Name: Spektral Quartet
Members: Clara Lyon (violin), Maeve Feinberg (violin), Doyle Armbrust (viola), Russell Rolen (cello)
Interviewee: Clara Lyon
Current Release: Experiments in Living on New Focus Recordings
Recommendations: Theaster Gates, Civil Tapestry series
Adrienne Maree Brown, Emergent Strategy
If you enjoyed this interview with the Spektral Quartet, visit their excellent website, which offers just about everything you ever wanted to know about them.
When did you start playing your instrument, and what or who were your early passions and influences? What is it about music and/or sound that drew you to it?
I started playing violin sometime between ages 3 and 4. My parents are both musicians (violinist and cellist) and most of their friends were musicians so any adults I interacted with as a child with were always making music in some way. Live music was always a part of our life, whether that meant attending a concert together - often watching my parents onstage - or singing while I played outside. I sang all the time while I was going about my day until I was about 5 or 6. Other than the singing I was a pretty quiet kid who could sit still, and my parents took me to a lot of concerts at a really young age. I don’t think there was any separation in my head about music that was for yourself or a more formalised music for other people.
My parents would often play on their instruments the songs that they made up for me. Their voices, and their musical voices on their instruments always sounded like who they were as people, and that is still true. I think I knew pretty early on that music had many uses, and that it was useful, and I liked that. Music to wake up to, music to sing together, music to cook to, music to sing to yourself while you work, music to dance to, music to say goodnight to, and music to sit still and listen deeply to and breathe with. I think the ideas of music and sound being connected to a person, and the opportunity for music to be useful on a daily basis, are what attracted me to it initially and also what has sustained my interest.
For most artists, originality is first preceded by a phase of learning and, often, emulating others. What was this like for you? How would you describe your own development as an artist and the transition towards your own voice? What is the relationship between copying, learning and your own creativity?
I am a firm believer in listening for inspiration. Not as a form of copying, but as a way to develop your own likes and dislikes, to notice and name more clearly what it is that grabs you, and what it is that falls flat. Every once in a while, you might have that “holy shit” moment, when you hear/see a performer just totally transcend some threshold you didn’t even know was there. That makes your ears grow. When your ears grow, your technique and your ability to get closer to expressing what it is you want to express will follow.
As a young kid, I think a lot of my listening was about finding inspiration for sound quality and tonal color. These days, I am so interested in how other musicians create, inhabit, and contend with formal structure. Listening to great improvisers and watching dancers inspires me to think deeply about a performer’s freedom in relation to music that is completely notated, and is an important step to finding my own sense of freedom inside these forms (usually) created by someone else. When I know my mental path from beginning to end of a piece so deeply that I can be present and free in my body the entire way, I know that I’ve found my voice for a particular piece that I’m working on.
What were some of your main artistic challenges when starting out as an artist and in which way have they changed over the years?
Developing my voice and feeling confident in it was a huge challenge for me. When I was a student, working within the confines of school environments was both invigorating and an enormous source of frustration. These environments particular to the Western Classical music education system tend to reward a certain kind of competitive spirit, and have been slow to wake up to the enormous creative potential of transdisciplinary models. In the early 2000s when I went to school, there were many fewer role models available who were carving out career paths that deviated from the paths of soloist, orchestral musician, or historically focused chamber ensemble – or at least I wasn’t exposed to them for a while. The confines of a music conservatory environment can make you feel like in order to succeed, you have to sound just like the people who are winning one of a few major string instrument competitions or auditions, which tend to focus on the most limited slice of musical repertoire. It’s not the most conducive place to finding your voice and it can feel really alienating. I was enormously lucky to always have individual teachers within this larger system who encouraged me to dream and imagine and think outside the box. My voice wasn’t swallowed because of them.
It’s not hyperbole to say that these days, a large part of my career is composed of the very things that I either wasn’t exposed to, or was getting in trouble for, as a student. My voice was there all along, but the process of coming into contact with musical communities who have value systems very different from that early 2000s conservatory model has allowed me to come into that voice and own it.
Tell us about your studio/work space, please. What were criteria when setting it up and how does this environment influence the creative process? How important, relatively speaking, are factors like mood, ergonomics, haptics and technology for you?
A couple of years ago, I moved into a beautiful new apartment where I had the ability to set up a studio for the first time. I had dreamt about setting up my own practice space for years: to suddenly have this dream made possible was a game changer.
It was important for me to have it feel both warm, and somewhat neutral. The walls are a gorgeous sunset orange color so it always feels cozy, even in the midst of a cold Chicago winter, because I can’t think well when I’m cold. Spektral has some amazing concert posters and prints, but I don’t tend to put up those sorts of things in my studio space because I don’t like having any references that are too specific to things that have already happened. It’s important to me to have this space invoke creativity that looks forward. It feels more generative that way. I have a painting that looks like a dream sequence, some drawings I’ve done on the walls, and glow-in-the-dark stars on the ceiling that the previous tenants put up and I love. I have a large mirror so I can watch myself play when I want to, and I try to keep out a notebook handy in case any good ideas come my way while I’m playing. Usually those ideas are more like “don’t forget to buy coffee” though. When I go to practice, I also usually try to put away my phone and prefer using an analog wall clock to keep myself on task.
Tell me about your instrument, please. What was your first instrument like and how did you progress to your current one? How would you describe the relationship with it? What are its most important qualities and how do they influence the musical results, including your own performance?
My instrument now is the first non-student, full size instrument I ever had. It belonged to my Dad and used to be his first violin teacher’s instrument. My Dad bought it from the teacher’s widow and I used to visit and play it for her every few years. It’s a very unusual instrument…
Most violins have a label inside that tells who made it: this instrument has a fake one. All of the fine instrument historians I have met agree that the name on the label is not who made it, but it’s never been properly identified. The most I know about it is that it was probably made between 1790 and 1830, in either Mirecourt, France, or Turin, Italy. It has some characteristics of violins made in both of these places during that time period.
I’ve had the ability to borrow other fine instruments, sometimes for the period of several years, and these experiences have taught me a lot about other colors to try to find on my instrument. At the end of the day though I always come back to mine, because there are a couple of colors there that I haven’t found on other instruments. It also has its idiosyncrasies though: it’s got a large frame for a violin so playing in certain registers is not as easy as it could be. Also, the top was quite damaged somewhere earlier in its life span and it requires a lot of low maintenance, consistent upkeep to keep it sounding it’s best.
Could you take us through a day in your life, from a possible morning routine through to your work? Do you have a fixed schedule? How do music and other aspects of your life feed back into each other - do you separate them or instead try to make them blend seamlessly?
This question feels so difficult right now, since so many of us are away from our routines or are actively crafting new ones. This is my routine as it has been the last few months, not as it might be at other times...
It’s important to me to be outside as soon as I can every day. Usually my day begins early, with some kind of stretching and then a run. I feed off the energy from this for the rest of the day. It’s also important to me to spend time outside each day that is totally aimless. I usually try to do that in the evening before dinner. There is a saying that I think comes from the philosopher St. Augustine “Solvitur ambulando,” but I found it in Lewis Carroll. Translated its essence is “it is solved by walking.” You might find what you seek at the end of your journey or you might work on it, concretely or abstractly, along the way. Walking is always a way to work on yourself and how you exist in the world, and it’s something I value very much.
In between time outside are hours of emails and meetings. I work on Spektral’s programming, so I spend a lot of time in meeting and planning mode: working with our management to establish and maintain relationships with music presenters, composers, collaborators, and community partners. I try to spend a few hours each day doing something creative. These days that is not always playing my instrument: it might be writing, drawing, listening, reading, walking-anything that gets me back in touch with my creative self. The truth is that I have not always been motivated to practice my instrument during this pandemic, and I think that’s ok. There have been a lot of other vitally important things going on that we need to be attuned to, and I’m trying to focus any remaining energy on staying motivated to be inspired, period.
Could you describe your creative process on the basis of a piece or album that's particularly dear to you, please? Where did the ideas come from, how were they transformed in your mind, what did you start with and how do you refine these beginnings into the finished work of art?
Let’s take the Brahms Quartet as an example. When I first started studying it, I played through the piece and listened to a lot of recordings to help me get a sense of what tempo and flow I liked. Early on, I also did a some research to try to understand what was going on in Brahms’s life and in the world around him at the time he wrote this piece. Things like reading his letters, and finding out what books he liked or art he admired was useful to me, because it helped me paint a picture in my head of an entire person.
I also studied the score to know how my part lines up with everyone else’s at all times. I thought about the musical rhetoric as informed by what I knew about the piece and the composer, and what I see on the page. I try to get a sense about what each gesture is doing, how the piece flows and is connected to itself.
Somewhere around now is when I got down to brass tacks and started learning notes in earnest. I experiment with character as I learn the notes and continue to hone my interpretation of gestures. I will work away from my instrument sometimes to do this: singing and dancing the music to give me a better sense of the heart of what the music is saying. The last step, the polishing process involves some amount of practicing performing: whether that’s just recording yourself and listening back or setting up small opportunities to play for people before you take it onstage.
Of course, the process is very different when you are working with a living composer. You can just ask them questions and workshop sounds in real time! Performing historical music requires real detective work: I find the process of learning new music often gets to the heart of the matter more quickly.