Recording of the Week: Spektral Quartet, Serious Business

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Spektral Quartet; Serious Business

Clara Lyon & Austin Wulliman, violins, Doyle Armbrust, viola, Russell Rolen, cello

Comedy isn’t pretty. Nor is it easy. And humor in music might be the hardest of all.

I’m not introducing Serious Business (release date January 29) this way to dismiss it or say it’s bad, but to begin to point out that there is a gap between what Spektral Quartet argues about the record and what it actually does. This is not per se a negative gap—although that depends on the listener—but the difference between what a work claims for itself and how it reaches the listener is what criticism is all about.

Violist Doyle Armbrust’s liner notes begin, “This is not funny.” True, there’s nothing to make one laugh, but it is humorous. Half of this album is built around music that upends expected notions in light and dark ways—call it slapstick—and the other half has an explicit imprint of comedy.

The former, musical, humor comes via Sky Macklay’s Many Many Cadences and Haydn’s String Quartet Op. 33, No. 2. Macklay’s piece is terrific—I’m partial to the concept, which it seems to me originates in baroque ornamentation, of musical lines moving energetically towards a cadence but never quiet getting there. She breaks her’s up with staggered rhythms, and the music disintegrates into an infighting and sniping. Well though, well made, I’d love to hear more music like this.

Hayn’s quartet is known as “The Joke,” because in the last movement it has several false endings. He never imagined the possibility of recordings, and the joke comes across better in person (location joke?), but it’s a wonderful piece, well-played by Spektral.

The latter two pieces are the ones that don’t come across as planned. David Reminick’s The Ancestral Mousetrap is a series of fragments that has the members of the quartet reading/singing absurd text by Russell Edson. Spektral handles this decently, but the music comes off as a bizarre and distant-feeling narrative. I imagine the tension that this type of performing puts into performers is part of Reminick’s conception, but more skillful speaking and singing might make the piece funner. Comedy is hard.

The closer is Hack, by Chris Fisher-Lochhead. Apparently, the foundation for the music is the composer’s transcriptions of jokes and routines by sixteen different commedians, from Lenny Bruce to Robin Williams to Rodney Dangerfield to Sarah Silverman to Tig Notaro. Apparently, because there’s no way to hear this, it just doesn’t come through. What you get is an abstract piece made up of a lot of small fragments. It feels vaguely like Webern, but the tonality is different: dissonant, at times sonically dense aphorisms. This is not bad music at all, in fact it’s tightly put together and all the playing is top-shelf. But it is serious business.

Serious Business comes in a two-disc package, one audio CD and one Blu-Ray Audio DVD that also holds mp3, WAV, and FLAC versions of the recording

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