Untitled design

Spektral Quartet Journeys into the Inner Unknown with “Behind the Wallpaper”

Spektral Quartet and singer Julia Holter’s new album, Behind the Wallpaper (released March 3 on New Amsterdam Records), is a mysterious, disorienting journey through moments in time that are sometimes poignant but often mundane. The piece that gives name to the album was commissioned by the quartet and is the creation of composer Alex Temple, who describes the cycle of songs as a “tale of someone undergoing a mysterious transformation and ultimately finding a home in another world, superimposed on our own but invisible to the uninitiated.”

Musically, Behind the Wallpaper resists classification, which makes it particularly well-suited for the intrepid players from Spektral Quartet. With dramatic, enthusiastic, and exacting performances, Spektral are ideal collaborators for Holter, whose pure-toned voice brings clarity to each scene.

Alex Temple--Photo by Aleksandr Karjaka

Alex Temple–Photo by Aleksandr Karjaka

Each movement of Behind the Wallpaper is a distinct tableau. The narrator vividly describes the scene, inviting the listener to take it all in; the words are addressed to ‘you.’ Temple creates a world of imagery, in which the experience of the cycle is unique to each listener as the protagonist on an eerie journey.

The work begins with an escape from a threatening figure under a tree to board the “Midnight Bus,” whose 15 riders never exit. No new riders ever get on, either. The specifics are unclear: “Someone… in a white house” is your destination. It is your journey. But to where? And why? Is the rider in a dream? Intoxicated, or lucid and contemplative? We don’t know. Holter’s crisp, recitativo style in this opening movement sets a hallmark for the whole piece.

Julia Holter--Photo by Michael Clement

Julia Holter–Photo by Michael Clement

The mystery deepens in “Tiny Holes,” a reference to a picture that the listener-as-protagonist sees at age 20. Holter sings to us that the image “stayed inside of you and… made tiny holes in you. But then you forgot all about it.” By age 26, we learn that others have also seen the image and are “scared of pockmarks and indentations.” A series of hypnotic, free associative lyrical musings, punctuated by lush interjections from the strings, is unsettling. We are never given specifics about what the picture reveals. Temple notes: “Many of the dreamlike images in the songs were inspired by my experience with gender transition. But my hope is that the story will feel familiar to anyone who has ever felt alienated from the broader culture.”

Perhaps the picture reflects our own individual traumas, experienced in early adulthood and later. Holter moves from chanted utterances to short stretches of melodic arioso, while the patchwork narrative unfolds in a nonlinear fashion. Still, it’s hard to pull away; you wonder what will happen. What is the purpose of this journey, and where am I going next?

Spektral Quartet--Photo by Jocelyn Chuang

Spektral Quartet–Photo by Jocelyn Chuang

The cycle is notable for its musical variety. The off-kilter waltz of “Fishmouth” provides a sonic landscape for the singer to patter away in great detail about a fish (scales and all) that is vigorously wriggling and flopping in your mouth. The sensation is palpable and gross. Then we’re suddenly transported to the 17th century in “Night After Night,” where Baroque-inspired musical interludes and cadences tidily separate the verses. References to masques again suggest a hidden reality that is momentarily impenetrable.

In “Spires,” we see “the gleam of a distant city,” and realize “that all of this was here the whole time and that you have finally come home.” A glimmer of hope, after a long journey far from home (but perhaps not too far).

More than an autobiographically inspired tale, Behind the Wallpaper is an invitation to explore one’s own transformations and experiences — undramatic though they might have seemed at the time. An invitation to pause, feel sensations, and experience memories as they appear, and to appreciate the universality of the messiness, interconnectedness, and inexplicable mystery of human consciousness.


I CARE IF YOU LISTEN is an editorially-independent program of the American Composers Forum, and is made possible thanks to generous donor and institutional support. Opinions expressed are solely those of the author and may not represent the views of ICIYL or ACF.

You can support the work of ICIYL with a tax-deductible gift to ACF. For more on ACF, visit the “At ACF” section or composersforum.org.