In this article, Rhett Del Campo provides a compelling profile of the Spektral Quartet and violist Doyle Armbrust. Del Campo discusses the history of the innovative Chicago-based Spektral Quartet and specifically violist Doyle Armbrust’s views on his life as a freelance musician and member of the Quartet. Armbrust has created a unique freelance career comprised of performing in a variety of musical settings as well as writing for TmeOut Chicago. Del Campo and Armbrust both provide important thoughts on freelancing, music criticism, and innovative thinking in an evolving musical world.
With orchestras vanishing left and right and full-time positions for instrumentalists becoming quite scarce, many classical artists are taking the road less traveled (and, let’s face it, less preferred) in order to succeed. Freelancing, oftentimes a seemingly endless pursuit ripe with dead ends and missed opportunities, is a term more and more artists are using to describe their careers. But Chicago-based Spektral Quartet violist and TimeOut Chicago Contributing Writer Doyle Armbrust is doing just that, and doing it well. His eclectic professional life proves that being a musician and a freelancer isn’t just about being a performer. It can involve launching new music businesses, starting online review blogs or being a critic – or, as Doyle would say, an advocate. Although Doyle’s main focus is performing classical music, he seems to enjoy the random opportunity to rock-out with such groups as Trans-Siberian Orchestra, Video Games Live and The Beach Boys.
Spektral Quartet (www.spektralquartet.com) was initially started with the hope that it would become a residency at a Chicago area college. This endeavor never came to fruition, but the four musicians behind the quartet connected immediately and shared similar instincts. Their approach is to have an “equal dedication to newly-composed music as well as the grand traditions of the past [while focusing on] performing in non-traditional venues such as bars and rock clubs to win over classical music converts.” In an effort to bring much needed variety to the classical world, they also collaborate with other art forms, such as stand-up comics. In a March 2011 performance at The Empty Bottle, they included Second City and Second Story standup/performer/writer JC Aevaliotis, who started off the evening with a story set. The night was unexpected and refreshing as concert-goers listened to the quartet play in an oddly silent bar. While the evening did include a classical piece, what stood out was British composer Thomas Adès’ 1994 work, Arcadiana. This 20 minute, seven movement piece had me staring at the lava lamps above the bar and taking in the scene, which included a mix of casually dressed city-folk listening intently as bartenders silently prepared drinks.
When asked about the group’s long term goals, Doyle says, “We want to be responsible for filling seats with audience members who never imagined they’d be attending a classical performance.” They also hope to reverse the trend of composers becoming prominent only after death or when they are “too dead to enjoy the visibility,” as Doyle put it.
“Life as a freelancer is alternately refreshing and overwhelming, artistically edifying and frustrating,” Doyle continues, and I couldn’t agree more. You end up waiting by the phone, almost willing it to ring, ready for any kind of gig. You are also approached with a wide variety of opportunities, from subbing with area orchestras to playing back up with a great rock band. “There is always something new just around the corner, say blasting out rock versions of Beethoven 5 as pyrotechnic canons explode nearby to a crowd of 12,000 for a Trans-Siberian Orchestra extravaganza. It keeps things interesting,” says Doyle. But even when a freelancer is busy, it doesn’t necessarily mean he is engaged and fulfilled. In fact, I would guess that many feel as though there is something lacking; some void screaming to be fulfilled. This is where Doyle’s quartet picks up the slack. “Now that I have the [Spektral] Quartet as my main artistic thrust, I no longer have any worries that playing a Beach Boys show, for instance, is detracting from my artistic development or practice time,” he explains.
To add to his already unique life as an artist, Doyle joined the writing team at TimeOut Chicago back in 2009 and is now a contributing writer for its Opera and Classical and Music sections. I asked Doyle how being an active performer affects his perspective when he critiques. “If you haven’t sat in a practice room for five hours straight, dis- and re-assembling the last page of Bartok’s Concerto for Orchestra, do you really understand the complexity and enormity of what is taking place on stage? Probably not,” he surmises. Doyle connects with other members of the arts writing team because the majority of them are also performers. “This creates a kind of artistic empathy that takes into account the myriad techniques involved in the performance, as well as a broad context of the art form that I would argue only a performer possesses,” says Doyle. He is careful to point out that while the TimeOut writers can identify with their subjects, so to speak, they are also careful not to overlook carelessness or unpreparedness that deserves mention. Doyle’s perspective on being a critic is refreshing and positive, and he also has an uncanny ability to seek out unique and often overlooked performances and productions. “As a classical musician, I feel that my role as a writer is as advocate, not critic, [and] I believe there is more integrity in bringing attention to what potential concert-goers should go check out, rather than what they should avoid,” he says. Performers of any kind, be they musicians, athletes, or actors, understand that risk-taking is a large part of the on-stage process and without that, there would be no edge or spontaneity. “My hope as a writer is to not contribute to the artistic dead-ends of playing to minimize technical mistakes. Like the audience, I respond to risk-taking, not perfection,” Doyle adds. Aside from writing and playing, Doyle has new ideas he hopes to get off the ground when time permits. Since the Quartet performs a plethora of new music and Doyle doesn’t have the room in TimeOut to review the mountain of CD’s he receives, it’s not surprising that his latest project will be to launch a new music review blog. Talking specifically about the Quartet, Doyle says, “The plan is to be checking back in with you in 10 years and reporting that we are still in Chicago, and that our current season involves live painting, a Stan Brakhage-esque film installation, a collaboration with a Pina Bausch-like dance troupe, the culinary artistry of Grant Achatz and some Butoh theatre.” Speaking to all artists, both gainfully employed and freelancing, the lesson learned is that musicians should never stop exploring different avenues and putting themselves out there to see what opportunities bite. Doyle put it simply, “Artists thrive with adversity.” Artists should aim to keep the fire inside alive and the creative juices flowing. The arts industry has arrived at a crossroad of sorts. While the path seemed fresh, it has now served its purpose and it’s time to make a few turns and see what’s around the bend.