This Album Is Not Funny.
More accurately, playing this album will not induce the brand of gut-busting, teary-eyed revelry that an episode of Chappelle’s Show or a YouTube clip of Anna Karkowska’s vibrato will. It is funny like the idea of a Rothko turning the stomachs of well-heeled gluttons at the Four Seasons is funny, or how anything Andy Kaufman ever suited up for is funny. It might be a little uncomfortable, rings clear in its truth, and sometimes reveals itself gradually.
As a quartet, we are drawn to virtuosic string writing like flies to…stuff that smells good to flies, which by extension means we are drawn to the dark cave of the rehearsal room. Parsing nested tuplets and tuning microtonal harmonies is an intense bit of business, and often, it is a salty one-liner or vocal impersonation of Aaron Neville that comes to the rescue when the pressure reaches Defcon 2. Humor is also so much more than a setup and tag, though. It can compel us to inquire why we are laughing, and expose hypocrisy, and digest an otherwise off-limits topic, and question our assumptions, or simply be clever.
Clara Lyon – Violin
Austin Wulliman – Violin
Doyle Armbrust – Viola
Russell Rolen – Cello
Total time: 01:05:26
|Analog to Digital Converter||
Horus, Merging Technologies
Legacy Audio Speakers
|Original Recording Format|
Daniel Shores, David Angell
Pyramix, Merging Technologies
|Recording Type & Bit Rate||
|Release Date||December 29, 2015|
New Music Buff
The proliferation of string quartets (and by that, I mean the grouping of musicians as a performing entity) has been positively dizzying over the last 30 years. For those who grew up with the standard Julliard Quartet, Guarneri Quartet, etc. there were just a few outstanding names in this genre.
However, since the advent of the new quartets like Kronos and then Turtle Island, Arditti, etc. the field has expanded prolifically. Couple this with a boom in string quartet writing notably Elliot Sharp, John Zorn, Wolfgang Rihm. Elliot Carter, Peter Maxwell-Davies, Ben Johnston among many others and I was filled with some trepidation upon receiving this disc for review. I mean, how many things can you do with a string quartet?
There is a great deal more to be explored in this genre. I am happy to say that these folks are up to the task as are the composers whose work they present. Serious Business is some seriously interesting music performed with serious skill by this new quartet, the Spektral Quartet. They are the string quartet in residence at the University of Chicago, itself a venerable place for new music.
We start here with a piece by Sky Macklay called Many, Many Cadences (2014) a piece that seems to come from a similar place to that of the work of Conlon Nancarrow with intricate rhythms within a conservative tonal idiom. The title is suggestive of Gertrude Stein (Many, Many Women). It was commissioned for the Spektral Quartet by the Walden School. The piece is immediately engaging and satisfying.
The second piece, The Ancestral Mousetrap (2014) by David Reminick features a less common use of a string quartet in that there is a vocal component. This is not the vocalist component pioneered by Schoenberg in his second quartet. These vocalizations are performed by the quartet. This is no simple feat either because the vocal writing is itself a challenge in its rhythmic complexity. The piece resembles a little opera and indeed the text by poet Russell Edson is here called a libretto. This piece was commissioned by the Spektral Quartet.
The third piece here is an unusual choice (and the only one not commissioned for the Spektral Quartet) which is explored in the liner notes. Haydn’s Quartet Op. 33 No. 2, subtitled “The Joke” is one of the few examples of attempts at program music (vs absolute music) to be found in the classical era. First, no one will buy this disc just for the Haydn. Second, many collectors will already have this Haydn piece in their collection. But with that said this is a lovely performance of one of the emblematic pieces of music that created the need for the performing ensemble known as the string quartet and it is a lovely performance as well. I will leave it to other listeners to read the program notes and get into the rationale about its inclusion here.
The final piece, Hack (2015) by Chris Fisher-Lochead is the most unusual of the lot in that the composer uses vocal inflections by a collection of comedians (yes, comedians) as the source for his rhythmic and melodic contours and creates 22 separate pieces about 16 comedians (some get more than one piece). This piece requires more concentration by the listener but, like any well-written piece, it reveals more of itself with repeated listenings. The Barlow Endowment at Brigham Young University commissioned this piece for the Spektral Quartet.
The recording, as with every Sono Luminus release I’ve heard is glorious and lucid.
Classical Music Geek
Classical music is too damn serious. Have you ever dropped your program during a piece? People will look at you as if they want to throw you off a bridge.
Classical music hasn’t always been so serious — you can thank Richard Wagner for that — but rarely is it overtly funny (barring opera buffa, of course). Haydn had his moments, even Mozart and Beethoven stepped into parody-land once in a while.
For this album, The Spektral Quartet asked three composers to try their hands at “funny music” with wildly different results. Sky Macklay composed a piece that consists entirely of cadences — Many Many Cadences as the title so creatively describes. The cadence, of course, functions as a tonal stabilizer. Macklay forces the quartet to hop between cadences with such speed that any sense of stability is lost, even though there is theoretically a “stabilization” every few seconds.
David Reminick chose absurdist poetry as his starting point; The Ancestral Mousetrap requires the quartet to sing a libretto by poet Russell Edson. They sing very well, proving my theory that instrumentalists are sometimes better singers than singers. One of the members sounds like Elvis Costello — whoever does the bulk of the singing on the 4th movement.
The final premiere on the album, Chris Fisher-Lochhead’s Hack, uses the instruments of the quartet to model the sounds produced by standup comedians during their routines. My linguist brain was intrigued. On the album, it doesn’t evoke human speech so much, but it’s so cool when they map the composition over the comedian’s bit. Either way, cool piece.
And then in the middle of all this fun new music came the Haydn “Joke” quartet. I’ve played it. It’s funny. But also, I wish they had commissioned another new piece? I’m not exactly complaining, I’m always in favor of a good performance of a good Haydn quartet. But it also seemed a touch out of place.
Anyway, great album. Go listen.
Music is a sensuous art. It may permit or even demand intellectual distance. But to take the next step to humor is comparatively rare.
All the way back to Mozart’s Musical Joke, K. 522, and beyond, composers have struggled with the idea of humor in music. That’s what makes this ironically titled release by Chicago’s Spektral Quartet welcome. It not only strives for humor but approaches the idea from different angles.
That some of the approaches are more successful than others is no reflection on the performers, who offer a sharp, clean reading, not overdoing the jokes, of a locus classicus of the genre, Haydn’s String Quartet in E flat major, Op. 33, No. 2, subtitled “The Joke.” The best comes right up front here. Sky Macklay’s Many, Many Cadences is just what the name suggests, but the cadences are not convincing, and the process of getting to them becomes progressively more complex. The work is entirely original in conception, not laugh-out-loud funny, but subtly confounds expectations all along the way.
David Reminick’s The Ancestral Mousetrap confounds expectations in a different way, calling upon the quartet’s members to sing rather nonlinear texts. Chris Fisher-Lochhead’s Hack is a long series of short portraits in sound of prominent comedians. The movements are labeled, but it’s unlikely that without the labels you’d be able to guess the identity of, say, “Sarah Silverman.” Sample her and see. Even if it doesn’t say “Sarah Silverman” to you, it’s not boring, and indeed, nothing on this intriguing release could be described this way. Some of it may even make you laugh.
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