The Enigma of Spektral Quartet

A new commission by Anna Thorvaldsdottir hovers between light and dark—and revives my inner NASA geek

By Doyle Armbrust | From the January/February 2020 issue of Strings Magazine

The thing I love most about the music of Anna Thorvaldsdottir is that it makes the universe seem somehow more infinite. It is so much more than “transportive.” Listening to it is akin to being suctioned into a wormhole and then deposited in some ancient realm of stone collosi— with a limitless and disorientingly hued horizon that divides fluctuating gravitational fields and a lurid sky framing three moons.

Put another way, Anna’s music makes me talk like a low-rent Isaac Asimov.

I’ve been enamored with her work since the release of her first record, 2011’s Rhizoma, and as of this year, my band, Spektral Quartet, is finally claiming a Thorvaldsdottir score as its own (I mean, she’s written for the Berlin Philharmonic for crying out loud). Enigma is a project three years in the making, on which we pulled back the curtains in October at the Kennedy Center. I should probably try to play this cool, but understatement went careening out the window when the National Endowment for the Arts decided to back the project and the Adler Planetarium became a partner. For context here, if you came of age as a NASA geek in Chicago like I did, the Adler and its dome theater was your Fortress of Solitude.

Anna Thorvaldsdottir

Speaking of that dome, Enigma is really the achievement of two creators. Video artist Sigurdur Gudjónsson is a favorite collaborator of Anna’s—and fellow Icelander—and for this piece, he’s created a 360-degree film that is inexplicably both languid and dynamic. More importantly, the visuals are every bit as mysterious as the music itself, offering a kind of living canvas through which listeners can experience their own illusory journeys through the mind. Enigma lives in the penumbra—that space between light and dark—and both the music and the visuals inspire thoughts on the contrasts of living, and the in-between spaces where most of us spend much of our existence.


Wait, this is Strings magazine, so we can get a little Inside Baseball on the string quartet side of things, right? The first element you’ll notice when cracking open this score is that the dynamic palette lives mostly in the ppp–mf range. It quickly becomes clear, though, that this doesn’t mean a narrower range of volume, but rather that you have to dig deep to discover new species of dynamics—each quite distinct from the others—without ever relying on your biggest sounds. A world within a world, so to speak.

There is also incredible nuance to be found in the shades of white noise and overpressure throughout the piece. There is less thorny passagework to contend with, and even complex rhythms here are intended to be more organic-sounding than exacting. But friend, you are going to spend weeks and months chasing after that perfect shade of uninterrupted, squeak-less, no-harmonic-sounds-allowed white noise. And once you’ve mastered it, you throw a fist up to the sky remembering that this is just one color in a polychromatic landscape.

Leading up to the world premiere on the storied Washington Performing Arts series—another of our generous co-commissioners—we in Spektral found ourselves obsessed with shaping these un-pitched sounds, yes, but also subtracting anything that might distract from the expansiveness of the listening experience. At 42 or 48 to the quarter note, one of the biggest challenges is how to hive-mind the pulse without any pulse translating into our bows or our bodies. It becomes an exercise in quieting the body while the brain barrels down the tracks at breakneck speeds. 


Spektral has been playing as much new music as traditional rep since we launched almost a decade ago, and one of the pleasures of living in the proverbial practice cave with my colleagues—allow me to introduce Maeve Feinberg (violin), Clara Lyon (violin), and Russell Rolen (cello)—is that unearthing some of these outside-the-conservatory sounds is a zesty process of mutual discovery. We will try techniques on for size in front of each other like we’re obsessively shopping for a new pair of shoes, and eventually—and gratefully—we stumble into one of those elusive “Eureka!” moments. Though to be frank with you, I don’t believe anyone in Spektral has ever uttered the word “Eureka.” And all extended techniques sound better on the cello. But that is an essay for another day.

Spektral Quartet

One of the felicities of commissioning such a large amount of new work for string quartet is getting to hang out with composers in-person, rather than at their gravestones. Like flying Sigurdur (“Siggi” now that we’re friends) in from Iceland to field-test his sumptuous video and nerd out on black-metal bands over lunch. Or flying Anna in from London to workshop Enigma’s sound world, only to discover that our col legno is entirely too polite in the first movement. 

On some level it’s about uncovering what sounds the composer had in mind when scripting the piece, but more importantly, it’s about this amazing phenomenon of a new work melding into collective ownership. Each collaborator, performers included, can’t help but leave traces on this object, that till now lived in the abstract and sometimes cold world of notation. Now it’s a living thing.


Plus, Anna schlepped Icelandic beers over on the plane for us, so of course we were going to become fast friends.

So, this world premiere and partnership with Washington Performing Arts? It was ideal: an enthusiastic crowd, a happy presenter, and four string players that high-fived the minute they ducked behind the stage door. Here’s the best part, though. One of our missions as an ensemble is to shepherd a new piece far beyond the premiere, so we’ll be touring Enigma around the world this season and next, at the very least. The Chicago performances in June at the Adler Planetarium will feature the full dome-theater experience, and if all goes well, we’ll be bouncing between planetariums around the country before too long.

My inner science nerd is particularly fond of our T-shirt idea: “SPEKTRAL QUARTET: DOME THEATER WORLD TOUR.”