Spin Cycle by the Afiara Quartet: The Inspired Construction of an Enchanting Musical Cyborg

Album: Spin Cycle
Artist: Afiara Quartet

I sent my Soul through the Invisible,
Some letter of that After-life to spell:
And by and by my Soul returnd to me,
And answerd: I Myself am Heavn and Hell.
– Omar Khayyam

The process was singular: The Afiara Quartet sent commissions to four of Canada’s best composers: Kevin Lau, Laura Silberberg, Rob Teehan, and Dinuk Wijeratne. Each was to write a piece for a string quartet, a piece that would be recorded and remixed by the famous dj and music producer Skratch Bastid, whose role it was to create new recordings that a scratch dj could use in a live performance.

This live performance would include both Skratch Bastid and the Afiara Quartet. The quartet thus becomes a quintet. It’s as if an artist were to paint a landscape and then make a print of that landscape from its image in a distorted mirror, then copy it again. (You can get a clearer idea of the musical process by watching this.)

Classical composers have long turned to the masses for creative inspiration— and to good effect; the songs of shepherds, beer hall divas, dance bands, and church choirs have enlivened the classical tradition, bringing in fresh ideas and challenging conventions. Coming up with the concept of incorporating the relatively recent scratch dj tradition into serious music is serendipity itself.

It would have been interesting to spy on the discussions that lead to this stunningly clever idea. I’m guessing that the successful artistic relationship that’s existed between composer Dinuk Wijeratne and Skratch Bastid for a number of years must be credited to some degree, so the idea may not be entirely new, but it’s incredibly rewarding to see it come to this fruition.

Why? The thing this quartet is pulling off is easy to do but incredibly difficult to do well, as witnessed by countless recordings which, despite all the oohs and ahs of admiration for the brilliance of the recording idea, have fallen far short of this flawless mesh of acoustic instruments and technology.

It doesn’t hurt that the Afiara Quartet are phenomenal musicians. It’s wonderful to hear how the strings handle the delicate passages from Wijeratne’s achingly lovely “I Will Not Let You Go” (the sound of a heart breaking and whispering gently to itself), Laura Silberberg’s “Hold On,” and Rob Teehan’s “In the Garden.” The chords radiate love, understanding, and tenderness.

Even if it weren’t so good, the enthusiasm the musicians display is infectious. They really appear to be having a wonderful time creating this masterpiece, which makes the listening experience that much more enjoyable.

Skratch Bastid’s contribution is that this never sounds shallow or overworked, but always substantial and classically polished. Skratch Bastid transcends his instrument’s plebeian roots without abandoning them, making of his turntable a comrade equal to the violin.

He manages to achieve this while employing the same spectrum of scratch dj techniques you’d find at a club. He really shines in Silberberg’s “Dirty Laundry,” Rob Teehan’s “Stream of Consciousness,” and Kevin Lau’s “Skratch My Bach” (which cleverly incorporates the dj’s moniker in the title of a work reminiscent of the soundtrack for A Clockwork Orange.)

After listening to Spin Cycle one could almost paraphrase the above Khayyam quote to read: “I sent my tracks to the technical wizard to find the beauty in them, but by and by my tracks returned to me and answered: ’You yourself are beauty.’”

Spin Cycle manifests seven of the Mindful Bard’s criteria for music well worth a listen.

• It’s authentic, original, and delightful.
• It stimulates my mind.
• It provides respite from a cruel world, a respite enabling me to renew myself for a return to mindful artistic endeavor.
• It’s about attainment of the true self.
• It inspires an awareness of the sanctity of creation.
• It displays an engagement with and compassionate response to suffering.
• It makes me appreciate that life is a complex and rare phenomena, making living a unique opportunity.

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