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Spektral Quartet: Serious Business

The Spektral Quartet's new album is anything but serious.

This is part of a series of WCRB blog posts that bring you a personal perspective on richly rewarding CD releases you may not encounter otherwise.

My love for the city of Chicago is pretty serious, and a big part of that is its modern classical music scene. The first time I visited the city I had the ridiculously good fortune of going to a concert at Constellation, a performance space with a bar (and excellent cocktails), and witnessing a program by the Spektral Quartet. On the program: a few movements of a Beethoven quartet, highlights from their Mobile Miniatures project, and the centerpiece of their new album, "Serious Business": The Ancestral Mousetrap by David Reminick.

They were still working on the piece at the time of the concert, so they only played a couple of movements, but I was dumbfounded. It's a string quartet with four-part vocal writing. The words? Russell Edson's dark and disturbing poetry, such as this:

A piece of a man had broken off in a road. He picked it up and put it in his pocket.
As he stooped to pick up another piece he came apart at the waist.
His bottom half was still standing. He walked over on his elbows and grabbed the seat of his pants and said, legs go home.
But as they were going along his head fell off. His head yelled, legs stop.
And then one of his knees came apart. But meanwhile his heart had dropped out of his trunk.
As his head screamed, legs turn around, his tongue fell out.
Oh my God, he thought, I’ll never get home.

It's not something I'd listen to while trying to fall asleep, let's put it that way.

Grotesque subject matter aside (the next movement is about schlepping a dead body around to a bunch of parties, and the ensuing mess), if you really listen to how they play, it's pretty astounding. This piece, along with the first on the album (Many Many Cadences by Sky Macklay) feature microtonal playing executed with insane precision. If you're used to Haydn and Mozart (yes, there is Haydn on this album), this is a tough one to listen to, but it's worth your time if you feel like expanding your horizons. 

One last thought: the liner notes are hysterical. "As a quartet, we are drawn to virtuosic string writing like flies to... stuff that smells good to flies."

Rani Schloss is the Program Director & Associate Station Manager for CRB.