Saturday 21 September 2013

Uniko – Electric dreaming at the Barbican

Kronos Quartet - Photo by Jay Blakesberg
Kronos Quartet - Photo by Jay Blakesberg
The Kronos Quartet with Kimmo Pohjonen and Samuli Kosminen were in electric form last night (18 September) at the Barbican. It is always a treat to hear Kronos, they are happy to experiment and yet approach every new idea or technique with certainty and aplomb which makes you feel that music should have always been played that way. Compositional ideas which could come unstuck with lesser musicians become powerful, lyrical, or ironic.

Over the last 40 years the Kronos Quartet (David Harrington (violin), John Sherba (violin), Hank Dutt (viola), and Sunny Yang (cello)) have championed new music, from classical to jazz and rock, commissioning over 800 pieces themselves. Uniko is one such collaboration. Premiered in 2004 in Helsinki, it was commissioned back in 2002 and composed during the following 18 months. Kosminen sampled both the quartet and Pohjonen, producing sound fragments which were reassembled and looped, transforming their very nature and providing a preternatural depth of sound. A recording of Uniko was released in 2011. This performance was the UK premiere – and it didn’t disappoint.

The seven movements performed, Utu, Liuos, Plasma, Särmä, Kalma, Kamala, and Emo (which after a quick run through a translation programme are Mist, Solution, Plasma, Edge, Death, Horrible, and Mother), are thematically and conceptually related as part of a dreamscape. A swirling mass of played and sampled sounds – so much so that without watching it is sometimes hard to tell what is live and what is sampled - envelop the listener in surround sound, while a light show with dry ice, and a slide show with oil on water and fractal patterns churn dizzyingly behind the performers.

On stage the quartet was flanked by the Finns, with the sound engineer off to one side. Pohjonen is renowned for his world music and was an impassioned sight; managing to juggle playing his accordion with growly formless singing, at the same time as controlling the many sound altering pedals at his feet. In contrast Kosminen was cool and spare with his movements. Nevertheless he expertly commanded the pre-recorded segments and samples, and what appeared to be live looping, whilst also being the percussionist.

From the start electric sounds mixed against the rushing wind sound of air being blown across the body of the instruments, building up into a dreamy, drifting, folk tune. The music floated though a minimalist falling theme into a strong dance tune, at which point you are hit with the surround sound and light show. Recurring themes provided a ‘home’ and a starting point for exploration for each new movement. Pauses in the visual display were dramatically timed with the mood of the music.

Since the movements drifted into each other, the audience took any pause it could to applaud and show its approval, such as the pauses before Särmä and Kalma. The group retuned for an encore -possibly Avara (meaning wide or spacious) but it was hard to keep track. Even after the performers had left the stage, synthesised repeats serenaded the audience out of the concert hall.

I first heard Uniko on BBC Radio 3 and immediately downloaded the album. This live performance was more emotionally charged than the recording, largely due to the mesmerising on stage presence of Pohjonen and his singing, which was at times meditational and at other times agonised. Improvisational elements varied in detail from the recording as you would expect, however the sound quality and depth was as polished and cinematically produced as the recording. I loved the light show, but, despite having looked forward to them, was not as keen on the videos as some of them reminded me of screensavers. Perhaps a little explanation of them from the designer would have helped.
review by  Hilary Glover

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