Given the easy accessibility of recorded music of virtually every type and era, at times it seems that musically, all time collapses into the present time. It’s a strangely ahistorical contemporaneity we seem to inhabit—is the internet eternity’s jukebox?–but even if it makes for a certain uneasiness, the random-shuffle possibilities it opens up may provide opportunities for musical illumination.
Realizing some of those possibilities is something Chicago’s Spektral String Quartet sets out to do with its ambitious double album Experiments in Living. The group selected seven string quartets written between 1873 and 2018 and, inventing a randomizing process to be realized with a deck of cards, offer the listener the chance to order and reorder the pieces for playback.
The works the group chose are Brahms’ 1873 String Quartet in C Minor; Schoenberg’s String Quartet No. 3 (1927); Ruth Crawford’s String Quartet of 1931; Anthony Cheung’s Real Book of Fake Tunes for string quartet and flute (2015); George Lewis’ 2016 String Quartet 1.5: Experiments in Living; Sam Pluta’s binary/momentary logics: flow state/joy state (2016); and Charmaine Lee’s 2018 Spinals for string quartet, voice and electronics.
The eighty year lacuna between Crawford’s work and Cheung’s represents a conceptual as well as a chronological discontinuity. A developmental continuity binds the earlier three works: the Schoenberg quartet conserves something of the romanticism of the Brahms, while the dissonant counterpoint of the Crawford quartet plays peculiarly American variations on Schoenberg’s serialism. As distinct as these three pieces are, all are fully composed and squarely within the elastic but still recognizable tradition of Western art music. The pieces on the other side of the great divide, by contrast, break out of that tradition as much as they take their bearings from it. They sound different, to begin with—their vocabularies draw as a matter of course on extended performance techniques that at times push their surface textures to extremes of noise and fragmentation.
One other significant break lies with the newer works’ engagement with improvisation as something major to do, emulate, or draw inspiration from. Lee’s relatively short, single-movement work, which was created in collaboration with the ensemble, is completely improvised. Lee, who joins the quartet in their performance, is an improvising vocalist who augments her voice with electronic amplification; the piece is an abstract blend of wordless vocals and largely unpitched sounds. Pluta describes his rapidly moving, twenty-five movement quartet as being about the “joy of opening up the mind to improvisatory exploration;” what’s explored is an electronically inspired collection of quick-cutting, scratchy, oscillating sounds that the quartet convincingly translates onto acoustic string instruments. Cheung’s lyrical, five-movement piece layers a flute line played by Claire Chase in an improvisational spirit over compact, song-length settings. Although improvisation plays a significant role in Lewis’ musical poetics, his exuberant quartet, which like Lee’s, Pluta’s, and Cheung’s was commissioned by the ensemble, is a fully notated work that weaves together various extended techniques into an episodic, but audibly cohesive, tissue of sound.
In its willingness to disrupt ordinary ways of listening to music within a highly diverse tradition, The Spektral Quartet’s Experiments in Living is certainly a challenging recording, and a stimulating one as well.