Spektral Quartet talks Grammys, “Fanm D’Ayiti”


Source: Jocelyn Chuang

Spektral Quartet. The group was nominated for their 4th Grammy for their album “Fanm d’Ayiti.”

Wilson Chapman, Arts & Entertainment Editor

This is the third and final installment in a series of profiles of Northwestern alumni nominated at the 62nd Annual Grammy Awards.

When Doyle Armbrust (Master’s Bienen ‘00) learned he was nominated for a Grammy Award this year, the first thought that crossed his mind was “finally, I get to see Lizzo perform live.”

Armbrust is a violist in Spektral Quartet, a Chicago-based string quartet that has been active since 2009. The group plays a variety of work, from classics to original work commissioned by other artists. The group received a Grammy nomination this year in the category of best world music album for “Fanm d’Ayiti,” which they worked on with Haitain-American artist Nathalie Joachim. This is the fourth nomination the group has received, following nominations in 2017 and two nominations in 2019, one for the separate Latin Grammy Awards.

“It’s certainly nice to be recognized when you play sort of a fringe type of music that’s not that popular,” Armbrust said. “The best thing about it is that it makes a wider group of people aware of what it is that we’re doing. More so than flying out to L.A and going on the red carpet, which is a lot of fun. Really, it’s a chance to reach a wider audience. And getting to see an artist like Lizzo, who I’m totally enamored with, totally makes the trip worthwhile.”

Cellist Russell Rolen (Bienen doctorate ‘12) said the group formed in 2009 when he started collaborating with one of his friends from graduate school as well as Armbrust and another musician in the Chicago music gig scene. The Quartet started as a fun project, as the members would have sessions in their apartments once or twice a week. The group became interested in working more professionally, eventually performing at a music series hosted at DePaul University for their first concerts. In 2012, the group would become artists-in-residence at the University of Chicago. The other founding members outside of Rolen and Armbrust would eventually leave the group, with violinists Clara Lyon and Maeve Feinberg joining later on.

Rolen said the albums the group have been nominated for have varied widely in genre and tone, benefitting the diverse nature of the group’s range. Their first nominated album, “Serious Business” in 2017, was a collection of string quartet songs that each had an element of humor, poking fun at the self-serious reputation of classical music. Last year, the Quartet was nominated at the Grammys and the Latin Grammys for their featured role on acclaimed Puerto Rican musician Miguel Zenón’s album “Yo Soy La Tradición.” Rolen described the collaboration as a rewarding experiment for the group, who were stretched outside their comfort zone working in the Puerto Rican Latin jazz tradition.

For “Fanm d’Ayiti,” Spektral again collaborated with a solo artist who wrote an entire suite of music, Nathalie Joachim. The album, titled Haitian for “Women of Haiti,” blends Haitian folk with classical string quartet with electronic beats. According to Armbrust, the album is very personal for Joachim, who was inspired to write it by the death of her grandmother, who was an important influence on her decision to pursue music. Rolen said, in the creation of “Fanm d’Ayiti” and the other albums the group records with outside composers, their primary goal is to support and fulfill the artistic vision of their collaborators.

“It’s always fun and interesting to follow a composer to get where they want to go, and to put ourselves in the service of that,” Rolen said. “(Nathalie) sort of defines our role in the piece, and we are happy to lend our expertise and to be excited and enriched by what she brought to the project.”

Besides touring “Fanm d’Ayiti,” Feinberg said Spektral is currently working on multiple other upcoming projects. The group is practicing a quartet commissioned by Icelandic composer Anna Thorvaldsdottir that is paired with video art that can be formatted to fit a 360 degree dome theater. The project will debut at the Adler Planetarium in June. In addition, the quartet is recording a song cycle written by Alex Temple, that they will be working with indie singer Julia Holter on.

Feinberg said they think Spektral is a unique group due to its willingness to explore genres and multimedia elements, and stretch the limitations of what quartet music can be. Although classical music can be alienating to people who weren’t “groomed into it,” Feinberg said the experimentation of Spektral allows the group to appeal to new audiences who lack that formal training.

“It’s very genuine to our character and our personality as a group,” they said. “We take the music very seriously, and we hold ourselves to a high standard, but I think we’re very irreverent people, and we like creating concert scenarios that aren’t this stiff formal, ‘you walk in, sit down, people bow and you clap’ We’re trying to create experiences that are more communal.”

A previous version of this article misspelled Spektral Quartet member Doyle Armbrust’s name. It has been corrected. The Daily regrets the error.

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