There was a rare opportunity on Sunday evening to catch the Kronos Quartet in concert at the Royal Northern College of Music in Manchester.  No strangers to the capital, they rarely tour the UK as extensively as they are doing this month.

Kronos may look like a conventional string quartet (since 2013, they have consisted of founder David Harrington on violin; John Sherba, violin; Hank Dutt, viola; and Sunny Yang – the most recent recruit to the group – on cello), but their repertoire and approach to their instruments is far from conventional.

The quartet has been in existence for over 40 years, with only the cello player changing in that time. The eclectic Kronos repertoire draws largely – though far from exclusively – on 20th and 21st century contemporary classical music, and they are renowned for championing new music of all genres and from all parts of the world. All of which was evident in the exciting programme they presented at the RNCM. Before a packed concert hall, the Quartet drew a rapturous reception, and the thunderous applause they got at the close compelled the musicians to return to the stage four times for encores.

The set began with  ‘My Desert, My Rose’, a composition by Aleksandra Vrebalov which – like two further pieces – had been composed for Fifty for the Future, an educational project by which the Kronos Learning Project will commission a collection of 50 new works – ten a year for five years – devoted to encouraging contemporary approaches to the string quartet, for students and emerging professionals as part of their training.

As David Harrington – who did all the introductions to the pieces played at the RNCM – explained, the works will be commissioned from composers from around the world – 25 of them women, 25 men. More than that, as Harrington added, musicians can go to the Kronos website to hear and freely download the score for any of the pieces. It’s on the website that he adds these words:

I’ve always wanted the string quartet to be vital, and energetic, and alive, and cool, and not afraid to kick ass and be absolutely beautiful and ugly if it has to be. But it has to be expressive of life. To tell the story with grace and humour and depth. And to tell the whole story, if possible.

David Harrington, founder of the Kronos Quartet
David Harrington, founder of the Kronos Quartet

‘My Desert, My Rose’ was a complex and beautiful with which to begin.Interestingly, Vrebalov begins the process of composition by drawing and painting images, colours, and textures that help reveal the shape of her composition and the timing of specific events. Gradually these images are translated into musical notation.

Aleksandra Vrebalov‘s My Desert, My Rose
A prelimanry painting by Aleksandra Vrebalov for ‘My Desert, My Rose’

On the Kronos website composer Aleksandra Vrebalov writes:

My Desert, My Rose consists of a series of patterns open in length, meter, tempo, and dynamics, different for each performer. The unfolding of the piece is almost entirely left to each performer’s sensibility and responsiveness to the parts of other members of the group. Instinct and precision are each equally important in the performance of the piece. The patterns are (notated as) suggested rather than fixed musical lines, so the flow and the length of the piece are unique to each performance. The lines merge and align to separate and then meet again, each time in a more concrete and tighter way. The piece ends in a metric unison, like a seemingly coincidental meeting of the lines predestined to reunite. It is like a journey of four characters that start in distinctly different places, who after long searching and occasional, brief meeting points, end up in the same space, time, language.

Aged 25, in 1995 Aleksandra Vrebalov moved to the United States from her native Serbia. Her music has been used in two films about atrocities in war – Soul Murmur directed by Helen Doyle, and her latest work for Kronos Quartet, music for Beyond Zero, a short film by Bill Morrison, produced as part of the commemoration of the World War One centennial (there are excerpts on Vimeo).

On the Kronos website, Bill Morrison writes:

Unlike official histories, that have often romanticized and glorified the war, artists have typically been the keepers of sanity, showing its brutality, destruction, and ugliness. For many, across history, creating art in those circumstances served as a survival mechanism.

While working on Beyond Zero: 1914–1918, I was inspired by anti-war writings, music, and art created during and immediately after World War I, including, for example, the writings of Wilfred Owen and Siegfried Sassoon, the music of Satie and Debussy, and the Dada movement.  The piece draws from their disillusionment about heroism and patriotism, summed up in Owen’s line from Dulce et Decorum, that to die for one’s country is the old lie.

Next up in the Manchester concert was another Fifty for the Future commission, two pieces from Satellites, by French-Irish composer Garth Knox. I don’t have the musical knowledge to be able to describe this cosmically-inspired work; all I can say it was thrilling to hear and watch being played. Speaking of the first piece, ‘Geostationary’, Garth Knox helpfully explains:

In space, the seemingly simple idea of standing still becomes a complex notion, demanding great precision and enormous effort, and is achievable only by travelling at great speed. In ‘Geostationary,’ I wanted to capture this paradox in music, with always at least one instrument (usually the viola) in perpetual mechanical motion while the violins try to float their static melody—which never succeeds in leaving the starting note behind and falls back each time into the vacuum. At regular intervals their stationary orbit sweeps our four astronauts through the same meteor shower where they are bombarded by high-energy micro-particles scattering in every direction.

And this is his commentary on the second extract, ‘Dimensions’:

Dimensions’ deals with the many possible dimensions which surround us, represented by the physical movements of the bow. In the first dimension, only vertical movement is possible, then only horizontal movement, then only circular, then the two sides of the bow (the stick and the hair) express a binary choice. The fun really starts when we begin to mix the dimensions, slipping from one to another, and the piece builds to a climax of spectacular bow fireworks!

The ‘spectacular bow fireworks’ to which he refers involved the three violinists mysteriously waving their bows in the air, as if swatting a fly or wielding a badminton racket. No, I have no idea either.

After this musical venture into cosmological mysteries, it was logical to follow with Terry Riley’s ‘One Earth, One People, One Love’, an excerpt from Sun Rings, composed by Riley in 2001-2 after he had been invited by the NASA Art Programme to weave into music sounds from space captured on plasma wave receivers built by physicist Don Gurnett and installed on a variety of Earth orbiting and planetary spacecraft over the last 40 years.

The resulting composition is described more fully by Riley on the Kronos Quartet website:

I conceived the ten movements of Sun Rings to be a variety of space scapes. I pictured an imaginary audience travelling with Kronos in and around the planets, hearing the quartet and choir as they journeyed through the distant sounds of exotic atmospheres.

The piece opens with the words of astronaut Neil Armstrong:

You have to literally just pinch yourself and ask yourself the question silently: do you really know where you are at this point in time and space, and in reality and in existence. When you look out the window and you’re looking back at the most beautiful star in the heavens—the most beautiful because it’s the one we understand and we know it.  We’re home.  It’s humanity, it’s people, family, love, life… And besides that it is beautiful. You see from pole to pole and across oceans and continents.  You can watch it turn, and there’s no strings holding it up. And it’s moving  in a blackness that is almost beyond conception.

The Sun Rings project took a different turn as Riley was affected by the terrorist attacks of 11 September 2001 and the build-up to war in Afghanistan. Riley heard poet and novelist Alice Walker on the radio talking about how she had made up a September 11 mantra – ‘One Earth, One People, One Love.’ Riley later told the Los Angeles Times that the concept of humanity’s relationship to outer space took on a spiritual dimension for him: ‘I thought about a prayer central that would be like a big operating system up there that funnels all the prayers from different people.’

Alice Walker’s mantra gave Riley the inspiration to continue with Sun Rings, providing the title and a recurring element of the concluding movement, the excerpt performed by Kronos at the RNCM. The sound of Walker’s voice intoning the words ‘One Earth, One People, One Love’ recurs throughout the piece, along with words spoken by he astrophysicist Don Gurnett.

The music itself is lush – a prominent cello melody set against against the pulse and thrum of electron particles captured by NASA’s sensors echoed by the violins and the occasional tolling of what sounded like a prayer bell from a Shinto temple. I must admit, though, to having a dislike of spoken word inserts in musical arrangements. Here, it was kept to a minimum – largely the recurring phrase intoned by Alice Walker.  But in ‘Bombs of Beirut’, a later piece, I found the audio clips simply distracted from the music.

The name of Terry Riley (a close friend of David Harrington) brought to mind the memory of a time when his lp Rainbow in Curved Air was an artefact you’d invariably come across in student flats, often as a surface on which to roll a joint. As far as I was concerned back then, just five minutes of Riley’s repetitive keyboard noodling was enough to do my head in. I don’t think I twigged back then that ‘Baba O’Riley’, written by Pete Townshend for The Who, was Townshend’s tribute to both Terry Riley and Meher Baba, the Indian guru.

But it was, and this accounts for the tune’s appearance in the programme, played by the quartet in an arrangement by Jacob Garchick. But it’s also the case that, as David Harrington explains in this YouTube video, Riley is the composer with whom Kronos have had the closest relationship, recording countless of his compositions in the past decades.

And here, Terry Riley talks about the influence which Kronos have had on his work:

As for ‘Baba O’Riley’, though the piece was much appreciated by the RNCM audience, I was less impressed. I just don’t rate it as a particularly outstanding piece of music: in its original form certainly a stirring rock anthem with that impassioned vocal, ‘It’s only teenage wasteland’, but without the vocals and however energetically played on the strings, not that great.

Kronos Quartet

However, the next piece was in an entirely different league. Another work composed for Kronos’ Fifty for the Future commissioning and education initiative, Fodé Lassana Diabaté‘s ‘Sunjata’s Time’ was a superb performance. It was as if the composer had deconstructed a typical kora piece and then reconstructed its sound and rhythm for the four European stringed instruments.

Fodé Lassana Diabaté is a virtuoso balafon (West African xylophone) player. He was born in 1971 into a well-known griot family and began playing balafon at the age of five with his father, a master balafon player. Later, he apprenticed himself to celebrated balafon masters.

He has recorded with many of Mali’s top musicians, such as Toumani Diabaté, Salif Keita, and Bassekou Kouyaté, and was a member of the Mali-Cuba collaboration band, Afrocubism. Currently he leads Trio Da Kali, a group that aims to revive the repertoire and styles of the Mande griot tradition. Trio Da Kali appeared at a Kronos 40th Anniversary concert in December 2013, and this performance with Kronos was filmed a few months later:

On the Kronos website, the musicologist Lucy Duran provides these notes about ‘Sunjata’s Time’:

Sunjata’s Time is dedicated to Sunjata Keita, the warrior prince who founded the great Mali Empire in 1235, which at its height stretched across the West African savannah to the Atlantic shores. Sunjata’s legacy continues to be felt in many ways. During his time as emperor he established many of the cultural norms that remain in practice today—including the close relationship between patron and musician that is the hallmark of so much music in Mali.

The word “time” is meant to denote both “rhythm,” an important element in balafon performance, and “epoch,” since the composition sets out to evoke the kinds of musical sounds that might have been heard in Sunjata’s time, drawing on older styles of balafon playing which Lassana Diabaté has learned while studying with elder masters of the instrument in Guinea.

Each of the first four movements depicts a character who played a central role in Sunjata’s life, and each is fronted by one of the four instruments of the quartet. The fifth movement brings the quartet together in equality to portray the harmonious and peaceful reign of this great West African emperor who lived nearly eight centuries ago.

This work reminded me of two of my favourite Kronos recordings, both of which have African connections. Pieces of Africa is an album released in 1992 which consisted of commissions from several African composers. It’s a beautiful record featuring several superb pieces, particularly the opening work ‘Mai Nozipo’ by  Zimbabwean Dumisani Maraire, an instantly memorable tune on which the composer accompanies the quartet on drums. Then, on Malian singer Rokia Traore’s 2003 album Bowboi, there are two collaborations with the Kronos Quartet – the beautiful ‘Manian’, and the title track on which the quartet’s strings provide a brooding accompaniment to Traore’s fragile, almost whispered, vocals.

A highlight of ‘Sunjata’s Time’ was Sunny Yang’s cello playing, and she also made a striking contribution to Indian violinist N. Rajam’s ‘Dadra in Raga Bhairavi’,  replicating the beat of a tabla on her specially-mic’d cello as the violins played the melody.

Before rounding off the first set with ‘Baba O’Riley, the quartet played another new work by Martin Green, who performs with the Scottish alternative folk band Lau.  The piece was titled ‘Seiche’, which is, apparently, a form of wave found in still water. The performance was memorable for incorporating sounds from a device invented by Green specifically for the quartet’s performance of this work on the UK tour. He calls it the Kronososcillator, and it looks like one of those slinky toys that can walk themselves downstairs. Two Slinkys were stretched out on either side of the quartet, meeting to form a triangle. At certain points in the piece one was played by the first violinist, the other by the cellist.

Green told the Scotsman where the idea for this strange instrument came from:

I was watching this guy demonstrating points of a wave on the internet, and I thought wouldn’t it be great if you could actually see right into a standing wave? Even better if you could hear it as well.

Kronos and slinkys
Sunny Yang plays the Kronososcillator (photo by Photo by Ross Silcocks for Colston Hall, Bristol)

To be honest, I wasn’t that impressed by the Kronososcillator; it didn’t add much to the piece musically, though it was visually entertaining.

Hank Dutt
Hank Dutt, viola

The second set opened with the most beautiful piece of the evening – an arrangement by Mary Kouyoumdjian of ‘Groung’ (‘Crane’) by the Armenian composer Komitas, itself inspired by an Armenian folk song in which the singer calls out to the migratory bird, begging for word from their homeland, only to have the crane respond with silence and fly away:

Crane, whence dost thou come? I am servant of thy voice.
Crane, hast thou not news from our country?
Hasten not to thy flock, thou wilt arrive soon enough!
Crane, hast thou not news from our country?

It’s a centuries-old song of longing for the Armenian homeland which acquired added poignancy after the Armenian genocide of 1915. David Harrington explained that Mary Kouyoumdjian’s arrangement was particularly influenced by a 1920s recording of the song by Zabelle Panosian. After the concert I found it on YouTube: Panosian’s beautiful vocal is drenched in heartache, homesickness and nostalgia.

Mary Kouyoumdjian was selected as one of the latest recipients of a commission from another Kronos initiative: the Under 30 Project. Begun in 2003 on the 30th anniversary of the founding of the Kronos Quartet, the project commissions work from composers under 30 years of age. It is designed to support the creation of new work by young artists, and cultivate strong links between the quartet and young composers.

About Silent Cranes, the work from which this short piece was taken, Mary Kouyoumdjian has written:

The Armenian Genocide, a tragic event that led to the mass extermination of 1.5 million Armenians by the Ottoman Turks that was the first genocide of the 20th century. While over 20 countries and 43 U.S. States have formally recognized the Armenian Genocide, modern-day Turkey has yet to do so and threatens imprisonment to those who push the topic within its borders. Even now, 100 years later, this historic event continues to be just as unresolved as it was before.

As an Armenian-American composer who values freedom of speech and whose family fled the genocide, I feel this is an essential time to remember those who were lost, while continuing a dialogue about what happened and how we can prevent further genocides from happening in the future.

On this tour, Kronos are premièring another work by Mary Kouyoumdjian: Bombs of Beirut, which concerns the impact of war on her own family. Her grandparents fled from the Armenian massacre and settled in Lebanon. But when civil war broke out there in 1975 the family had to flee again – this time to America, where Mary was born in 1983.

Bombs of Beirut took the form of a three movement study of the impact of effects of the Lebanon civil war on her family, incorporating audio recordings of memories of Lebanon before and during the civil war, as well as deafening sound recordings of incoming shells, explosions, and machine-gun fire.

Given its subject matter I wanted to like this piece, but I didn’t. As with the earlier Terry Riley piece, I believe that – apart from sung lyrics or oratorios – spoken words and music don’t mix comfortably. In this case it was near-impossible to follow the fairly conventional modern chamber work that lay buried beneath the audio recordings.

Laurie Anderson’s ‘Flow’ was so insubstantial it barely existed.

Kronos photographed in San Francisco, CA March 26, 2013©Jay Blakesberg
Kronos back home in San Francisco. Photo by Jay Blakesberg

At the close the thunderous applause the musicians received compelled them to return to the stage four times for encores. They began with the sublime ‘The Beatitudes’ by contemporary Russian composer Vladimir Martynov. Their recording of this piece featured in La Grande Bellezza (The Great Beauty), winner of the 2014 Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film.

In total contrast that was followed by ‘Last Kind Words’ which the quartet had performed a week earlier on Later with Jools Holland. David Harrington introduced the piece as ‘one of the great classics of 20th century American music’. For a long time nothing was known about the woman whose name – Geeshie Wiley – appeared as composer and singer on the label of old 78 from the 1920s. Two years ago the New York Times published a lengthy article detailing the author’s attempt to piece together true identity of Geeshie Wiley. It’s a fascinating story which began:

There exist no ghosts more vexing than a couple of women identified on three ultrarare records made in 1930 and ’31 as Elvie Thomas and Geeshie Wiley. There are musicians as obscure as Wiley and Thomas, and musicians as great, but in none does the Venn diagram of greatness and lostness reveal such vast and bewildering co-extent. In the spring of 1930, in a damp and dimly lit studio, in a small Wisconsin village on the western shore of Lake Michigan, the duo recorded a batch of songs that for more than half a century have been numbered among the masterpieces of prewar American music, in particular two, Elvie’s “Motherless Child Blues” and Geeshie’s “Last Kind Words Blues,” twin Alps of their tiny oeuvre, inspiring essays and novels and films and cover versions, a classical arrangement.

Yet despite more than 50 years of researchers’ efforts to learn who the two women were or where they came from, we have remained ignorant of even their legal names.

Next came another classic of American roots music, ‘Orange Blossom Special’, played furiously, before the musicians brought things to a clam conclusion with more sublimity with ‘Lux Aeterna’, written by Clint Mansell and recorded by Kronos for the film Requiem for a Dream.

We had been privileged to witness a wonderful evening of music in which the Kronos Quartet revealed just why they reputation stands so high. Pushing the boundaries of the string quartet repertoire for close on 40 years, they have raised musical proficiency to a new level. The Manchester audience loved it, and clearly Kronos did too:

Kronos RNCM tweet

See also

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