Every recording, project, collaboration, or concert associated with the Kronos Quartet brand is an exploration of the unusual, the un-generic, the unapologetically subversive. True bastions of contemporary music for more than 40 years, Kronos take the centuries-old string quartet tradition to defy conventions and, most importantly, delve into the music from underrepresented parts of world.
On Sunday evening, The Sharon L. Morse Performing Arts Center presented Kronos Quartet — David Harrington, violin; John Sherba, violin; Hank Dutt, viola; and Sunny Yang, cello — in The Villages, with a program that consisted of arrangements of world music selections, and contemporary classical music, including four brand-new pieces commissioned by the quartet.
Fresh from Carnegie Hall performances and workshops with emerging string quartets, Kronos are currently immersed in their project Fifty for the Future: The Kronos Learning Repertoire. Over five years, the ensemble will commission and premiere 50 new pieces for string quartet, highlighting the best each of the 25 men and 25 women composers from all over the world has to offer. The project also has an educational aspect: free of charge, the new scores become available to any ensemble that wants to tackle them. Instructional videos and media are being released in separate installments to facilitate the learning process. The purpose is to foster a new generation of string quartet players, with a new body of work distinctive of the 21st century, and representative of different parts of the world.
The recital at the Sharon included four of these new pieces, which had their world premiere barely a few months ago. Hailing from the country Azerbaijan, Franghiz Ali-Zadeh captures the pulse of the native dances of her homeland with Rǝqs. The piece opens with a steady pulsating rhythm in the cello and viola, with jittery glissandos from the violin on top. The intensity of the steady beat wanes to a slower section led by pizzicatos, only to swell again to a rousing end. Rǝqs (‘Dance’) has a richly exotic flavor, energy, and strong sense of structure.
The Serbian composer Aleksandra Vrebalov took an aleatory approach for My Desert, My Rose, permitting the players to interpret composed melodic patterns with flexibility of metric flow and dynamics, responding to each other’s musicality and sense of direction. When the composer describes the general direction of her piece in her supplemental notes to the sheet music as “meditative, open, and rhapsodic, to rapturous, driven, and trance-like, both in tempo and character,” and the desired tone color as “from warm and smooth to scratchy, wild, and distorted,” one can only imagine the radical spirit of the piece.
Yang’s ruminative cello pattern in the opening was imitated purposely out of sync by the other three; as the piece progressed, they seemed to be searching for a binding togetherness. Dutt suddenly introduced a forte syncopated rhythm, as Harrington screeched wildly in the high register. But then the quartet gradually locked in with a heavily rhythmic beat, until the eerie melodic phrase of the opening suddenly disintegrated as the tempo dropped, with only fragments remaining. A staggering piece.
The second half of the program featured ‘Bala Faseké,’ from African composer Fodé Lassana Diabaté’s Sunjata’s Time. A balafon (13th century African wooden xylophone) virtuoso, Diabaté composed the piece on his instrument (arranged for quartet by Jacob Garchik), applying a distinctive pentatonic idiom. Featuring the first violin as soloist, ‘Bala Faseké’ consists of a melodic pattern that stays deceptively close to the tonal center, almost hiding the rhythmic complexity that gives it structure.
The last of the Fifty for the Future selections was ‘Silk and Bamboo,’ from Wu Man’s Four Chinese Paintings. A pipa virtuoso from China (we last saw her in Central Florida in January 2015, performing with the Orlando Philharmonic), Wu Man is not known as a composer, but she was encouraged to try her hand at composing for Kronos because of her sensibility as an improviser. The notation of classical Chinese music is significantly different from Western notation; the composer recorded on the pipa from her original notation, and then improvised additional lines over the track. Danny Clay finally notated the multi-track recording for string quartet. Dutton introduced ‘Silk and Bamboo’ with hand percussion, carrying it throughout the piece, which developed to a forte in the end. What was remarkable was the way in which the strings captured the exoticism of traditional pipa music, of which Wu Man is the undisputed master.
There was much variety in the rest of the program: from the ethereal mood of the traditional Scandinavian folk song Tusen Tankar, with added reverb through amplification; to N. Rajam’s Indian raga Dadra in Raga Bhairavi, with a drone track, a damped string tone, and finger-tapping on the cello that imitated the Indian tabla; to the viola-driven rumination of Turkish composer Tanburi Cemil Bey’s Evic Taksim. In between, Kronos performed Geeshie Wiley’s bluegrassy Last Kind Words, and a rock-out arrangement of The Who’s Baba O’Riley, whose instantly recognizable synth intro was electronically looped by the strings as an ostinato to anchor the piece.
The composer who inspired the Pete Townshend-penned song, Terry Riley, was represented toward the end, with a haunting multimedia performance of his ‘One Earth, One People, One Love,’ from Sun Rings. Commissioned by NASA, Sun Rings, has its origins in recordings of cosmic noises from outer space. The performance included a backing track of a sound collage of these noises, arranged into rhythmic shapes and contrasted by a recording of novelist Alice Walker’s voice as she repeatedly chants “One earth, one people, one love,” following September 11. Video projections in the background consisted of a spinning blue Earth, foiled by what seemed like a menacing yellow cosmic storm. The slow, dirge-like main melody was taken by Yang, with responses from the rest of the quartet in unison, each reiteration varying slightly. Enhanced by the visuals, without being distractive or intrusive, the performance was melancholic, but also surprisingly uplifting in the earnestness of its message about the self-destructive folly of humankind as seen from the grand cosmic perspective.
The most experimental selections were Nicole Lizee’s Death to Kosmische, and Dan Becker’s Carrying the Past. Influenced by East German pop and DJ music, Death to Kosmische uses electronics heavily, expressing the Canadian composer’s “love/hate relationship with the idea of genres.” Yang’s spooky, distorted cello lines were doubled by videogame-like electronics. Yang and Sherba played a MIDI autoharp, while Harrington fidgeted with what seemed to be an electric guitar effects pedal, and Sherba shook around a vinyl record on a turntable toward the end. It was a thoroughly subversive and engaging piece.
But the highlight of the evening, in addition to the four brand-new pieces, was Carrying the Past. Using a track of samples, scratches and hisses from old 78 rpm jazz records featuring Becker’s grandfather, the piece has a neurotic, suffocating atmosphere, with jarring tonal changes that create incredibly palpable tension. The scratchy track remains throughout, as nervy jabs from each instrument scatter here and there, imitating the rough texture of the old records. Following all this dissonance, a jazzy little melody insertion toward the end seems perverse in its plain tonality.
Finally, Harrington and the ensemble brought out Ervin T. Rouse’s raunchy hoedown Orange Blossom Special as an encore, a product of Florida. And it is to Florida, specifically to The Villages, that I want to return. How likely is it that the world’s premier ensemble specializing in contemporary and world music would play a one-off show in The Villages, “Florida’s friendliest retirement hometown”? If a community of retirees in north Central Florida doesn’t seem like the core audience for this kind of music, I suppose that’s because it isn’t. But it doesn’t matter; if the world’s greatest string quartet can appear before a half-empty theater in The Villages and still play an all-modern program of this caliber, any similar risk, anywhere, is worth a shot.
- To learn more about Kronos Quartet’s Fifty for the Future: The Kronos Learning Repertoire, where you can listen to recordings of the new pieces and download sheet music, click here.
- To listen to Terry Riley’s moving ‘One Earth, One People, One Love,’ click here.
- To visit the website of The Sharon L. Morse Performing Arts Center, click here.