SPEKTRAL QUARTET: SERIOUS BUSINESS / by Doyle Armbrust

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 more often than not, 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.

Serious Business comprises four different perspectives on humor through the lens of classical music – a flavor of music that could use a little more funny, in general. You, dear listener, won’t be popping in this CD in the way you would a Louis C.K. special. This is an album about what makes something funny, and more importantly, a collection of music we think is brilliant, and clever, and unequivocally worth entering the cave for.

We met Sky Macklay during our week-long residency at The Walden School in New Hampshire – a bucolic retreat we occasionally threaten to move to and illegally homestead – eager to workshop and perform her Many Many Cadences, and also sporting emotional subdural hematoma from the preparation of it. Here you have each instrument base-jumping from the upper reaches of their range, pinging rapid-fire, tonal cadences all the way down in rhythmic unison, only to scramble back up for another adrenaline fix. 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…which is to say, all payoff.

The absurdist, existential horrors found in the verse of American poet Russell Edson provide the libretto for Dave Reminick’s stunner, The Ancestral Mousetrap. Yeppers, you read that right: libretto. Amidst the staves of this often hyper-kinetic writing lie vocal passages – the usual stuff, to do with taking a decaying corpse out for a night on the town or becoming the porridge one is slurping for breakfast – which compel the players to sing in four part harmony or as fragmented solos against their own instrumental lines. As the lead singer of the punk outfit Paper Mice, Dave is one of the fastest thinkers and imaginative writers we know, and here we get a flavor of the asymmetrical beats and deranged pitch collections he summons when assaulting a Gibson SG and a microphone. This five-movement timbral kaleidoscope opens with a preposterous slide and ends with a scurry up the fingerboard, but for what happens in between, you are on your own. In the immortal words of Ira Glass, sensitive listeners or those with young children in the room may want to turn the dial for the next few minutes.

Josef Haydn dedicated his String Quartet Op. 33 No. 2, “The Joke” to the Grand Duke and Duchess of Russia (this Grove Dictionary of Music is smudged, but their names appear to be Rod and Trish), and one can only speculate how the schmaltzy glissandi of the second movement Scherzo would have played in this rarefied environment. Was he lampooning some over-zealous violinist at court, perhaps? The real zinger here, though, arrives with the final movement. Some 235 years later, these trap-door endings of the lively Presto continue to con audiences into premature applause and stifled laughter.

Chris Fisher-Lochhead’s Hack was the launch point for this project, a compositional venture that is astonishing in scope...and nerve. If the piece were limited to Chris’s transcriptions of comedians’ bits, down to the tiniest rhythmic level and variation in pitch, we’d still be shuddering at the incomprehensible amount of time and myopic listening involved to get the piece on the page. Lay these scores, with their elusive meter changes, pinpointed metronome markings, and fluid pitch collections on top of the stand-up’s original audio, and in the majority of cases (some are fully abstracted), you have a nuanced, impeccable graph of the cadence and delivery of 16 comedians ranging from Lenny Bruce to Kumail Nanjiani. Hack is so much more than just a detailed transcription, though. The near-monotone of Tig Notaro is transformed into gauzy glissandi, resting on dead-sexy jazz chords and the manic vocal gallop of Robin Williams digging on the Chardonnay-swilling Swiss Army becomes a series of berserker, unison outbursts. Richard Pryor, overflowing with love for his fellow man emerges as a tender chorus and then takes a hard left turn as a renaissance dance, as viewed from a UFO. In each case, whether it’s Sarah Silverman riffing on birth control, Dick Gregory deriding Chicago politics, or Sam Kinison trumpeting in his pterodactyl vocal register, this 22-movement collection removes words from the formula of the joke, leaving us all to wrestle with – and marvel at – the sounds and cadences of The Funny.

-Doyle Armbrust