Kronos Quartet

Potassium [UK première]
Stringsongs [World premiere]
Intus Trepidare [UK premiere]
Mansell, arr. Lang
Requiem for a Dream – Suite
du Bois
String Quartet: Oculus pro oculo totum orbem terrae caecat

Kronos Quartet
[David Harrington & John Sherba (violins), Hank Dutt (viola) & Jennifer Culp (cello)]

Larry Neff – lighting designer
Scott Fraser – audio engineer

Reviewed by: Timothy Ball

Reviewed: 22 January, 2005
Venue: Barbican Hall, London

The Kronos Quartet continue its missionary-like task to commission and promote new works for the string quartet repertoire. Two UK premières and one first performance formed a significant proportion of this concert, which was very well attended.

If there are generalisations which may be drawn from this programme, it is that there is a risk that certain clichés – for want of a better term – of contemporary string writing are in danger of being over-used. The most ubiquitous is the deployment of glissando, of which there were innumerable examples. So much so that the effect became distinctly irritating.

Also, in several instances, one felt that whilst there was a degree or so of what might be described as ‘surface’ interest, there was a lack of real substance to the actual musical material. In fact, there was nothing to challenge the listener in the way that the ‘late’ quartets of Beethoven or those of Schoenberg continue to do. One wondered how this particular audience would have responded to the music of, say, Brian Ferneyhough whose writing for string quartet places demands on both listeners and musicians, which none of the composers represented in this programme do.

One might almost say that, to a large extent, this was ‘user-friendly’ contemporary music. In other words, there was sufficient ‘oddity’ to suggest modernity, but nothing so radical as to cause sensitive feathers to be ruffled.

The Kronos Quartet’s presentation of these works featured variedlighting which shifted between, and sometimes during, pieces.The instruments were also amplified. At the start of Michael Gordon’s Potassium, it did not appear to have been switched on; thus the opening viola phrase was unadorned. Thereafter, amplification kicked in and there was some distortion. Whether or not this was intended, it is difficult to say, but this gnarled effect was heard again during the evening, along with various other bumps and bangs emanating from large loudspeakers on the stage. Some of the pieces had a pre-recorded element.

Gordon’s Potassium has an alternating slow/fast structure, in bothinstances including much string slithering. Initially, with its overlapping of siren-like sounds, one was put in mind of Penderecki’s 1960s’ string music – but without the dissonance. In the faster sections, minimalist-style ‘chugging’ predominated. This was another feature found elsewhere in this programme. It is ironic to note that whereas Minimalism was once regarded as something apart from mainstream music, it is now welcomed eagerly into the armoury of self-respecting eclectic composers. There were some pithy melodic moments for the cello but, in general, sliding and re-iterating were the main ingredients of this piece.

Something more substantial was evoked by Franghiz Ali-Zadeh’s Oasis. Dating from 1998 this was the ‘oldest’ piece on offer and with its gentle, high pizzicato opening alternating with pre-recorded aquatic sounds, there was a feeling of a sensitive response to the poetic implications of the title. Ali-Zadeh wrote a substantial ‘programme’ which refers to “a quiet place of refuge, which everyone dreams about when weary from life’s tumults” and concludes that “there is a long road ahead, full of dangers and agitations”. Certainly, the music did not suggest that this was, predominately, a trouble-free oasis, and intensity was built up during the course of the work’s progress. Quiet vocal interjections from the players, notably exhalations, added to atmosphere.The best compliment one can pay is that one would be interested to hear more of Azerbaijan-born Ali-Zadeh’s compositions. Her music features on a forthcoming Kronos Quartet release from Nonesuch.

Meredith Monk is a remarkable creative and performing musician, with her excursions into extended vocal technique being at the heart of her work. Stringsongs is her first venture in string quartet writing and is a commission for the Kronos Quartet by the Barbican and the Carnegie Hall Corporation. In four movements, each sub-titled, the first two slightly outstayed their welcome. Commencing with a passage of double-stopping which had a ‘tuning-up’ effect, ‘cliff light’ also had brief, almost hymn-like, phrases that were sometimes broken up. The second movement,’tendrils’, was reposeful and touchingly lyrical, whilst the third,’obsidian chorale’ was brief and had an Ives-like homespun quality. Short fragments which became extended formed the substance of ‘phantom strings’, and distinct echoes of the pulsation of Steve Reich could be sensed.

This was an attractive and appealing composition, though it lacks the arresting qualities which define Meredith Monk’s vocal writing, in spite of the composer’s programme-note which stated that she wanted “to create unexpected textures and sounds in much the same way that I have worked with the voice over many years”.

Perhaps the interval should then have followed, since by includinganother piece, the first half felt too long. William Jeth’s Intus Trepidare (Trembling from within) might, possibly, have made a better effect had it not been heard in the context where somany similar string sounds had already been heard. For we were back in the realm of slides and ‘odd’ bowing and scraping. There were varied textures, to be sure, though the obsessive rhythmic passages reminded one of Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony. In any event, Intus Trepidare felt too protracted in this context, though there was no denying its striking conclusion, with the cellist striving into almost unreachable high registers, and the violin tuning right down, pizzicato, into the cello’s normal domain.

Clint Mansell provided the score for the cult film “Requiem for a Dream” and David Lang (co-founder and co-artistic director of Bang on a Can) arranged this suite for the Kronos Quartet. There was also a continuous ‘backing track’ which was Mansell’s own work. It may well be that this rather anodyne music served as an apt backdrop for the film, but in purely musical terms, it was insubstantial fare, with some mechanistic pulsing and some soupy melodic phrases being the most apparent features. A comparatively gentle ‘pop-like’ beat along with some plucked synthesiser sounds emerged from the loudspeakers, but for much of the time the Kronos players seemed to be mere additions to what had been pre-recorded, with violinist David Harrington doodling about in first position. This was neither a technically nor musically challenging score.

The same cannot be said of the final work, Alexandra du Bois’s Oculus pro oculo totum orbem terrae caecat (An eye for an eye makes the whole world blind); interestingly enough the only piece on the programme to be described as a String Quartet.

Born in 1981, du Bois was the youngest composer represented and the first to be commissioned by the “Kronos: Under 30 Project”, which seeks to encourage young composers to write for the quartet. This is, surely, an admirable initiative, though composers of all ages need continual encouragement and opportunities for their works to be heard. Although not specified in the programme-note, David Harrington’s spoken introduction informed us that the quartet was composed in 2003 duringthe period leading up to the Iraq war.

There is undoubtedly an air of disquiet and unease and, yes, there are numerous string glissandi, but these, and other ‘effects’ seemed integrated and much more part of the piece as a whole than was the case with other such instances heard during the course of this evening. Moments of Gorecki-like calm, oddly stifled phrases and even some haunting reminiscences of Bartók’s night-music made for compelling effect, as did some ‘weeping’ sounds and a poignant minor chord to end the quartet.

This is altogether an impressive work – the more so for a composer still studying and who was barely in her twenties when it was completed.

In toto, this was a mixed evening, though the commitment and dedication of the players cannot be faulted and the composers are fortunate to have such persuasive advocates. The most straightforward of passages – and there were many – alongside the more demanding moments received equal attention.

I left at the conclusion of the programme, though encores were to be heard. When the first started, with some decidedly loud glissandos, I was glad to have departed with the sound of Alexandra du Bois’s interesting and sensitive sonorities as my prime memory of this concert.

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