Spektral Quartet Credit: Jocelyn Chuang

The through line of Spektral Quartet’s first studio release in four years, Experiments in Living, is that there is no through line—at least on the surface. The double album covers 150 years of history, from Brahms to living lions such as George Lewis, but rather than foist a chronological or thematic flow onto the recording, the Chicago ensemble encourage nonlinear pathways and heavy use of the “shuffle” feature. Preorders of the album through their site even come with a deck of tarot-like cards with collages from Danish artist ØjeRum; each card corresponds to a different track, so that every reading reveals a distinct playlist. On one of my shuffled listens, I pinballed from the skittering major-key rejoinder in the first movement of Brahms’s String Quartet no. 1 into its shadowy analogue in the opening of Schoenberg’s String Quartet no. 3. In the same session, I hurtled from Binary/Momentary Logics: Flow State/Joy State by Chicago-based composer Sam Pluta, which glows with the heat of a live wire, straight into Lewis’s String Quartet no. 1.5, “Experiments in Living,” a 16-minute cataclysm that pulls the rug out from under you at every turn. I was struck by how both pieces simultaneously embrace and rail against the universe. The album also features a commanding interpretation of Ruth Crawford Seeger’s 1931 String Quartet (a masterwork as timelessly radical as The Rite of Spring) and a definitive version of Anthony Cheung’s The Real Book of Fake Tunes (commissioned for Spektral and flutist Claire Chase, who performs here with her usual sensitivity and verve), as well as a freewheeling improvisation with experimental vocalist Charmaine Lee called Spinals. Experiments in Living endorses a topsy-turvy view of time that casts the familiar in a new light and presents wet-ink works like they’ve been around since the 19th century, but the whimsy and effervescence of Spinals make it stand out even on this delectably disorienting album.   v