Chopin Salon #71 - Theatre of War Spektral Quartet and High Concept Laboratories


Critic's Choice  - "The NATO summit is over, but the anti-establishment mood continues this week with two envelop pushing programs of contemporary music " - Lawrence A. Johnson,


Tickets - $30/$20 (students) - Ticket proceeds to Vet Art Project


05/23/12 - 05/24/12

Wed & Thu 730pm

Spektral Quartet at Chopin Theatre - Mia Clarke, TimeOut Chicago 5/23/12. - " We’re not making a political protest in reaction to the NATO conference,” Russell Rolen says. “There’ll be plenty of those.” The 34-year-old cellist of the Spektral Quartet is talking about the group’s ambitious new program, “Theatre of War,” which launches two days after the NATO Summit. The gig at Wicker Park’s Chopin Theatre aims to reduce feelings of alienation between stateside citizens and soldiers and civilians abroad. “The political figures coming to Chicago will be speaking in global terms and thinking about issues in an abstract way,” Rolen says, taking a sip of ale. He’s perched on a bar stool next to his bandmate and violinist, J. Austin Wulliman. “We were drawn to pieces that deal directly with the individual.”

Settled in at Bucktown beer haven Quenchers, the guys explain how working George Crumb’s landmark Vietnam-era piece Black Angels into Spektral’s repertoire led to the group’s biggest project in its two years.

“There are aspects inherent to the piece that made us imagine a more theatrical event,” Wulliman says. “The players are required to move around the stage. And there’s numerology-based chanting.”

Since its formation in 2010, Spektral Quartet, which also features violinist Aurelien Fort Pederzoli and TOC contributor Doyle Armbrust on viola, has forged a reputation for fiercely on-point performances as well as some of the city’s most imaginative chamber programming. Spektral has used actors to re-create correspondence between Beethoven and Bartók. Wulliman and Armbrust have debated the influence of Beethoven’s deafness on his work between pieces. In “Chambers,” a commissioned piece from Marcos Balter, the quartet projected and read an e-mail exchange with the composer that increased in panic as a deadline approached.

In “Theatre of War,” Spektral will screen three short films shot in Iraq and Afghanistan by photographer Richard Mosse, which were sourced by the quartet while scouring YouTube. “His films are really arresting for someone like me, who doesn’t have a lot of context,” says Wulliman, 29. “The reality of war isn’t very present in my life, and these films knocked my pants off. Being in a dark room gives people time to consume information. You’re not staring at a computer screen, tempted to click on the link to check the Bulls score.”

“By the nature of living in modern, middle-class society and not having to be connected to war on a day-to-day basis, it’s easy not to think about it that much,” Rolen says. “I imagine it’s like this for a lot of people.”

Spektral is a democratic and collaborative outfit. The more classically minded Pederzoli leads in traditional works, while new-music expert Wulliman steers contemporary works. The foursome’s performance of Black Angels is followed by a stage adaptation of Virginia Konchan’s short story “Blackbird,” two poems by the recently deceased Nobel Prize–winning poet Wislawa Szymborska and a physically intense composition by Drew Baker titled “Stress Position,” which requires eighth blackbird pianist Lisa Kaplan to stretch uncomfortably across the keys for 18 minutes.

“It’s easy to get mired in the details of your craft when you want everything to sound perfect,” Rolen says. “This is a reminder that we can do something bigger than that.”

Spektral Quartet presents “Theatre of War” at Chopin Theatre Wednesday 23 and Thursday 24. All proceeds will be donated to local non-profit the Vet Art Project".


Critic's Choice - Lawrence A. Johnson,"The NATO summit is over, but the anti-establishment mood continues this week with two envelope-pushing programs of contemporary music.

The Spektral Quartet and High Concept Laboratories present “Theatre of War” in two performances. The multimedia program, which will examine the effects of war on soldiers and their families, will include George Crumb’s Vietnam-era quartet Black Angels and Drew Baker’s Stress Position for solo piano,  as well as poetry readings and short films. Performances are 7:30 p.m. Wednesday and Thursday at the Chopin Theater, 1543 W. Division.  All proceeds will be donated to the Vet Art Project.

Seattle Symphony music director Ludovic Morlot will join the International Contemporary Ensemble Saturday night for their final season concert at the Museum of Contemporary Art. The program will spotlight the music of experimental French composer Georges Aperghis with his Signaux for two violins and two violas and the Chicago premiere of Shot in the Dark, for soprano and large chamber ensemble, commissioned by ICE. The program will also feature Golpe en la diafragma by Juan Pablo Carreño and Omaggio a Berio by Patricia Alessandrini. Concert time is 7:30 p.m. Saturday at the Museum of Contemporary Art.;"



Theater for NATO: Dramatizing Protest, Representing War - - "This weekend in Chicago, as we braced ourselves for what would undoubtedly comprise a high-profile moment for protestors and heads of state, and a sometimes uneasy inconvenience for the rest of us, two theater pieces reminded me that the perennial "crisis of theater" as no longer relevant for art audiences -- let alone politics -- is once again easily defied. And in fact, these pieces make me want to argue that theater might be the best and sometimes only way to create/activate audiences to receive the kinds of hard-hitting political work in the real world that these companies are attempting to bring forth in their productions.

To start with the aesthetics of protest, Dog & Pony's unnerving "The Whole World is Watching" is both a timely revisiting of a political-cultural memory and a reminder that theater can do one thing that other art forms rarely can: literally implicate its audience as a crowd or mob participating in the action. From the first moments of entering the Biograph Theater's small upstairs rehearsal space, the audience is caught up in co-directors' Devon de Mayo (who wrote the script) and David Dieterich Gray's reenactment of late August 1968 in Chicago during the Democratic National Convention.

Performed promenade-style (with audiences standing in the space of the theater itself rather than sitting at the edges), the show pushes you into the middle of the conflict and doesn't let go. The night I went, I was constantly moving to get out of the way of a cast of police (who at times seem to be surveying the audience as much as the rest of the cast), reporters, students and everyday citizens, Black Panthers, vocal hippies and eager campaign volunteers. For a piece about a protest that ends in police riots and the horror of the Hilton Hotel assault on cornered protestors (staged expressionistically and narrated in a harrowing play-by-play), the deep claustrophobia and urgency of movement that the show instills is both fitting and viscerally powerful.


Organized in staccato scenes cutting from various points of view (including, at times most touchingly, police officers preparing to go out and be universally loathed for carrying out their orders), the show utilizes multimedia, incorporating stacks of TVs screening archival footage, as well as political posters and brochures (the playbill is disguised as a campaign brochure for Eugene McCarthy) handed out by bright-eyed campaigners, upping the theatricality and realism at once. The large ensemble of a dozen-plus actors changes costumes and identity throughout the performance both out of necessity (the room feels full to bursting as it is) but also thematically to show how quickly identity is created and framed in the situation of a political protest. Songs by Stephen Ptacek literalize ideologies and fears and lend elements of both identification and alienation to the play, reminding us of the performative aspect of all political demonstrations, as do stunning choreography and stage pictures. Thus we are both enmeshed and self-critical; this is a show that doesn't let you distance yourself in any way for even a moment, and it's easily the closest experience to understanding the experience for NATO protestors as you could get this weekend. Sometimes being a theater audience, that most awkwardly synthetic of roles, is the only way to get at the truth of the "real" thing.


Meanwhile across town, a very different and equally ambitious production attempts to embody that which we hear over and over we can never understand unless we experience it for ourselves: participating in the physical traumas of war. Timed to run for only two nights (May 23 and 24) following the NATO summit, Spektral Quartet and High Concept Laboratory's Theatre of War is as concerned with accurate depictions of being at war as with the artistic mediums that can make more or less accurate aesthetic renditions of those experiences. To that end, the show's format is one of curated multimedia performances -- five in all, that run for just over an hour total -- with the theoretical question about how to represent the unrepresentable as a thematic inquiry.


The program was conceived by members of the classical and contemporary chamber music quartet Spektral Quartet, who had long wanted to perform George Crumb's Vietnam-era quartet piece Black Angels, which includes gongs, whispers, crystal glasses and shouts in its score and which quartet member Doyle Armbrust explained to me is about a "grappling with spiritual chaos as a result of war." For them, that element of spiritual questioning is "absent now" in our coverage of war -- and by extension, summits like NATO. The other quartet member with whom I spoke, Russel Rolen, emphasizes this contrast between Vietnam and our current "anesthetized" experience of watching our current hyper-reported wars.


From there, the program attempts to bring in discipline-intensive representations of war from a variety of artistic media, imagining, Rolen's words, "the impact and thrust of the lens of one particular art form" and "each artist's attempt to come to the subject and understand it." Describing their naivete at the beginning of the research process, Rolen and Armbrust emphasize that the piece is as much about war as our disconnect from it and that for "even those of us who want to be involved," there's an immensity that "we can't grasp" that those directly impacted by war often have difficulty articulating.


The pieces themselves, chosen and curated by Spektral Quartet, range from literature and music to video and theater.
Virginia Konchan's short story Blackbird, adapted by High Concept Laboratory's Molly Feingold, dramatizes a soldier's attempts at psychotherapy to treat his PTSD (full disclosure: Virginia Konchan is a friend and colleague who first told me about the show).


Chicago composer Drew Baker's Stress Position piano piece submits the performer of the piece (eighth blackbird's Lisa Kaplan) to a kind of torture inspired by Abu Ghirab and Guantanamo Bay; a stress position is, as Baker wrote to me, "a technique in which a detainee is forced to maintain a position that directs all or most of the body weight toward a specific muscle group." His piece requires the pianist to play at the far ends of the instrument, amplifying the noise until it creates a kind of torture for audiences and ending only "when the player can no longer go on. The role of fatigue and its impact upon the music is a central part of the overall experience."


Richard Moss' videos, embedded in Gaza, Iraq, and Afghanistan, depict the waiting, anxiety, boredom, and hyperreality of war (Killkam features soldiers playing video games, juxtaposed with leaked Wikileaks footage of long-range missile attacks on city streets.)


Finally, selected poems by Nobel laureate Wislawa Szymborsk's writing represents another kind of attempt to represent, here through her plain-spoken depictions of cleaning up after war.


All ticket proceeds benefit the Vet Art Project, founded by drama therapist Lisa Rosenthal for the purposes of using different forms of creative art therapy to help veterans and their families. A video preview can be viewed here.


Whether or not the show succeeds either artistically or in its thematic attempt to presence the damages of war, Theatre of War is notable for its sheer insistence that we try in as many modes as we can and admit the limits of representation as well as our own naivete and sometimes apathy -- a strong counterpoint to the politics of enthusiasm (in 1968 or now, with or without clown makeup and pies that seem to be an early symbol of the NATO protests) that marks our protests and occupations of all kinds".

Arts Pick - Theatre of War" - - "With the din of the NATO summit fading, we're left with the feeling that there was a missed opportunity. Media coverage of the weekend focused predominantly on the conflict between police and protesters. Where there was substantive discussion, your choices were limited to wonky talk of decisions about troop and funding levels made by an international coalition with little accountability, or a diffuse message from a passionate opposition whose loudest members are the most extreme. There's a vast amount of space in between to engage in, and the most thoughtful ruminations may come May 23-24 during Theatre of War, a multidisciplinary show co-produced by the talented Spektral Quartet and High Concept Laboratories.

The event, planned to coincide with the NATO meetings, uses music, theater, poetry, and film to examine the effects of war and, more crucially, the contemporary phenomenon of the average citizen's detachment from war's consequences. The program is centered around George Crumb's Black Angels, his 1970 piece for electric string quartet (although the work includes instruments as diverse as voice, percussion, and crystal glassware filled with different amounts of water). The music, composed during the Vietnam War and carrying the inscription in tempore belli, is dark and violent, and was chosen by Spektral to contrast with the complacency with which the American public has met the past decade of war. The other music, Chicagoan Drew Baker's Stress Positions for amplified solo piano, is somewhat of a concept piece, forcing the pianist to stretch to opposite ends of the instrument in a manner reminiscent of the infamous photo of the hooded Abu Ghraib prisoner. The music is tedious, relentless, and inevitably intrusive.

Non-musical selections include three brief films by embedded photojournalist Richard Mosse (Gaza Pastoral, Killcam, and Theatre of War), best known for Infra, his haunting series of photos of war in the Congo made with film the U.S. military developed in the 1940s to detect camouflage; "Blackbird," a short story about a veteran home from war by Chicago writer Virginia Konchan adapted for the stage by High Concept's Molly Feingold; and poems by Polish Nobel laureate Wislawa Szymborska. All ticket sale proceeds will be donated to the Vet Art Project.

Theatre of War meditates on the personal rather than political, which we feel obligated to point out; it's a distressing sign of our times that considering the destructive side of war feels like a political stance. Ultimately there are political implications - behind closed doors at McCormick Place, NATO leaders made decisions that we all implicitly co-signed - but Spektral and High Concept's point is that a political choice isn't fully informed without awareness of the human-level toll. The show won't get the attention that the Sunday skirmish at Michigan and Cermak got, but it may just be a more convincing statement than anything that came out of the South Loop over the past several days".

From Spektral Quartet - Theatre of War, an event co-produced by the Spektral Quartet and High Concept Laboratories, is an artistic investigation of the contemporary disconnect between the experiences of most  citizens and those of people directly impacted by war.  This theatrical concert takes place just days after the city bids farewell to the NATO  summit and aims to raise funds for the Vet Art Project.

A collaboration between the disciplines of music, film, theater and the written word, Theatre of War is borne from a place of not-knowing.   The program does not provide a consistent  position statement so much as it constitutes an inquiry into the alienation felt by many Americans: the alienation of the soldier from civilian life, of the average US citizen from victims of  torture, of the dissociative, technological methods of remote-control weaponry from its human casualties –  and the notable lack of spiritual disquiet in our society at large as so much destruction occurs around the world.

The Program
“Stress Position”, by Chicago composer Drew Baker, is a fully-staged composition for solo amplified piano in which the performer, eighth blackbird’s Lisa Kaplan, is the subject of a kind of torture,  stretched to physical limits at the extremes of the keyboard.  The audience first becomes aware of the pianists’ distress and soon experiences its own discomfort as the amplified sound of the piano increasingly overwhelms the space.  The piece demands that the audience question its own complicity in the persecution of the pianist and illuminates the contradiction of humankind’s most barbaric practices played out on an instrument symbolizing the ingenuity and refinement of our civilization.

The short films of Iraq and Afghanistan-embedded filmmaker Richard Mosse explore the theme of disconnection through three distinct points of view.  “Theatre of War” depicts a group of soldiers in repose,
 waiting for events unknown. The strange, silent majesty of the remnants of one of Saddam Hussein’s palaces frames an otherwise mundane moment. Distanced as it is from combat, the audience is asked to
contemplate a place called “Iraq,” something each has come to know largely by way of media coverage. This landscape, however, is depicted from the point of view of the soldier: a precarious exercise in waiting,
in which quiet moments can be free of violence but frustratingly tedious.  “Cast Lead” projects the anxiety and disorientation of an environment reduced to rubble, and the people compromised by the destruction of
their surroundings.  The camera tracks across once-steadfast monuments of society now battered and in disarray.  At home, we may see this kind of devastation following a hurricane or earthquake, but here the
deliberateness of the demolition here is unnerving.  Finally, “Killcam” juxtaposes scenes of soldiers playing combat-themed video games at Walter Reed Army Medical Center with leaked footage of remote-controlled,
long-range missile attacks and helicopter strafing.  The psychological chasm between drone operators and their targets is apparent, as is the desensitization to violence embodied by the video games.  

A wounded soldier captures the parallel in the final seconds of the film:  “Over here is more of a computer game, because there’s less reality.  People only see and hear what they want to hear.”

“Blackbird,” a short story written by Virginia Konchan and adapted for the stage by High Concept Laboratory’s Molly Feingold, explores the divide between those bearing the scars of war, both visible and invisible, and the psychologists rehabilitating them once home.  Venturing inside the mind of the soldier, tattooed with indelible memories, Konchan exposes the insufficiency of therapy as well as our synonymy with the doctor,  sitting safely at a remove.  The limits of healing, however well-intentioned, are revealed to be rooted as much in the emotional permanence of war for soldiers as in our inability to comprehend this experience.

The poetry of Nobel laureate Wislawa Szymborska has been praised for an ”ironic precision [that] allows the historical and biological context to come to light in fragments of human reality”.  Her two devastatingly beautiful poems “Hatred” and “The End and the Beginning“ employ precise, plain-spoken language to reveal deep truths about the nature of conflict and restoration.

George Crumb’s quartet “Black Angels” forms the nucleus of the Theatre of War project as originally envisioned by the Spektral Quartet.  Inspired by the mood of the country at the time of the Vietnam War,
the piece follows the journey of a soul through a fall from grace, to spiritual annihilation and finally to redemption.  For the members of Spektral, the battle evoked musically conveys the spiritual chaos
 surrounding war with its fragmentary writing and wide sonic palette.  The stateside unrest represented in the work appears largely absent from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and Crumb’s quartet brings
into contrast the protests and demonstrations of wars past with our own relative detachment.  Scored for amplified quartet and including numerological vocalizations, tam tams, maracas and water-tuned glasses,
the effect is elevated, even surreal.  

At a singular moment in Chicago’s history, as world leaders discuss issues in global terms, the Spektral Quartet and their collaborators intend to bring a human-scale focus to the recent and ongoing operations in
the Middle East.  We also endeavor to create a space in which the questions posited by the program’s works may be discussed after the curtain drops.

Following Black Angels, audience members will be encouraged to  join the artists in the Chopin Theater’s lobby to share their reactions to the evening’s offering of music, poetry, theater, and film.


All ticket-sale proceeds will be donated to Vet Art Project which provides opportunities for veterans and their families to work in collaboration with artists to create art about war and service, and to foster discussion about how war and service affect us all. (

Founded by drama therapist and social artist Lisa Rosenthal, this grassroots network of creative art therapists and artists offer therapeutic creative arts workshops, community discussions, and public performances
of new art by veterans, and by veteran and artist collaborative teams, followed by talkbacks with veteran participants. The Vet Art Project is growing across the United States and around the world.

Read more about the Vet Art Project on their website:


Lisa Kaplan; Molly Feingold, Don Washington, Linda Gates and Spektral Quartet

Drew Baker (composer); Richard Mosse (filmmaker); Virginia Konchan (author); George Crumb (composer); Zach Maksich (Light Design)

Tags: Festival, Social, American, 2012