One of my favorite moments in music comes in the fourth movement of Arnold Schoenberg’s String Quartet No. 2. In that piece, the quartet is joined by a soprano, who floats a verse by poet Stefan George over the soft glow of strings: “Ich fühle Luft von anderem Planeten.” (“I feel air from another planet.”) Schoenberg’s quartet was booed and heckled upon its 1908 premiere, but when I first heard that line—as a young person coming to terms with my gender identity, weeks before my 21st birthday and weeks after Donald Trump had been elected president—George’s words tossed down an escape rope. I still don’t know why they meant so much to me. Maybe it was the promise that someplace existed, somewhere, that could see me for me.
I still haven’t really found that place, as a journalist working in an industry and a world that become more virulently transphobic with each passing day. But if such a place exists, it sounds like Alex Temple’s Behind the Wallpaper, also written for singer and string quartet. Temple lived here from 2009 to 2017 while pursuing a doctorate in composition at Northwestern University, during which time she settled into her own gender identity. Her attendant emotions and experiences—isolation, absurdism, and alienation, followed by the succor of belonging—all made their way into Behind the Wallpaper’s poignant, surreal libretto and piquant timbral palette.
Behind the Wallpaper was a staggering achievement in 2015, when Temple wrote it for Los Angeles-based avant-pop vocalist Julia Holter and Chicago’s Spektral Quartet. But on the long-awaited studio recording, released this month by New Amsterdam, the piece is transcendent. Thanks in part to the spectacular work of audio engineers William Brittelle (Roomful of Teeth) and Zach Hanson (Bon Iver), Temple’s 11-movement suite takes new life, particularly in the electronic layers unique to this recording. Here, Holter’s voice is expressively distorted and echoed, and the Spektrals’ strings are also occasionally processed. (The decision to render their jaunty waltz theme in “Night After Night” as a crackly phonograph recording was a stroke of genius.) It’s not quite classical, not quite pop, and not quite monodrama—but it’s all scintillating brilliance. Kudos to the production team for managing to bring still more dimension to the imaginative abandon of Temple’s dreamscape.
It’s always a hard fall down to earth when Behind the Wallpaper ends, but this recording makes it much harder than previous live iterations did. For one, Spektral Quartet is no more—violinists Theo Espy and Clara Lyon, violist Doyle Armbrust, and cellist Russell Rolen disbanded the group last year, and Behind the Wallpaper was among their final recording projects. And the country has become more perilous and deadly for trans people than it was in 2015. But while we’re stuck here on this planet, in all its ugliness, what a salve to be swept up in Behind the Wallpaper’s gale.
Julia Holter & Spektral Quartet’s Behind the Wallpaper is available through Bandcamp.