For Spektral Quartet, modern music mixes well with humor
The front cover of “Serious Business,” the Spektral Quartet’s new album, shows three members — violinists Austin Wulliman and Clara Lyon, and cellist Russell Rolen — walking toward the camera, earnest looks on their faces, while the fourth, violist Doyle Armbrust, is falling helplessly on his behind. On the back cover, Armbrust is seen writhing in pain while the other three are shown in poses of desolation and mourning — for his viola.
It’s the perfect advertisement for an album whose works incorporate humor, in wildly disparate ways, into the often severe matter of contemporary music. The photos also say something important about Spektral’s talented and ambitious musicians: serious about the music, not about themselves.
“The four of us are sort of inherently goofy people,” said Armbrust by phone from St. Louis. “When we’re in rehearsal, it’s a very intense process, and I think humor is the thing that keeps us all sane and friends.” Of the group’s relaxed concert demeanor, he added, “It wasn’t so much a decision to be funny as just to let the sorts of hijinks that happen during rehearsal more into the concert space in an effort to defuse the level of expectation that some folks will have when they come to the concert, it’s going to be this very serious affair.”
Spektral’s concert on Sunday at the Goethe-Institut, Boston, where it will play demanding works by Beat Furrer and Hans Thomalla, is its first Boston appearance. That might seem like a long wait for a group formed in 2009, when its four original members, who all knew each other from the Chicago music scene, got together to work up a program for a residency that never materialized. (“We enjoyed each other’s company so much that we decided to keep meeting anyway,” Rolen wrote in an e-mail.)
But instead of seeking national renown, Spektral — now in its fourth year in residence at the University of Chicago — decided early on to becoming what Armbrust called “a Chicago institution. We’re definitely spending time on the road but not being road warriors, as I think most quartets are.” Its regular Chicago concerts include not just the university, but also the arts space Constellation and nightclubs the Hideout and the Empty Bottle.
The group has defined itself largely by imaginative projects, rather than by discrete sections of the repertoire. In 2014, Rolen came up with the idea — in the shower, no less — of commissioning ringtones rather than weighty new works. That became “Mobile Miniatures”: brief pieces, some as short as eight seconds, elicited from 47 contemporary composers.
Beneath the project’s fun, fizzy surface lies a serious idea: getting to work in a concentrated way with a lot of composers. “Even if you’re programming lots of new music, there’s only so many pieces you can take on in a season,” Armbrust said. “This was a chance to work with a really large number of composers in a short time frame, and it was really exciting for that reason.”
But “Serious Business” may be the most complete synopsis of what Spektral is. Sky Macklay’s “Many Many Cadences” is a feverish set of tonal sequences, akin to someone repeating a punch line so many times as to verge on madness. David Reminick’s “The Ancestral Mousetrap” requires the quartet to sing Russell Edson’s darkly humorous poetry over abrasive contrapuntal textures. Chris Fisher-Lochhead’s “Hack” is an imaginative tour de force built on the composer’s transcriptions of speech patterns of stand-up comedians, from Lenny Bruce to Rodney Dangerfield and Dave Chappelle.
Once the quartet saw a humorous thread in some of its recent commissions, it seemed obvious to use them to frame Haydn’s “Joke” Quartet, whose fake-out ending has been inducing audience laughter since the late 18th century. “We’ve performed that a lot, and I can’t think of when it failed to bring at least a chuckle from the audience,” Armbrust said. “It’s a 200-plus-year-old joke that’s still funny.”
Asked about the quartet’s name, Armbrust explains that “we were looking at the music on the page as something that’s black and white, and the color of the music, when it really explodes, is through the catalyst of the players themselves. So we’re sort of acting as a prism [for] a spectrum of sounds, a spectrum of musical styles.” (The German spelling was chosen principally because it looked good in print, but also “to deflect the audience’s immediate leap to something ‘ghostly,’ ” Armbrust noted.
Spektral, then, is a compact mission statement, one the quartet is wholly serious about. “Early on, we realized that this was not going to be a side project,” Armbrust said. “This was going to be something we really threw everything we had at. So if we picked a name, we were going to be stuck with it for a good long time — hopefully our entire career.”
At Goethe-Institut Boston, Sunday at 3 p.m. Tickets: $10-$15. 617-262-6050, www.goethe.de/ins/us/bos/ver/en15007456v.htm