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Bridging Musical Languages with Tarek Yamani & Spektral Quartet

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

Listening Parties with Spektral Quartet & Tarek Yamani

On two consecutive evenings, the Spektral Quartet and Tarek Yamani opened up their creative process as they began their UMS Digital Artist Residency together. They shared music with each other — and our audiences — that has shaped their artistic backgrounds and formed their artistic identities.

Enjoy both listening party experiences on demand below, as well as our accompanying playlist on Apple Music & Spotify:

Apple Music logo  Spotify logo

Part 1

The Many Faces of the String Quartet

Featured Music:

Thomas Adès, Arcadiana, Op 12 (1994)
III. Auf dem Wasser zu singen
Performers: Danish String Quartet
Released on ECM Records, 2016
Available on: Spotify | Apple Music

Ruth Crawford Seeger, String Quartet (1931)
III. Andante
Performers: Spektral Quartet
Album: Experiments in Living
Released on New Focus Recordings, 2020
Available on: Spotify | Apple Music | YouTube

György Ligeti, String Quartet No. 2 (1968)
III. Come un meccanismo di precisione
Performers: Parker Quartet
Released on Naxos, 2009
Available on: Spotify | Apple Music 

Christopher Trapani, Isolario: Book of Known Islands
Book II: Mamoiada (2019)
Performers: Spektral Quartet w/ Max Bruckert, electronics
Live Concert Performance
Available on: Vimeo

Felipe Lara, Corde Vocale (2005)
Performers: Mivos Quartet
Album: Reappearances
Released on Carrier Records, 2013
Available on: Spotify | Apple Music | YouTube

Miguel Zenón, Milagrosa (2016)
Performers: Miguel Zenón and Spektral Quartet
Album: Yo Soy la Tradición
Released by Miel Music, 2018
Available on: Spotify | Apple Music | YouTube

Part 2

On Both Sides of the Quarter-Tone

Featured Music:

Al Qorbi Nasnas
Performer: Abu Bakr Salem
Album: unknown
Released: unknown
Available on: YouTube

Rashiq Al Qad
Performer: Ensemble Morkos
Album: Cedre – Arabo-Andalusian Muwashah
Released: 1999
Available on: YouTube

Huseini Saz Eseri
Performer: Goksel Baktagir (qanun) with Yurdal Tokcan (oud), Ozer Arkun (violin), Baki Kemanci (keman)
Album: Sounds from the Ocean
Released: Hayalgibi Müzik Yapım, 2000
Available on: Spotify | Apple Music | YouTube

Vent de la Montagne / Six Sous
Performer: Houria Aichi
Album: Hawa
Released: Auvidis, 1993
Available on: Spotify | Apple Music | YouTube

El Sira
Performer: Dina El Wedidi
Album: Turning Back
Released: Basement Records, 2016
Available on: Spotify | Apple Music | YouTube

Hala Land
Performer: Tarek Yamani, Elie Afif, Khaled Yassine, Wahid Mubarak
Album: Peninsular
Released: Edict Records, 2017
Available on: Spotify | Apple Music | YouTube

La Tinsani
Performer: Yousif Yaseen
Album: Visions
Released: 2016
Available on: Spotify | Apple Music| YouTube

Artist Spotlight: Why We Love Accordion, and You Should, Too

Editor’s note: UMS presents The Big Squeeze, an evening of accordion music of all sorts, at Hill Auditorium on November 1, 2014. Accordionist Julien Labro is not only part of the program but also a co-curator for the event. Read about what he loves about the accordion (and why you should too!) below.

Accordion close up
Photo: Up close with one of the Accordion Virtuosi of Russia, who’ll perform as part of The Big Squeeze, an evening of accordion music in Hill Auditorium. Photo courtesy of the artist.

Whether it is a boozy uncle insisting on playing it at family parties, or the distant nerdy cousin secluded in his bedroom, or a friend-of-a-friend, most of you know someone who has played the accordion. Yes, you read that right!

Indeed the theory of six degrees of separation will link you with the widely popular and multi-cultural accordion.

The accordion has always been a huge part of popular culture and is frequently the centerpiece of the folk music of that ethnicity. Whether you are Irish, French, Italian, German, Polish, Russian, Hungarian, Colombian, Brazilian, Argentinean, Dominican, Mexican, Jewish, Egyptian, Algerian, Lebanese, Persian, Indian, or Chinese, the accordion and its relative instruments dominate the musical landscape of that traditional music.

That’s why we’re so excited about The Big Squeeze, an evening during which we’ll explore the versatility of the accordion by travelling through different musical styles and genres representing various countries.

An extensive array of diverse accordions and their relatives will appear throughout the performance: the piano accordion, the bayan, the chromatic button accordion, the bandoneón, the accordina, the diatonic accordion, and the Anglo-concertina.

Accordion: A Brief History

Alexander Sevastian, who’ll perform as part of The Big Squeeze, plays Bach.

All of these instruments function under the same sonic principle: an airflow streaming across a free vibrating reed that resonates a tone based on its length. The first instrument known to have used this principle can be traced back to 3000 BCE in China with the scheng, an instrument made out of bamboo pipes set in a small wind-chamber into which a musician blows through a mouthpiece. Suspected to have journeyed to Europe during the 13th century, the scheng hardly faced any major adaptations until the Industrial Revolution. A closer predecessor of the modern accordion is arguably credited to Cyrill Damian, an Austrian instrument maker who patented the name in 1829. Naturally, the instrument wasn’t as developed as the ones you’ll hear at The Big Squeeze, but offered the general concept of the bellows sandwiched between two manuals.

At the turn of the 20th century, accordion manufacturers realized the extensive presence of the piano in American homes and salons. Consequently, they decided to seduce and target piano players with the accordion by offering piano keys in lieu of the traditional buttons on either side. Its convenient portability and comparative affordability contributed a great deal to its commercial success, which is the reason why the majority of the population familiar with the accordion recognizes it with a piano keyboard on its right side. However, the rest of the world adopted the initial concept of an all-button instrument as the primary blueprint for the accordion.

The Big Squeeze: An Accordion for Every Taste

In Russia, the bayan, a high-tech button accordion, became one of the centerpieces of traditional folk music. Its gigantic typewriter appearance allows for limitless technical dexterity and its distinctive sound emulates that of a pipe organ. The Accordion Virtuosi of Russia will perform exquisite arrangements of popular Russian folk songs and some staples of classical music that will feature both piano accordions and bayans. Alexander Sevastian, who also hails from Russia, will demonstrate some of the finest technical dexterity and subtleties performed on bayan.

Julien Labro performs with Spektral Quartet

Similar to the bayan in shape and size, I will perform on the chromatic button accordion, whose concept is close to its Russian relative, but its keyboard layout and timbre very different. The chromatic button accordion is the most popular type of accordion found in Europe. Also European in its conception, I will introduce you to a German instrument conceived to replace pipe organs in underprivileged parishes, the bandoneón. Invented and named after Heinrich Band, the bandoneón is much smaller in shape than its cousin, the accordion. Although the principle of the vibrating free reed remains, you will notice a deeper, more mournful, and melancholic sound produced by this instrument. These sonic qualities staged the instrument to become the soul of the Argentinean popular music: the tango.

Additionally, I will present the accordina, which could be described as a hybrid between a harmonica and a chromatic button accordion. The accordina, invented by André Borel, can be traced back to the early 1930s in France; it borrows its free reeds and its button keyboard from the chromatic button accordion and inherits the harmonica’s breathy quality which it expresses through a mouthpiece.

John Williams will transport us to Ireland and remind us that we don’t need to be waiting for March 17 to sip a room-temperature Guinness. He’ll perform on two different types of accordion that are primary instruments found in Irish traditional music: the diatonic accordion and the Anglo-concertina. The diatonic accordion is small and offers two or three rows of buttons. Each row is tuned to a specific tonality and only offers notes that belong to that tonal center. Most of the diatonic instruments are generally in only one or two keys, so players tend to own several instruments in order to perform throughout all key signatures. It is also interesting to note that each button on these types of instruments produce different pitches according to the bellows’ direction. Hexagonally shaped, the Anglo-concertina is one of the smallest members of the accordion family. Like the diatonic accordion, one single button offers two notes depending on the bellowing. Its timbre is unlike any of its relatives, more nasal and enigmatic; it fits dreamily in some of the classic Irish ballads.

On behalf of the entire UMS team, I sincerely hope that you join us for this program which reveals some of the existing types of diverse accordions found throughout various musical styles and cultures. Hopefully the evening’s program will shed light on some of the musical versatility that the instrument has to offer beyond what you may have experienced from the boozy uncle and the distant, nerdy, secluded cousin.

And if by time you read this, you haven’t found six degrees of separation between you and someone you know who has played the accordion, a simple Facebook “friend request” to any one of us will do the trick.

Interested in more? We asked Julien Labro what he’s been listening to lately. Listen along to his playlist.