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How we taught babies to love Thomas Ades and Elliott Carter

We got very excited last week about Chicago’s innovative new-music-with-creche free concerts. So we asked Doyle Armbrust (@DoyleArmbrust), violist of Spektral Quartet, to sent in a live report of the debut event. And what an event it seems to have been…

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Three-year-olds love Elliott Carter…at least the 3-year-olds found scurrying beneath the iconic Tiffany dome of Preston Bradley Hall on Friday morning. Chicago’s Department of Cultural Affairs and Special Events (DCASE) has launched a fresh new series with the intention of immersing toddlers and their caregivers in contemporary music, dance and theatre, cleverly titled “Juicebox,” and Spektral Quartet is thrilled to have been the lead-off ensemble. We are also still wiping Cheerios dust off our strings.

What seems clear to DCASE, and certainly to our quartet, is that listeners have to be taught to bristle or sneer at certain flavors of music. Take Carter’s Quartet No. 2, which tends to elicit some of the more emphatic responses, from ecstatic to cynical, from our audiences. We’ve developed larger-than-life character descriptions for each instrument’s role, a self-composed play synopsis for the movements, and had open conversations with each other about the piece in front of the audience prior to performing it in an effort to create a foothold for first-time listeners. This has been encouragingly successful. On the other hand, tell toddlers, “This piece is awesome,” play it with gusto, and their response is, “THIS PIECE IS AWESOME!”

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For our Juicebox debut, Spektral excerpted Thomas Adès’s Arcadiana, Hans Thomalla’s Albumblatt, and Marcos Balter’s Chambers in addition to the Carter. With the help of Spektral violinist Austin Wulliman’s mother Phyllis, who translated our ideas into Toddler, we approached each composer as an explorer. Adès explores the alchemy of painting into sound: parents here rocked with their children back and forth during the fog-veiled gondola ride of Arcadiana‘s first movement. Thomalla explores the sounds around him in everyday life: violinist Aurelien plays the bariolage measures, likening it to an ambulance siren, and dozens of tiny eyes widen. Balter explores the world as if through a microscope: Phyllis encourages the children to look skyward, and has them pick out a tiny snowflake from among the myriad details of the brilliant, colored glass dome. Finally, the fourth movement and conclusion of Carter’s each-instrument-as-independent-character masterpiece is introduced as four people all talking simultaneously, not listening to each other until the second violin reins in the proceedings and restores order. After all, what’s a kid’s concert without an under-the-radar morality lesson?

At a concert of Mozart for (primarily) septua- and octogenarians the previous evening, one well-intentioned but concerned gentleman asked, “Tonight you’re playing for an enthusiastic group of old people who love this music. Who comes to your other shows?” Spektral Quartet has been focused on breaking the fourth wall since its inception, commandeering bars as performance spaces and experimenting with seating the audience up-close, encircling the quartet. We’ve also prioritized playing works by emerging and local composers, so we were able to respond confidently that our audience is young and open-eared.

 

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Ultimately, it can be distilled down to this: bypassing the need for “un-learning” preconceptions about new music is why the Juicebox series is a powerful artistic venture, and one we will continue to support.

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Let’s have more of this, please…

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Comments

  1. Thanks so much for this, Norman. These are some of the best guys I know, and they play like a dream. I really hope you get to hear them soon.

  2. That is so nice! I hope it inspires Brazilian contemporary ensembles and institutions to do the same :-)

  3. George King says:

    We have a severely disabled son (mentally and physically) who simply hasn’t been ‘taught’ that modern music is ‘difficult’, and just loves a huge range of music up to Saariaho, Adams, Ades, jazz and many others (but doesn’t react much to pop music). Real music education can never start too early.

  4. Seriously cool! Love the photos of the kids up close exploring the instruments too…

  5. ken scott says:

    Wonderful. Thank you.

  6. Bravo Spektral Quartet!!!! This is a fabulous 21st century model to be followed for arts education.

  7. Stephen Carpenter says:

    Gee- what a novel idea for presenting an idea, concept or experience to first timers. tell them a little about it and give them a foothold for their experiences. Invite them to be explorers. WOW!
    I apologize for the sarcasm.
    This is such a powerful and viable learning model, it should be presented to education reformers. It’s the way we all experience new things. Think back to the first time you heard a piece of music. It’s the same for all of us.
    Bravo Spektral and Bravo Chicago. It wouldn’t be the same but I sure hope there are DVDs in the works.
    There is this concept out there that has to do with the “expectant brain”. The real learning process as opposed to school and education, is that our natural state is to be expectant and seek patterns that are different from what we know. the arts are in this place all the time. Is it any wonder some of the most indelible experiences a person remembers are the childhood experiences with the arts? Sadly, we have rendered all of that out of our educational equations. Not only sadly- some would say fatally.
    Bravo again to Spektral and Chicago. Fan the flames.

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