Since it began four years ago, the Music Academy’s annual Alumni Enterprise Awards Program (AEA) has been supporting alums who are making a difference in their fields. Funding innovative endeavors in areas including artistic expression, audience development, education, community engagement, social justice, and technology, the AEA awards offer grants ranging from $2,500 to $20,000. So far, 26 alumni have been awarded $320,000 to support their winning projects.
Clara Lyon, violin (’03, ’04) and Doyle Armbrust, viola (’01, ’03) of the Spektral Quartet were some of several 2020 AEA winners for their project Enigma. Enigma is an immersive, 360-degree visual album featuring the music of composer Anna Thorvaldsdottir and the visual work of video artist Sigurdur Gudjonsson. A 360-degree dome video will be adapted for personal viewing devices such as VR headset.
Spektral Quartet recently headlined an online event held for supporters of the Music Academy, wherein they both performed parts of Thorvaldsdottir’s Enigma and spoke with attendees about the progress of their AEA project. This week Clara and Doyle are participating in the Music Academy’s Innovation Residential, an online educational incubator and mentorship opportunity for recipients of the Academy’s AEA and Fast Pitch Awards that further expands leadership possibilities for their projects and careers.
The Enigma update below comes courtesy of Doyle Armbrust, who pulls back the curtain on the recording process and how the pandemic has affected the project. Clara and Doyle were also kind enough to provide a special Spektral Quartet curated playlist. They describe first six tracks as representing “Spektral Collaborators That Are Inspiring Us Right Now” and include works by Lebanese-American composer and jazz pianist Tarek Yamani; Haitian-American composer, flutist, and vocalist Nathalie Joachim; Puerto Rican composer and saxophonist Miguel Zenón; New York-based Australian vocalist Charmaine Lee; American composer and pianist Anthony Cheung; and American composer and cellist Tomeka Reid. The final five tracks are “Perrenial Spektral Road Trip Tunes,” inviting us all to join sonically them on the 644-mile road trip described below.
ENIGMA – THE INSIDER’S GUIDE
All of our most successful collaborations eventually move beyond a professional arrangement and into a genuine friendship (if they didn’t start that way to begin with!). We were lucky, then, to have flown Anna from London to Chicago to workshop Enigma at the Adler Planetarium in the…before-times. There is no technology available that can replicate the bond that develops between a composer and an ensemble when they have to brave downtown parking together, transition from awkward handshakes to meaningful hugs, or simply breathe the same air in a rehearsal.
Similarly, with the exception of a single, distanced/masked meet-up in an empty park, the four of us had not occupied the same space in over seven months by the time we began planning to rent a van to venture south and record Enigma inside a brawny stone church in Winchester, Virginia. Our road trips tend to spin into a menagerie of “What if…” discussions, love/hate playlists, and impromptu meetings, but primarily this trip became an opportunity to reconnect after months of appearing as head/shoulder combos over Zoom.
As you know, we prioritize inviting curious listeners into our process, so before alighting in the Hertz Spektral Wagon, we hosted an interactive open rehearsal online for our friends and fans. Because of the impossibility of performing in-person before the recording session – a necessity for zeroing in on our interpretation of a piece before getting in front of the mics – this lively hour provided a much-needed dose of motivation and inspiration in the lead up to our journey south.
644 miles and several packages of Haribo Gummy Bears later, we steered our van into an impossibly long gravel drive under a sky uninterrupted by human illumination. Here we should pause to say that we had been apprised that our lodgings were unusual, but what we encountered was a prodigious estate…the kind that inspires you to instinctively shout, “Release the hounds!”
This narrative is meant to focus on the music, though, so let’s just leave it at 1) In the salon of this magnificent villa we discovered first-edition printings of, say, Rameau’s Treatise on Harmony (1722), 2) We became friendly with a literal war horse, and 3) We slept the sleep of the just in this quiet, idyllic landscape.
You may recall that Sono Luminus is the label on which we recorded our GRAMMY nominated album, Serious Business. Returning to this retro-fitted church, with its dubious tuck pointing and sumptuous acoustic was a homecoming, but the real premium was working with the exceptional Duo of Dans: producer Dan Mercurio and engineer Dan Shores. These two have released some of the most stupefyingly gorgeous recordings we’ve ever heard, with 9 GRAMMY nominations and 1 win between them, and if we ever hit the Powerball we plan to put them on permanent retainer.
The mic tree is really something to behold.
The Dans record in 9.1 surround sound, and even if one doesn’t have such a system at home, the sheer breadth of the soundstage is more immense than anything you’ve likely ever heard. And this is a little inside-baseball, but producer Dan Mercurio has a magical ability to let you know when you’ve “got it” and it’s time to move on to the next take. It cannot be overstated how empowering this is when you’re on the clock and adamant that your best material is in the can.
Speaking frankly, we trend towards the…optimistic…when it comes to estimating how much time we need to record. In this particular case, giving ourselves a day on the ground to rehearse and then two days to capture, we finally latched up our cases and pushed open the studio door for the final time with a certainty that we had laid down our very best version of Enigma.
For those of you reading that were hoping for a tight synopsis, our apologies. You’ll forgive us if we are a bit enthusiastic and loquacious about our experience in Virginia, but as we approach the one-year anniversary of stages going dark, this interlude was restorative for the four of us.
There are many logistic and practical items to discuss as the smog of this pandemic clears, but in the meantime, we want to offer you our unfettered gratitude for continuing to be a cornerstone of Enigma, a true inflection point for our ensemble that continues to light us up in these turbulent times.
– Doyle Armbrust (’01, ’03) on behalf of Spektral Quartet