Wednesday 21 May 2014

Kronos at 40: ‘looking for a piece of music to wrap around myself’

Kronos Quartet - Photo credit: Jay Blakesberg
Kronos Quartet - Photo credit: Jay Blakesberg
Kronos Quartet at 40: Kronos Quartet and Friends: Barbican
Reviewed by Hilary Glover on May 13 2014
Star rating: 3.0

Kronos and friends celebrating 40 years of new music

Last night at the Barbican (Tuesday 13 May 2014) began the Nonesuch records Exploration and a celebration of 40 years of the Kronos Quartet. Special guests Bryce Dessner, Jarvis Cocker, David Coulter, and Mariana Sadovska helped the evening along with compositions and performances.

For the last 40 years the Kronos Quartet (current line up David Harrington and John Sherba on violin, Hank Dutt playing viola, and Sunny Yang on cello) have been champions of contemporary music - from classical to jazz and rock, commissioning more than 800 pieces themselves. Each of the works performed tonight was written for Kronos, and was either a UK or world premiere.

The evening began with a short film by Sam Green 'Kronos at 40' exploring rehearsals, clippings and photos from early performances, album covers, and even a meeting with big bird from Sesame Street. All to a Kronos' favourites soundtrack: '12/12' by Cafe Tacuba (arr. Osvaldo Golijov) and 'Blood Oath', the fourth movement of 'String Quartet No. 3 (Mishima)', by Philip Glass. A similar film has been made by Evan Neff to Kronos playing Ken Benshoof's "Traveling Music", No. 4.

The film set up an informal feeling to the concert – which was continued throughout by David Harrington chatting throughout the evening to the audience, explaining collaborations, relationships and the music played. One of his first comments was about the reason behind the quartet's existence – that he was 'looking for a piece of music to wrap around myself'.

In the interval the images continued with a slide show of Kronos pictures taken throughout their 40 year history.

'The Serquent Risadome' (2014) by Terry Riley (1935-) was based on a short science fiction story called 'Autodaydreamographical Anteriopod' written in a language made up by Riley. Riley and Kronos have been collaborating since the 1970's resulting in 27 works including quintets, a concerto, and Sun Rings (2003), a multi media piece for choir, visuals and space sounds, commissioned by NASA.

Riley is famous for his exploration of minimalism, and 'The Serquent Risadome' was a lesson in contrasting figures that moved in and out of prominence – fast repeats against arid and breathy textures, harmonics versus smooth and lonely lines, pizzicato fighting slides. Perhaps it was Riley's futuristic aim for it to be emotionless, but the overall effect was like an etude.

Philip Glass (1937-) is another long term collaborator with Kronos. In the programme notes Glass describes his 'String Quartet no. 6' (2013) as post-minimalist, pan-harmonic and polyharmonic, with a rhythm based on twos and threes. The first movement was quintessentially Glass in style, with his trademark rhythms and motifs. But it sounded uncharacteristically disorganised, and there were several self-consciously discordant cells.

The second movement was quieter and slow beginning with violin and viola. Its middle section contrasted in dynamic and was more chordal, moving through different textures to an accelerando-crescendo. The final movement was brighter and typically minimalist.

'40 Canons' (2014) by Bryce Dessner (1976) was written for quartet plus guitar (which he played). Dessner is the guitarist with the Grammy Award-nominated band The National, but studied composition at Yale University. Having already written three quartets for Kronos, Dessner decided to concentrate on 'more elemental behaviour'. Each movement concentrated on a different technique with the melodic component either unison or simple harmony: 'Strum' (with the violins held sideways in guitar fashion), 'Plucked canon', 'Chords', 'One Line', 'Górecki canon', and 'Canyon'.

I was interested to see David Coulter (from the Pogues) as I have recently heard his playing on Thomas Bloch's 'Christ Hall Blues'. The last time he played with Kronos was 20 years ago. 'KERF: a dialogue between a saw, an electric organ and a string quartet' was written by Jarvis Cocker (from the band Pulp) who played the organ -'Kerf' refers to the width of cut produced by a saw.

David Coulter playing the saw
David Coulter playing the saw
The work began with a single reedy note from the organ, to which the saw and finally the quartet joined in. Together it seemed that the instruments were all adding the harmonic series missing from the simplified electronic sound of the organ. From this little figures emerged on the strings and a tune from the saw which reminded me of whale song and the sound of the ocean. Different combinations of instruments kept it interesting. The final moment was given to the saw which was struck rather than bowed resulting in an eerie, alien sonar.

The final work on the programme was 'Chernobyl. The harvest' by Mariana Sadovska. Mariana Sadovska was born in Lviv, Ukraine, and since 2001 has been composing (and performing) vocal music which has been performed across Europe and the USA. 'Chernobyl. The harvest' is based on traditional ceremonial music from the Ukraine and was written in recognition of the people affected by the Chernobyl disaster and the return of their musical heritage as they are returning to their homes.

Sadovska's voice had an amazing range of notes, colour and timbre, from traditional folk sounds, to ululation screeching one second, and whispering the next. The blend of her voice with the strings was lovely - but the emotional content was traumatic throughout.

Unfortunately we were not provided with a translation of the text so all I can tell you is that it is to do with frozen wastelands and abandoned cities and lamentations for the dead. Apparently one part listed all the villages which no longer exist, and it ended with a New Year's blessing ritual which was supposed to symbolise hope.

This concert, for me, was an example of expectation over performance. In general I am a big fan of Kronos (see my review of Uniko also at the Barbican) and I had been looking forward to the Riley and Glass, as I have heard, and loved, other pieces by them played by Kronos. But they were both a disappointment. Additionally the Dessner went on too long - the audience was starting to get restless a good few minutes before it ended, and you could not hear Sadovska's harmonium apart from when everyone else was tacit.

Despite being over amplified, the final encore 'Death is the road to awe' from the film 'The Fountain' did not reach the heights that I know Kronos are capable of - given the right material. However the first of the two encores, Geeshie Wiley's 'Last kind words', was worth waiting for, even if it meant that the concert did not finish until twenty to eleven.

But this concert was only part of the Barbican's Nonesuch records exploration. Kronos are playing many concerts this week, and their 40th year celebrations continue with other concerts across the world.
Reviewed by Hilary Glover

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