listeners the opportunity to hear a program in various spaces and to share the experience with various audiences. (Disclosure: my record label Parlour Tapes+ produced Spektral Quartet’s Chambers in 2013, also an expression of the quartet’s nomadic urge. No two works on that record were recorded in the same space.) I love this about Spektral because it reveals a genuine interest in connecting me to the music they’ve programmed—but I also love the conditions that make this practice necessary and successful for the quartet. I love that our city is sprawling and full of people. I love that these people are sometimes composers, sometimes musicians, sometimes moms or dads with kids that play violin, sometimes tourists who happened upon a string quartet show on a Sunday afternoon at the Art Institute.
Can you please tell me about any review you have read lately that was useful to you? “Useful” of course being the wrong word. Can you please also imagine around the word “useful” in the sentence above a cloud of other words encompassing the sensation of a piece of writing about music being beautiful on its own terms, the sensation of a piece of writing giving you information you didn’t have before, the sensation of a piece of writing revealing insight, the sensation of a piece of writing constituting your otherwise sloppy mind in the moment you are reading it? And please imagine the words “tell me” above indicating that you are welcome to share this moment with me or us. For me or us, your story could help (“help” also of course being the wrong word) because now I am and we are reviewing performances. I and we are doing this for many reasons. Here is one: music criticism in Chicago is not currently reflective of the range of ideas, sounds, experiences, and opinions of the listeners and artists making culture here.
The program on Friday pitted two sets of miniatures against one another. Mikel Kuehn’s Quartet No. 1 takes inspiration from If on a winter’s night a traveler, the frame story by Italo Calvino that contains the beginning of ten different novels. Mikel’s mostly-continuous Quartet contains ten short movements.
Hans Thomalla’s Bagatellen contains nine small explorations on what he calls “found musical objects”—unspectacular and vaguely familiar melodic gestures, chord progressions, cadential movements.
Sometimes I experience miniatures as a cop-out. They relate disparate objects in the laziest way—using the energy of proximity, a gimmick they share with middle school mixtapes and cheap variety shows and money-grabbing annual all-star games. When they do expose you to discomfort or awkwardness, they get it over with and pretend nothing happened. They avoid the impoliteness of sustained eye contact. They offer no reward for no effort.
I admit this attitude is unfair to the potentially healing energy of the collection of miniatures. They might absolve half-finished thoughts. They might gather neglected remainders, recycle scraps that would otherwise be thrown away. They might stare down the impossibility of closure. Maybe they revere loss. In the face of everyday incompleteness—the subtone always sounding from mattress stores and half-empty packs of soy sauce—maybe miniatures offer comfort.
Neither the Kuehn nor the Thomalla is lazy.
Mikel’s piece shares with Calvino the disorganized energy of repeated beginnings. His Quartet No. 1 introduces attractive sonorities while exposing their fragility, letting material dissolve into indistinct trills or tremolos, obscuring contours with glissandi and, in one moment, a close canon. Textures accumulate without making promises. Some sounds return. Others don’t. The sensation is that asking why one thing happens and another thing doesn’t—this will not be a rewarding exercise.
On the other hand, each of Thomalla’s Bagatellen delivers one small, distinct idea to its conclusion. Or its realization. Or its death. In a piece of repeated endings, the last bagatelle devastates. Near-silent white noise, the sound of bow hair on wood. Bone white bow hair on the waist, on the pegs, on the scroll, on the bridge. Rosin on hair on wood, making the sound of four open empty dry mouths.
You may have noticed the number of things in earshot making the sound of open empty dry mouths. There could be a desert inside all the jaws you’ve seen open and close today.
Cotton mouth? Have a lollipop. Try cotton candy, try Peter Cottontail, try 1,000 thread count cotton sheets, try anything.
Most Spektral Quartet shows feature at least one record-scratch segue, a shift of the gears with a crowbar’s finesse. On Friday, the quartet closed its show with Mendelssohn, introducing the final movement of his first quartet by comparing it to a lollipop, by reminding us that Felix was 16 when he wrote it. Innocence, gumdrops, fuzz on a tween’s upper lip.
I can see what Spektral is going for in these John Cleese and-now-for-something-completely-different moments, variety being the spice of life, the evolutionary advantage belonging to omnivores. Something for everyone. In the Mendelssohn, violinist Clara Lyon plays with a throaty, agile sound that has the unmistakable texture of pleasure.
But isn’t there an implicit apology in a lollipop? It’s a reward. Not for hard work exactly but for enduring minor torture—booster shots, trips to the bank, waiting for the days to pass until Christmas. Is there any way of making this comparison that flatters Mikel’s Quartet or Hans’s Bagatellen? What are we meant to make of having endured the preceding works on the program?
But then are lollipops so innocent? In the wide world of hard candy, maybe they are the most suggestive, the most sinister. This Mendelssohn exhibits some formal surprises. So what if I did relish it?
It occurs to me that a concert program is also a collection of miniatures. Any given program is potentially a formal cop-out—unless it’s not. On Friday, May 6, Spektral Quartet played a show on the Outer Ear Series at Experimental Sound Studio. The program comprised four pieces: Arvo Pärt’s Fratres, Mikel Kuehn’s Quartet No. 1, Hans Thomalla’s Bagatellen, and the last movement of Mendelssohn’s Quartet No. 1. Spektral commissioned both the Kuehn and the Thomalla, and premiered both very recently—the Kuehn just days before Friday’s show, and Hans’s piece earlier in the season. Spektral performed a similar program minus Mikel’s quartet at Fulton Recital Hall at the University of Chicago on Saturday, May 7. They’ll repeat that show on Friday, May 13 at Nichols Concert Hall in Evanston. Outer Ear is an annual live performance series offered by ESS. See the two remaining programs on the series May 20 and June 10.