Spektral Quartet’s Deconstructed Cover of Bessie Smith’s “Backwater Blues”

Spektral Quartet’s Deconstructed Cover of Bessie Smith’s “Backwater Blues” | Chicago Music | Groupon

What kind of music does a string quartet play in a bar? If you’re Spektral Quartet, the answer is: a lot of covers. At the quartet’s Sampler Pack shows at the Empty Bottle, the foursome often performs instrumental arrangements of contemporary artists such as James Blake and Wilco alongside more traditional works by Mozart, Bartok, and Haydn.

These eclectic sets might surprise those used to hearing string quartets in a concert hall. According to Austin Wulliman, one of Spektral’s two violinists, the mixtape-like format is designed to complement the Bottle’s more casual feel. “We used to play just classical music,” he said, “but we realized we weren’t respecting the venue.” At their Summer Sampler Pack last month, the musicians pushed the genre-mixing envelope a little further than before, setting their bows to a blues classic.

The Song: Bessie Smith’s “Backwater Blues” (arr. Chris Fisher-Lochhead)

How It’s Different

It’s hard to know where to start—this deconstructed (or as composer Chris Fisher-Lochhead puts it, “de-arranged”) cover sounds almost nothing like the original. In place of rollicking juke-joint piano and Bessie Smith’s bold vocals, the quartet creates discordant noise that never quite resolves into a melody. Playing the highly abstract piece, Wulliman said, is more like being part of a “texture” than creating a linear tune. If no one told you the performance was based on “Backwater Blues,” you might not be able to guess.

According to Fisher-Lochhead, the obtuseness is by design. “I had no intention of writing blues for [a] string quartet,” he said. Instead of trying to imitate Bessie Smith, he took her original performance as source material, then distorted and transformed it. For instance: though the cover is 7 minutes long, it’s actually based on only the first verse of the original song, which Fisher-Lochhead stretched out and slowed down.

How It’s the Same

Despite the experimentation, Fisher-Lochhead insists that his version captures something real about the original song. “It’s not just playing a game,” he said. “It’s actually trying to nail down things that are in the music.” He also doesn’t think that the sounds of classical music and the blues are as far apart as most people think. Modern classical pieces like Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring or Ligeti’s Requiem have “an inherent grittiness, or even violence” to them that has some kinship with the rawer sound of the blues, he said.

How It Pays Homage to Other Covers

The musicians from Spektral Quartet are far from the first to cover “Backwater Blues.” The popular standard has been performed and reworked by dozens of blues artists, each of whom made the mournful but hummable tune their own. Fisher-Lochhead felt that his cover wouldn’t be complete without incorporating these other versions. “The idea of an original text isn’t there [in the blues] in the same way there is in classical music,” he said.

When Fisher-Lochhead began composing, he made “excruciatingly detailed” transcriptions of six versions of the song: Brownie McGhee’s, Dinah Washington’s, Skip James’s, Big Bill Broonzy’s, and Memphis Slim’s, as well as the original by Smith. He was especially interested in the vocals. “Performers do all of these nuanced things all the time,” he said. “They add little slides or spins.” Most of those details don’t make it onto the sheet music, but he wanted to incorporate them into his final piece.

Who Gets the High Notes

Though he doesn’t use any vocals, Fisher-Lochhead still wanted his composition to “reflect the variety of sounds that a human voice makes.” So he asked the quartet to use their instruments in unconventional ways. For instance, at every point that a singer would have pronounced an f, one of the performers makes what Wulliman describes as “a pulled, sort of scraped sound” with his instrument. The result doesn’t sound much like singing, but it does add an interesting texture to the piece.

Because the piece included so many unusual instructions, Fisher-Lochhead’s composition presented a challenge for the quartet. “It took time just to learn how to interpret the score,” Wulliman said. The most difficult parts were the long, quiet high notes that occur where the chord progressions in the original song would have been. “He wrote some really awkward high notes!” Wulliman complained.

Hearing this, Fisher-Lochhead just laughed. “You got all of the high notes!” he said. “I’ve known Austin a long time, and I know he will try to play anything. While I was writing, I would say, is this beyond what’s practical? Oh, no, it’s for Austin. It’s fine.”

“It’s a character flaw!” Wulliman said.

Spektral Quartet will perform its full spectrum of work at its record release show at Constellation on October 26 at 8:30 p.m. You can also catch a night of more traditional works from Britten and Adès. Click here for a full schedule of upcoming shows.

Photo courtesy of Spektral Quartet