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August 5, 2021

Bridging Musical Languages with Tarek Yamani & Spektral Quartet

Sammy Sussman
By Sammy Sussman

Tarek Yamani & Spektral Quartet

The collaboration between the Chicago-based Spektral Quartet and Lebanese-American pianist/composer Tarek Yamani began as a conversation. Doyle Armbrust, Spektral’s violist, frequently writes program notes for UMS concerts. After UMS senior programming manager Mark Jacobson met Tarek in New York City, he immediately put Yamani and Armbrust in touch leading up to a scheduled March 2021 UMS concert with Tarek’s trio.

“Mark got in touch and said, ‘There’s this artist that I feel like you have to interview,’” Armbrust recalled. “‘Just for yourself, you need to talk to him.’”

Yamani and Spektral’s musical languages are quite different. Yamani is a pianist; his music exists at the intersection between classical Arab music idioms—microtones, idiomatic rhythmic patterns—and contemporary small-ensemble jazz. Spektral’s musical language spans the history of the string quartet with a particular emphasis on modern works by living composers and collaborators.

In an interview, Armbrust explained that he knew little of Yamani’s music before their first conversation. But like any good interviewer, he began listening to as much of Yamani’s music as possible. He was blown away by what he found.

“I was just completely floored and dumbfounded and amazed,” Armbrust said. “Where has this music been all my life?”

Armbrust’s first conversation with Yamani ended up lasting around two hours. He struggled to reduce the conversation down to a 1,500-word article.

“I think I was up at 5:00 AM to reach him at the time he was available in Berlin,” Armbrust said, “and we just had the most amazing conversation.”

Though Yamani’s planned UMS debut was canceled because of the pandemic—UMS published Armbrust’s fascinating interview with Yamani the same week that performing arts organizations around the globe came to a screeching halt—UMS soon approached Yamani and the Spektral Quartet with the idea of a collaborative digital residency.

Armbrust was intrigued by the idea. As he introduced the rest of the Spektral Quartet to Yamani’s music, Yamani began exploring Spektral’s recordings.

“There’s a certain kind of energy that I felt,” Yamani said, “as I learned about the four of them. It’s somewhere now in the back of my head.”

Yamani remembered thinking about the creative possibilities for this unique collaboration.

“I kinda felt like the sky’s the limit in terms of how far I could go with them because that’s the impression I got,” Yamani said. “The precision, the energy that’s there… it wouldn’t be the same writing for anyone else.”

Everyone was excited by the idea of the collaboration, Armbrust said, and initial conversations between the artists soon morphed into an official UMS Digital Artist Residency.

“We like being outside of our comfort zone and this is definitely new territory for us,” Armbrust said. “It’s just kind of a perfect fit collaboratively for us.”

This digital residency will be Yamani’s first experience writing for string quartet. It will also be Spektral’s first experience working with the specific microtonal tuning system that Yamani has chosen for the pieces. But to all involved, this evening-length commissioned program presents an exciting opportunity to explore a new musical form.

“Part of the challenge is going to be making it feel really fresh and spontaneous and not like a very studied or academic performance,” Armbrust said. “We’re trying to really get some of these tunings in our bones.”

“Usually in jazz, you put the chord symbols. You don’t have to specify who plays what,” Yamani said. “But after a month this became really fun because it’s like, okay, now I understand. There’s a habit that’s become part of me.”

Speaking of some of Spektral Quartet’s previous collaborations, cellist Russell Rolen described the first stage of the process: listening to the collaborator’s music. He believes that a new music language can be built from there.

“We did do a lot of listening to each other’s music at some point so it’s not a complete throwing a dart at a wall kind of situation,” Rolen said. “We’re going to find some stuff that works and we’re going to find some stuff that doesn’t…. That’s going be where the vitality of the project comes in.”

Maeve Feinberg, one of Spektral’s violinists, spoke of the project in sweeping terms.

“This idea of exploring new musical languages and increasing the availability of different musical styles to more and more people,” Feinberg said. “I don’t think that there is a string quartet or a string quartet and keyboard piece out there that at all resembles what we’re building together.”

Towards the end of our group interview, Yamani described to Spektral an idea that he briefly explored at the beginning of the process. Though he didn’t end up moving forward with the concept, I could see the creative energy begin to flow as Spektral digested Yamani’s concept.

“I was planning to write like two different or three different solos that you could choose,” Yamani said. “I just got this vision that because we’re using iPads, you turn the page and one of these new solos pops up. And you’re just like, ‘Oh no, it’s option four!’ I was hoping it would be random.”

“Oh, wow,” Armbrust responded. “That’s cool … and also kind of my worst nightmare.”

“Definitely don’t hold back, Tarek,” Rolen added.

Spektral received the final notated music from Yamani this past spring. They plan on rehearsing digitally with Yamani and then working with him in person in Chicago soon before the digital world premiere. And despite the many hours that they’ve put into the collaboration, everyone involved seems just as excited as they were when Yamani and Armbrust first spoke.

“When you come hear it, you’re just gonna be like, ‘Where has this music been all my life?’ Rolen said. “It’s just something super cool.”

“I hope, especially now that people are so eager to just get back in a room together, that it will engender some enhanced curiosity on people’s parts to check out new things,” Clara Lyon, Spektral’s other violinist, said. “I hope people try things outside their wheelhouse.”

“UMS’s support right now is so important,” Yamani said, “especially when things are so shaky. We’re crossing our fingers that the excitement is justified. But I guess we’ll see what ends up happening.”

Join our digital world premiere event with Tarek Yamani and the Spektral Quartet on Wednesday, October 27, including the new four-movement suite and three shorter pieces Yamani composed for string quartet and keyboards.

This program is co-commissioned by University Musical Society of the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, and the Abu Dhabi Music & Arts Foundation, Ltd. Additional support is provided by the Arab American National Museum through a grant from The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation.

Sign up for our Digital Presentations email for a reminder once the program is available.

About the Author

Sammy Sussman is a composer, bassist and investigative reporter from Bedford Hills, NY. A former 21st Century Artist intern, Sammy is currently interning for the Investigative Reporting Workshop. This fall, Sammy will be a senior composition major in the School of Music, Theatre & Dance. He will also finish his term as 2021 editor of The Michigan Daily‘s investigative reporting team.  |  Twitter: @Sammy_Sussman