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Why the Spektral Quartet Will Be Playing with Their Eyes Closed

Composer Augusta Read Thomas premieres Chi, a meditative piece, at Rockefeller Chapel this Saturday.

Photo: Anthony Barlich

Up next in our series of interviews with notable, in-the-know locals: composer Augusta Read Thomas, who premieres Chi, played by Spektral Quartet, on Saturday at Rockefeller Chapel, alongside previous pieces Resounding Earth and Selene.

Tell me a little bit about Chi.

It’s a string quartet that’s about 15 minutes long. The idea was to reflect on and respond to this word “chi,” which the Chinese refer to as a vital life force. The concept has appeared in other cultures throughout history. I was very interested in the music’s energy flow—where it was naturally going.

Each movement of the piece is a big contrast. The first movement is running fast with big pizzicatos. It’s rhythmically animated and a little jazzy, but it’s classical music for sure. The second movement has long bows and clean sounds. The third movement is very, very fast, and the last movement has all these high flickering harmonics, almost like stars twinkling in the sky. I’ve asked the players to perform the whole last movement from memory with their eyes closed. I like the idea of the four of them in meditation in this sonic space together.

What’s it like writing for Spektral Quartet?

I’ve worked with them many times. We’re like old friends. It adds a very special feeling to the concert. When you’re good friends, you can go to that deep level where you’re dealing with different shades of performance. Plus, they have enormous technical skill.

Did you write the piece specifically to be played in Rockefeller Chapel?

Absolutely. It was co-commissioned by Rockefeller. I want to have the music respond to the space. In the fourth movement of Chi, for instance, I thought those harmonics would resound well in the chapel.

Can you talk about your piece Resounding Earth, which Third Coast Percussion is performing?

That piece is only for bells and percussive metal. Each movement sounds completely different even though we’re dealing with the same alloy. It’s beautiful to look at. You’ll see a forest of bells in Rockefeller. It’s sort of a “United Nations” of bells. The types of bells are from all over the world, and they’re all on stage together. For example, there are 18 Burmese spinning bells onstage and 10 Indian Noah Bells. I love the feeling of that—humanity coming together and ringing their bells.

What about the third piece, Selene?

Selene was commissioned by Third Coast Percussion and the Jack Quartet. It’s a really interesting piece because it’s four percussion players and a string quartet. We couldn’t find a single other work similar to it. It’s a very colorful piece.

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