Spektral Quartet's 'Chambers' Conveys a Vintage Sheen

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New Yorkers should brace themselves for a pang of envy. Listening to "Chambers," the inaugural release from both the Spektral Quartet and their fellow Chicagoans at the Parlour Tapes+ label, one could hardly imagine a more promising debut from either.

Here's another one of those brief glimpses the rest of the country is periodically afforded into to the first-rate new-music scene of the so-called Second City, and the sheer rigor and vision of the musicianship it offers is painfully tantalizing.

The conceit of the Parlour Tapes+ project is fairly absurd. They bill themselves as "Chicago's First Contemporary Art Music Tape Label," and yes, they have, in fact, released this album on the defunct cassette tape format in addition to the now-usual digital download. But it's impossible to begrudge them their gimmick when it's bringing attention to hometown composers this lively and varied: Marcos Balter, Eliza Brown, Chris Fisher-Lochhead, Ben Hjertmann, Han Thomalla and Liza White.

The bold severity of works like Balter's title piece, with its ghostly, insistent pulses, and Thomalla's Albumblatt, with sonic gestures ranging from whisper to siren alarm, dare the listener to regard these white-knuckle outings as abstract exercises in pure form. Hjertemann's String Quartet No. 2, "Etude," chugs along with rock-inspired strumming, while Brown's String Quartet No. 1 flirts with moments of rich tonal expression. The Spektrals manage to take us to all of these points on the musical compass and cover all the territory in between.

Come to think of it, the cassette tape medium is actually ideal for this sort of music: there's a kind of urgent intimacy only a recital this original, varied and intense can produce. This isn't an album to be pulled off the shelf and listened to every once in a while; it's an album to be pressed into somebody else's palm with a, "You've got to hear this."

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