Bringing Music and Law Together

Spektral Quartet, Martha Nussbaum, and Augusta Read Thomas Appear at Inaugural Event by Law Students for the Creative Arts

Augusta Read Thomas and Spektral Quarter
University of Chicago Music Composition Professor Augusta Read Thomas and the Grammy-nominated Spektral Quartet at an event hosted by a new student organization, Law Students for the Creative Arts.
Photos by Lloyd DeGrane

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 part of the message Professor Martha C. Nussbaum shared recently at the inaugural event for a new student group that seeks to bring music and other art forms into the Law School and help law students explore arts-related career opportunities.

Thomas and Nussbaum
Professors Augusta Read Thomas and Martha C. Nussbaum

“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 that grew from a series of musical soirees co-hosted by André J. Washington, ’19, a former professional flutist, and Professor Douglas Baird.

The event, held in the Law School’s courtroom and titled “Chi: vital life force,” featured a performance of Chi for string quartet by Grammy-nominated Spektral Quartet, with commentary by Nussbaum, the University of Chicago’s 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 was to combine the study of music and law in a new way in order 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," Ngozi Osuji, ’19, said.

Law Students for the Creative Arts was formed this past fall by a group of law students who are musicians, artists, and music lovers. Several board members, including Washington, have backgrounds in professional music or are pursuing arts-adjacent legal careers.

Washington’s love of music led him to collaborate with Baird, the Harry A. Bigelow Distinguished Service Professor of Law, on a series of informal gatherings at Baird’s home. Baird provided sophisticated hors d'oeuvres, while Washington provided the music: either performing himself or organizing student chamber ensembles from the University’s Chamber Music Program. Since 2017, Washington and Baird have hosted three gatherings, and all have been well attended.

Andre J. Washington

“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. “Through LSCA, 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 to 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—and the vital bodily and erotic life it represents—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. Nussbaum suggested that this is a place where lawyers and judges can learn from music. While music confronts us with our physical bodies— in both their naked vulnerability and erotic beauty—the law often tries to disguise or hide the bodily in dispassionate arguments. 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, 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,” said Brennon Nelson, ’21. “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."

LSCA has several upcoming events, including a February musical soiree and theatre outing, and an April career lunch talk featuring Anthony Freud, the general director of Lyric Opera. Those interested in joining the mailing list should email