String quartets are among the hardiest and most adaptable of musical organisms. As mobile as rock bands, in some ways even more so, they can appear, do their thing, and slip away into the night. Small wonder that quartets have been especially visible and active during the COVID-19 pandemic. If orchestras and opera houses appear to be the dinosaurs of the musical kingdom, reeling from an asteroid blast, quartets and other chamber ensembles might be compared to the birds that survived the Cretaceous period. To be sure, mobility is of little advantage when almost no in-person concerts are taking place and few people are willing to pay to see events online. For the moment, smaller nonprofit groups have been able to apply to foundations and the federal government for relief.
No group has been busier than the JACK Quartet, which, shutdown notwithstanding, has maintained a rigorous schedule of rehearsing, recording, coaching, and online performance. Since March, the members of the JACK—Christopher Otto, Austin Wulliman, John Pickford Richards, and Jay Campbell—have also made five in-person performances: one in a parking lot in Morristown, New Jersey, as part of the Lot of Strings festival, and the others in a canyon and along the Colorado River in Utah, as part of the Moab Music Festival, which regularly stages concerts in acoustically favorable natural spaces. In recent years, the JACK has specialized in the wide-open soundscapes of John Luther Adams, and its programs in Utah aptly included Adams’s piece “The Wind in High Places.” In September, the Cold Blue label released the JACK’s recording of two other Adams pieces, “Lines Made by Walking” and “untouched”—hypnotic lessons in the building-out of large musical structures from economical means.
The Adams disk was recorded before the pandemic began; so were albums devoted to Cenk Ergün, Clara Iannotta, Scott Lee, and Roger Reynolds, all of which were released this year. But a sixth new album, devoted to the wild, hallucinatory music of the Chinese-American composer Du Yun, was made in June, just after the quartet emerged from quarantine. The principal work is “A Cockroach’s Tarantella,” for speaker and string quartet, in which Du recites—in both English and Chinese—her own story about an insect who longs to be human. This inversion of Kafka’s “Metamorphosis” may seem an unappetizing proposition for people who have spent an inordinate amount of time cooped up in confined spaces, but Du builds a surprising degree of sympathy for her cockroach heroine, who is touchingly naïve about the nobility of human existence:
Du’s music spans a vast stylistic spectrum, from ancient-sounding, hymnal strains to scratching, scraping string timbres. The transitions from one extreme to another occur with organic ease, and the music is seamlessly woven around Du’s speaking voice, which is a mesmerizing instrument in itself.
If any chamber group can rival the JACK’s quarantine frenzy, it is the Spektral Quartet, a wide-ranging ensemble based in Chicago. The members of the Spektral—Clara Lyon, Maeve Feinberg, Doyle Armbrust, and Russell Rolen—have kept themselves occupied by launching two absorbing live-stream programs, the Floating Lounge and New Music Help Desk, which mix music and discussion. The group has also made several appearances in the virtual realm. As part of a streaming series hosted by Cal Performances, in Berkeley, the Spektral joined the Haitian-American composer, vocalist, and flutist Nathalie Joachim to reprise material from Joachim’s entrancing album “Fanm d’Ayiti” (New Amsterdam), which mixes arrangements of Haitian folk songs with Joachim’s original compositions inspired by songs in Kreyòl. During a tense season, the complex radiance of Joachim’s musical sensibility may have the effect of palpably lowering your blood pressure. The group will soon celebrate its tenth anniversary with a virtual gala titled Keep Spektral Weird.
The Spektral’s major project of the benighted year 2020, though, has been an album titled “Experiments in Living,” which is certain to appear on my year-end list of notable recordings. It is a tour-de-force survey of repertory, classic and modern, demonstrating in almost textbook fashion how nineteenth-century Romanticism evolved into twentieth-century modernism and then into the all-devouring experimentalism of recent decades. If you listen to the album in the given order, you will begin with Brahms’s Quartet in C Minor, from 1873, in which the traditional process of thematic development is pursued with a kind of microscopic intensity that presages the breakdown of conventional harmonic structures. That breakdown is achieved in Schoenberg’s Third String Quartet (1927), even as the exposition and development of musical ideas obey classical rigor. A further breakdown takes place in Ruth Crawford Seeger’s String Quartet (1931), a monument of American modernism; in its Andante, discrete thematic ideas dissolve into a continuously undulating texture. From there, the path is open to a group of latter-day American composers: Sam Pluta, Anthony Cheung, Charmaine Lee, and George Lewis.
Yet the Spektral players encouraged their listeners to break from proceeding in a straight-ahead chronological fashion. They propose that the tracks be shuffled, but not in the sense of the shuffle feature in Apple Music, which randomizes tracks on a playlist. Rather, the physical packing for “Experiments in Living” comes with a deck of tarot-style illustrated cards, one for each track on the album. The listener is invited to shuffle the cards, lay them out on the table, and determine the track order by flipping them. A set of smaller cards are printed with adjectives—“labyrinthine,” “relentless,” “frisky,” “deviant,” and so on—which listeners can use to tease out connections among the various pieces. You choose one to identify continuities on the playlist.
As one who relies too much on adjectives professionally, I made sparing use of the smaller cards, but I enjoyed the physicality of the shuffling. The cards have a lovely touch of the occult about them, as if a fortune-teller were pointing up secret connections. And, indeed, resemblances crop up all over, especially when one of the historical composers butts against a living one. Rapidly skittering figures in Pluta’s “binary/momentary logics: flow state/joy state” pick up from Crawford Seeger’s mercurial textures. A delicate interplay of short motives in Cheung’s “The Real Book of Fake Tunes,” for flute and string quartet—Claire Chase joins the Spektral players on the recording—is akin to the contrapuntal games of the Schoenberg. To hear the fractured vocalizations of Lee’s “Spinals” after the Brahms’s vigorous finale risks whiplash, yet the transition from one to the other had the revelatory shock of a masterly cinematic cut.
At the end of the “official” sequence comes Lewis’s “Experiments in Living,” from which the album’s title comes. Lewis found the phrase in John Stuart Mill’s “On Liberty,” in a passage discussing the freedom of individuals to express themselves within a harmonious social whole. The composer writes, “I’m looking for listeners to experience the volatility of memory, resistance, and hope.” This is the heftiest of the contemporary pieces, and, in it, various strands from the older works seem to come into play, as if the composer were making a grand synthesis of string-quartet tradition even as he unleashed the devices of the post-1945 avant-garde. I felt a peculiar sense of connection between Lewis and Brahms, although I had difficulty pinpointing just what it was. Eventually, I realized that the players’ application in the Brahms of the seemingly old-fashioned gesture of portamento, sliding lushly from note to note, forms an unexpected link to Lewis’s thoroughgoing use of glissando.
In the end, the Spektral’s ingenious presentation is simply to invite active and repeated listening—to move the music from the background to the foreground, to read it like a book. The album also invites repeat encounters because it is sensationally well played. The account of the Brahms is a feast of rhythmic clarity and lyrical thrust. The Schoenberg, so often cluttered and frantic-sounding in performance, has flow and dance. Extreme precision of intonation and articulation highlights the fact that the Crawford Seeger is an essentially perfect score, every note charged with purpose. The same meticulousness governs the group’s approach to the contemporary pieces, yet fury comes to the fore when called for. The Spektral has accomplished the signal service of obliterating the dividing line between past and present, tradition and avant-garde; chronological barriers collapse, and the sounds roam free.