Kronos Quartet – holding time and audience in thrall

Chamber Music New Zealand Presents:

The Kronos Quartet

David Harrington, John Sherba, violins

Hank Dutt, viola / Jeffrey Zeiger, ‘cello

Music by Omar Souleyman, Ram Narayan, Nicole Lizee, Jack Body,

Valentin Silvestrov, Steve Reich, Aleksandra Vrebalov

Michael Fowler Centre, Wellington

Monday, 11th March, 2013

The Kronos Quartet got an extremely warm reception at the end of their Wellington concert – and they responded with no less than four encores! Still, opinions among people I knew in the audience varied afterwards – simply marvellous, said one friend; while another lamented that the group played only one thing he liked, the Silvestrov Quartet. A third thought it all a bit self-indulgent, three “veterans” and a youngster, the former reliving former glories, but without the “edge” of yore. Perhaps I was one of the few in the hall who had not seen the Quartet live in concert before – after all this was their fourth visit to the country – and so for me the experience was more akin to a new discovery.

For the uninitiated such as myself the only sense that could be gleaned of a group of musicians resting on their laurels was in leader David Harrington’s laid-back-plus spoken introductions to each of the items – and such an approach could easily have signified twenty different performance attitudes for twenty different audience members. Though the quartet played a couple of established pieces, such as Steve Reich’s WCT 9/11 and Jack Body’s Arum Manis, at least three of the pieces in the concert were less than three years old, all commissioned by Kronos. That hardly constituted “resting on laurels” behaviour, I would have thought……

Considering the range and scope of the group’s stylistic forays in this concert it’s hardly surprising I picked up a few thumbs-downers from people regarding individual items – mostly it was Canadian composer Nicole Lizee’s “Death to Kosmische” described by the composer as “faded and twisted remnants” relating to a particular style of electronic music, which brought forth puzzled and negative reactions. My own feeling was that the piece perhaps needed a clearer demarcation-line between the piece and its actual source-subject – even a stylized stand-alone piece of “Kosmische” would have clarified for many listeners just what was being given the treatment. And the composer’s scheme for the piece was laden, to say the least, incorporating both “musical hauntology” and “residual perception” as currents in the argument, alongside the lampooning of a specific genre – all fascinating, but for some of us a tortured, obsessive-sounding thicket, complete with a “La Valse-like” disintegration into chaos at the end.

Brighter lights shone upon most of the other pieces for me, either by way of reactions to the sounds in a purely visceral sense (as with the two opening items by Omar Souleyman and Ram Narayan) or through an opening-up of different worlds through an interplay between intellect and sensibility. Omar Souleyman’s La Sidounak Sayyada (translated as “I’ll prevent the Hunters from hunting you”) had an instantly-catchy pop-ethnic sound, the composer grab-bagging a multitude of classic, ethnic and pop-techno-like styles. Kronos played an arrangement of his work commissioned by the group from American composer and arranger Jacob Garchick. And Ram Narayan’s interpretation of a traditional Indian raga, transcribed from an actual recording by the composer of Raga Mishra Bhairavi featured the Kronos players  combining conventional instrument textures (“bending ” the note pitches in the manner of a sitar, or more properly the “Sarangi” – Ram Narayan’s own instrument) with hurdy-gurdy-like sounds, exotic and in places filmic in effect.

Jack Body’s work Arum Manis (Indonesian for “candy floss’) was another Kronos commission, this one from 1991. Body intended for the work to have something of the quality of that particular confectionary, more air than actual substance and predominantly sweet and pleasurable. What also came across (as it does with a lot of Body’s music) is a sense of discovery, almost by “stumbling upon” something, which the composer conveys here by setting acoustic and tape sounds, the quartet’s instruments the traveller and the taped sounds the discovery. Most uncannily I visualized while sitting in the semi-darkness listening to this action/reaction process a kind of antennae drawing impulses of energy downward to earth from a starry sky – in other words I felt a pronounced flow of energetic impulses, the fragments of taped sounds somehow “finding”a focus of resonance and response – a case for me of “What, without asking, hither hurried whence?”, but without an Omar Khayyam sitting beside me to pour the next glass of wine!

Draughts of a different, rarefied sort came in abundance with Valentin Silvestrov’s Third String Quartet, premiered by the Kronos just over a year ago. Like his fellow-composer Aarvo Part, Silvestrov’s earlier, more avant-garde works got him into conflict with the Soviet authorities in the 1970s, and it wasn’t until he modified the severity of his work in subsequent years that it began to enjoy a wider acceptance, both officially and popularly. His seven-movement quartet took its time to unfold, the sounds having for me at once a sequenced and spontaneous quality. It was as if the composer was drawing from a stream-of-conscious set of memories, allowing them to call forth their own associated developments. I felt as if the group had become an instrument that was simply being played on. There were occasional angularities and impulsive thrusts of energy, but largely  the lines of the instruments were like old grandmothers’ songs, or nostalgic tunes sounded by a harmonium, themselves memories of deep, rich strains of things.

Over the work’s latter stages I felt we had been taken to a world similar to that of Sibelius’s music for “The Tempest”, everything rich and strange, and redolent of distant lights at sea and mist-shrouded surroundings. It came down to each impulse from the music sounding like a heartbeat, moving in accord with the natural world, and with our own sensibilities as audience members in the end, by this time in utter thrall to the music.

After an interval rich with discussion and disagreement, we were back for Steve Reich’s WTC 9/11, of which I found analysis impossible, so “caught up” I became in the tumultuous nature of the events of that tragic day as presented by Kronos’s assemblage of sounds and music. In three sections, the piece featured the stringed instruments in both “live” and pre-recorded guises, doubling and harmonizing the various fragments of speech patterns and repetitions, concerning themselves with both rhythm and pitch, and bringing out the inherent musicality in human voices. Section One used the voices of air traffic controllers trying to get in touch with the plane which first crashed into the World Trade Centre building, and reports by commentators of that event. The second and third sections featured voices in the aftermaths, including a ‘cellist playing and a cantor from a New York synagogue, singing Psalms and sects of the Torah.

Pushing the idea of what constitutes art-music outwards, Reich’s work emmeshed sounds of human and technological activity with tones and rhythmic patterns. It was like bringing the act of composition closer to the original source of inspiration by directly transferring sounds and patterns of sounds to a piece rather than refracting their impact through some kind of abstract instrumental expression. How fascinating it would be to hear a version of something like Eine Kleine Nachtmusik, or La Mer made by Reich or one of his contemporaries. In the present work’s case the effect wasn’t unlike some kind of secular Requiem, its composer using sounds as notes and contexts as building-blocks, and putting them together.

I hadn’t forgotten the programme’s final work, the quirkily-titled ….hold me, neighbour, in this storm….  The composer, Aleksandra Vrebalov, from Serbia, went to live in the United States in her twenties, and is currently teaching in New York. She wrote …hold me neighbour…in 2007 for the Kronos Quartet, who premiered it the following year. The piece seeks to fuse the different strands of folk and religious music from the Balkans region and express them using one of the Western World’s most iconic classical music institutions, the string quartet. Vrebalov wanted to characterize in music a “coming-together” of cultural and religious differences that have for centuries troubled the region – interestingly, she comments that, in some ways at the grass-roots level this fusion has already been taking place, producing something musically quite unique springing from the land and its people.

The composer pre-recorded church bell sounds, Islamic calls to prayer, sounds of children playing, lullabies, war and conflict sounds and drinking songs, an assemblage whose contributions at times pushed things into tumult, then at other times fined down to subtle murmurings.The quartet leader played an ethnic-looking bowed instrument at one point, another player thumped on a drum, and feet were stomped in time to some of the dance-like rhythms.  But then the strings would evoke the sadness of peoples trapped in conflict mode and powerless to make a difference to it all. The sounds of the work were by turns moving and exciting, and made a satisfying and varied whole.

The audience simply kept on clapping at the end, and the quartet obliged again and again with several encores. The players’ generosity accorded with the range and scope of their program – despite the nonchalant, laid-back platform manner, Kronos seemed as ready as ever to give itself as a group over to whatever the music demanded of them. The group’s forty years as an ensemble, packed with presentations of no less than eight hundred original compositions, were tonight carried lightly and gracefully, and brought to bear with wonderful ease and fluency for our pleasure.




























Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *