Spektral Quartet

Spektral Quartet presents Comic Cadences at Constellation

A string quartet walks into a bar. The cellist gets up on stage and does his best Lenny Bruce impression. The rest of the quartet pitches in with commentary, trying out their own comic impersonations. The punch line? They’re doing it all with their instruments.

It was an enticing setup for a concert entitled “Comic Cadences,” given by the Spektral Quartet at Chicago’s bar/new music venue Constellation on May 30, 2015. With humor as the program’s guiding principle, the evening featured the partial premiere of Hack, a 22-part piece by Chris Fisher-Lochhead that translates stand-up by the likes of Robin Williams, George Carlin, and Rodney Dangerfield into music, as well as pieces by Haydn and Sky Macklay.

Instrumentalists are always striving to emulate the fluid tones of the voice, but it’s usually the voice of an opera singer, not a stand-up comedian. Before the Spektral Quartet performed Hack’s first 19 sections, which are organized into four “sets,” Fisher-Lochhead explained how he transformed comedy routines into something playable by a string quartet. He pointed out the musical qualities in different examples of stand-up routines: the rapid-fire rhythms, the contours of the speech, the exaggerated characterizations, the timing. The quartet demonstrated Fisher-Lochhead’s transcriptions of the audio clips, revealing the innate musicality of the human voice. In the most direct representation of that inherent music, cellist Russell Rolen played Fisher-Lochhead’s transcription of Lenny Bruce along with the original Bruce audio, perfectly matching the nuances of the routine and turning speech into song.

Chris Fisher-Lochhead

Chris Fisher-Lochhead

Those demonstrations eclipsed the actual piece. Hearing direct correlations between the comics and Fisher-Lochhead’s ingenious musical transcriptions in his introduction was fascinating, but Hack itself felt like a missed opportunity. The fourteen comedians (the full, 22-part piece features sixteen) used as source material all have idiosyncratic personas and distinctive voices, ripe to be represented musically. While Fisher-Lochhead certainly caught the comedians’ cadences and elevated his piece beyond mere transcription, he didn’t capture the outsize personalities and unique styles of each performer. Instead of a series of miniature portraits, Hack is an exploration of rhetoric and speech patterns, thus ignoring the differentiating characteristics that lend these comedians such power and memorability. Sarah Silverman’s and Richard Pryor’s sections sounded surprisingly similar in their wistful melancholy, while Dave Chapelle and Sam Kinison were both represented by explosive outbursts and the coarse scratching of bows against strings. While still unique, the piece lacks some of the variety and vitality it might have had.

Though Hack was the piece most explicitly concerned with comedy, it was the least funny of the evening. Haydn is well-known for his delight in musical pranks, and his String Quartet in E-flat major, Op. 33 No. 2 has even garnered the nickname “The Joke.” The trio of the second movement scherzo (“scherzo” is Italian for “joke”) consists of a happy-go-lucky melody that first violinist Clara Lyon smeared with cutesy, exaggerated slides, while the fourth movement repeatedly stops and starts, so that the audience is left guessing as to the true ending. Lyon sparkled above the rest of the quartet like a glittering jewel adorning a simple wooden scepter throughout this delightful quartet, while the quartet’s balance in the affecting third movement was superb, each member easily shifting from forefront to background to highlight subtle melodic lines. Such an organic sense of ensemble illuminated the matchless blend of violist Doyle Armbrust and Rolen, and the shapely parallel phrasing of Lyon and violinist Austin Wulliman.

Spektral Quartet-- Photo by Drew Reynolds

Spektral Quartet– Photo by Drew Reynolds

That exceptional cohesion proved necessary in Many, Many Cadences by Sky Macklay, who was present at Constellation. Premiered by the Spektral in 2014, it is built off a rapid-fire, tripping sequence that begins in the stratosphere, tumbles down, and zips right back up. The Spektral Quartet somehow stayed both together and in tune as they continually sprinted through the vertiginous descent. Even more impressive, they fought off chaos as parts progressively broke off from the main phrase. The piece became increasingly saturated with rubbery glissandos that occasionally alit upon a glowing chord, always perfectly in tune. Macklay’s madcap piece was at once exhilarating and hilarious in its energetic inventiveness, with a tour de force performance by the Spektral Quartet.

Classical music, including contemporary music, is often overly serious, a result of nineteenth century moralistic views of the masterworks as transcendent and character-improving. Such a hallowed and self-righteous reputation can easily be off-putting for new and old audiences alike. “Comic Cadences,” with its humor and the Spektral’s congenial attitude, is a much-needed and welcome antidote to such stifling pretension.

The Spektral Quartet will release a recording focusing on humor that features these pieces in January of 2016.