Student group brings together music and law

Event with scholars, Spektral Quartet encourages students to explore arts-related careers

People do not often think of music and law as a pair, but the arts can be an important boon for a lawyer, bringing passion to a field that often relies on dispassionate argument.

This was one of the messages Prof. Martha C. Nussbaum shared at a recent event for a new student group that seeks to help Law School students explore arts-related career opportunities.

“Music is a necessary part of a lawyer’s equipment,” Nussbaum said during the lunch talk, sponsored by Law Students for the Creative Arts, a group of law students who are musicians, artists and music lovers. The event featured a performance by Grammy-nominated Spektral Quartet, with commentary by Nussbaum, the Ernst Freund Distinguished Service Professor of Law and Ethics; and Grammy-winning composer Augusta Read Thomas, a University Professor of Composition in the Department of Music and the College.

The goal of the event was to combine the study of music and law in a new way to improve the experience of studying each discipline. Audience members came from across the University—music and composition students, law students, and both music and Law School faculty.

“It was refreshing to have the chance to just enjoy and talk about classical music and philosophy in the middle of the day,” third-year law student Ngozi Osuji said.

The event grew out of a series of informal gatherings co-hosted by third-year law student André J. Washington and Douglas Baird, the Harry A. Bigelow Distinguished Service Professor of Law. Washington is part of Law Students for the Creative Arts, whose board includes a number of students pursuing arts-adjacent legal careers.

“As a law student, it’s easy to hole up in the library with your casebooks and forget about the things that bring joy to your life,” Washington said. “I wanted to help my classmates discover new art forms and further their appreciation for the art they already love.”

The Spektral Quartet event began with “program notes” by Thomas, who shared her approach to composing and music. She said she strives for a sound that is simultaneously spontaneous and nuanced, and she achieves this, in part, through precisely and prodigiously notated scores that translate to a lively, dynamic performance. Though every articulation is prescribed, Thomas’s music sounds fresh and almost improvisational—as if the performers are having an intense conversation for the first time.

With help from Spektral Quartet, the string quartet-in-residence at UChicago, Thomas carefully deconstructed the first four measures of “Chi: vital life force,” the first movement of Chi for string quartet. As Thomas explained many of her creative choices, Spektral added or subtracted instruments and notes to emphasize the huge effects of seemingly small changes. As the performers demonstrated different articulations and the melodic lines, it became clear that what at first sounded like a happy accident was, in fact, the result of countless minute compositional decisions. Thomas compared this revelation to looking out at a beautiful snowy forest—you can find beauty and meaning not only in the far-off vista, but also in the individual needles and branches of one tree.

Following Thomas’s remarks, Spektral Quartet performed the entire movement. The group moves as “gears” in one practiced unit, masterfully weaving their often-interlocking parts together. The group played with an exciting energy and forward movement, bringing a beautiful lyrical quality to the soaring lines, complex rhythms and dissonant chords.

Nussbaum ended the program by discussing the importance of bringing music into the cerebral practice of law. Referencing the German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer, Nussbaum noted that music has often been seen as the art that represents our own “life force”, and that appreciating music helps us experience our own bodies and sexuality in a new way. Law deals with the most intimate areas of human sexuality and bodily life, yet judges sometimes seem embarrassed at this aspect of their common humanity. Nussbaum suggested that music can help bring the cerebral and the bodily together.

Audience members left the event moved, with several rising to give the performers a standing ovation.

“Professor Nussbaum’s comments really made me step back and think about the role that our lived experiences should play in the law,” first-year law student Brennon Nelson said. “After all, there is a reason lawyers and judges are humans and not robots. We spend so much time thinking analytically, that it’s easy to neglect the wisdom we can gain by paying attention to our basic human desires and emotions.”

Adapted from a story that first appeared on the University of Chicago Law School website.