In Medieval times musicians were essentially court jesters—entertainers who performed music, told jokes, and did tricks to entertain the nobility or to make money at fairs and markets. But somewhere along the long and winding road of the Western music tradition, music became much more serious.
Fast forward to the 21st century, where opera houses and concert halls protect and preserve a canon of “serious” classical works. Audience members dress in suits and gowns, sit quietly in their seats, read expertly-crafted program notes, stick their noses in the air and, most importantly, never clap between movements.
Or at least, that’s how it feels sometimes. But the Spektral Quartet is here to dispel that classical concert-going stereotype and inject a little much-needed comic relief into the classical music realm.
Spektral’s new album, titled “Serious Business,” is anything but serious. The album comprises four different perspectives on humor through the lens of classical music, featuring three new works by living composers and one classic from that late, great father of the string quartet, Joseph Haydn.
But don’t let the lighthearted humor fool you—these guys are no classical music newbies. Comprised of violinists Clara Lyon and Austin Wulliman, violist Doyle Armbrust, and cellist Russell Rolen, the Spektral Quartet performs music from across the classical music spectrum. The group is committed to creating connections across the centuries and providing a discourse between the traditional classical canon and the, well, not-so-traditional contemporary classical canon.
“THIS ALBUM IS NOT FUNNY,” reads the first page of the album’s liner notes, in bold black and all caps. True, the music is not ha-ha funny per se—it’s not going to get you on the floor laughing, crying, or rolling around gut-busted and teary-eyed. But the music is, however, full of humor, tricks, subtle charm, and clever wit.
The first piece of “Serious Business,” composed by Sky Macklay, is not-so-subtly titled “Many, Many Cadences.” Suffice it to say, the piece has a lot, A LOT of cadences. Each instrument pings rapid-fire back and forth between the stratosphere and the lowest note in its pitch range, creating a twitchy, glitchy sound mass of tonal cadences clangoring up, down, sideways, and across like a pinball machine.
“Heaping nothing but cadences on top of one another is a little like an America’s Funniest Home Videos highlight reel of dads getting head-butted by waist-high toddlers,” violist Doyle Armbrust writes in the liner notes, “Which is to say, it’s all payoff.”
But that payoff doesn’t come easy—it takes a seriously talented group of string players to perform a tangled nine-minute mess of interwoven and overlapping melodic fragments, brain-frying base-jumps, and constant cadences.
Five short movements and some existential poetry comprise the next piece on the album, David Reminick’s “The Ancestral Mousetrap.” An absurdist macabre text by poet Russell Edson serves as the libretto for this musical phantasmagoria—and the string players themselves are the singers.
“The five-movement timbral kaleidoscope opens with a preposterous slide and ends with a scurry up the fingerboard,” Armbrust writes, “But for what happens in between, you are on your own.”
Yes, in between you are on your own in a thrilling and nightmarish hallucination of operatic horror, deranged pitch collections, melodic dissonance, asymmetrical meter, and the occasional four-part vocal harmony. In fact, it’s so unapologetically macabre that it borders on pulp—and therein lies the humor. But in all seriousness, the sheer skill it takes to perform a kaleidoscopic string quartet while also singing four-part harmonies is pretty incredible—and it’s on full display in this macabre musical mashup.
Spektral reels it back in with a performance of Haydn’s String Quartet Op. 33 No. 2, “The Joke.” From toying with key signatures to tongue-in-cheek codas and trap-door endings, this classic crowd favorite is filled with musical subversions to charm and amuse audiences—and Spektral doesn’t miss a beat. It’s a lighthearted homage to one of the greats, a charismatic and jovial joke reminding us classical music buffs never to take ourselves too seriously.
The album ends with a performance of Chris Fisher-Lochhead’s “Hack,” a sprawling 22-part piece composed on the transcribed vocal deliveries of standup comics. The source materials for each part vary in length from four seconds to three minutes, and the comics featured encompass a wide range of comedic styles and historical periods.
(Second Inversion was thrilled to present the video premiere of this gem a few weeks ago)
“Some are truculent, some are reflective,” Fisher-Lochhead said of the comedians. “Some use the stage as an arena for withering social critique, some for personal confession, some for ritualized transgression. Each section treats a single comedic bit by a single comedian; the source material is not always clearly foregrounded—it is often submerged, dissected, amplified, deconstructed, or otherwise transformed.”
The piece features impeccably nuanced string quartet transcriptions of 16 comedians ranging from Robin Williams to Sarah Silverman, Robert Pryor to Kumail Nanjiani, Dick Gregory to Sam Kinison. But here’s the funny thing: the piece removes the words from the formula of the joke, leaving us with just the humor of the comedic cadences.
It is sonic anarchy. “Hack” is an obstacle course of screeches, swoops, and sputters, breakneck tempos and unison outbursts, gauzy glissandi and meter changes. But for being a piece about comedy, it’s actually quite serious in scope and subject matter: it is an exploration into the music of American speech and the way that language, laughter, and music connects us all.
Because in the end, that’s what the entire album is about: finding the humor and charm in classical music, making a joke, sharing a smile, and maybe, just maybe, accidentally clapping between movements.