ASU music professor composes new Spektral Quartet album that tells 'dreamy, unsettling story'

“Behind the Wallpaper,” a recently released studio album by the Grammy-nominated ensemble Spektral Quartet and avant-pop vocalist Julia Holter, showcases the work of Alex Temple, assistant professor of composition in the Arizona State University School of Music, Dance and Theatre. All songs on the album were composed by Temple.

Released on New Amsterdam Records, the album’s music “cavorts through the centuries with elements of indie pop, Weimar cabaret, Elizabethan music and 19th-century Romanticism.”    

“The song cycle is a tale of someone undergoing a mysterious transformation and ultimately finding a home in another world, superimposed on our own but invisible to the uninitiated,” Temple said.

Temple said many of the dreamlike images in the songs were inspired by her experience with gender transition.

The New York Times describes the album as “atmospheric with ambiguous tonality, drawing chuckles along with hushed curiosity.” The Village Voice calls it a “dizzying collage of dreamlike impressions … somewhere between avant-garde composition, mysterious artifact and sci-fi thriller.” The album also received a mention in NPR’s list of best albums.

Temple was initially commissioned in 2012 by Spektral Quartet to write a piece. Temple asked if she could add a voice, intending to do the vocals, but after a meeting with prior acquaintance Holter and a tweet by Temple that caught the attention of Spektral violist Doyle Armbrust, Holter was asked to sing on the piece.

“The details of both music and text all came after that,” Temple said. “What I ended up writing was heavily influenced by my knowledge of Julia's voice. Her music has a stylistic fluidity and vulnerability that made her the perfect choice for this dreamy, unsettling story.”

Temple said she thinks of the whole thing as a single piece, but wrote the first four songs in 2013, then revised them and expanded the song cycle in 2014. The album was recorded in 2022 at Electrical Audio.

There was talk of a studio album early on in the project, Temple said, but life events — personnel changes, a child, COVID-19 — delayed the recording and release of the album.

She said all of the music, and all but one of the texts, were written specifically for the piece well before it was turned into a studio album.

“The album draws inspiration from many places, including my long-standing love of Surrealist art and cinema, my own and other people's experiences with gender transition, miscellaneous autobiographical experiences unrelated to gender and a ton of other artworks in various media,” Temple said.

While the ensemble disbanded last June, Spektral Quartet plans to release three more albums, with “Behind the Wallpaper” the first in the series.

Temple said her favorite composition is "Jolene" — the longest, most varied and (for her) the scariest.

“My hope is that the story will feel familiar to anyone who has ever felt alienated from the broader culture,” Temple said.

Lynne MacDonald