A Stageful of Toys
Just as it’s pointless to list the accomplishments of the Kronos Quartet, which is approaching its 40th anniversary, it’s impossible to describe the diversity of its repertoire, which has included far-reaching collaborations with everyone from Inuit throat singer Tanya Tagaq to sound artist Walter Kitundu to Noam Chomsky, Allen Ginsberg, and David Bowie. Given that history, it’s easy to misleadingly describe the group’s sold-out performance at Zankel Hall as “typical,” which in this case means innovative, risk-taking, and playful.
February 28, 2012
Inaugurating the evening, Kronos, with artistic director David Harrington and John Sherba on violins, Hank Dutt on viola, and Jeffrey Zeigler on cello, commenced with the first of two world premieres—Donnacha Dennehy’s “One Hundred Goodbyes (Céad Slán),” in which the low-fidelity and therefore disembodied, sampled voices of sean nós singers, historically unaccompanied, were played through a speaker and overlaid on the Quartet’s dissonant, live soundtrack. In this piece, cellist Zeigler first played percussive pizzicato, and then segued into the primary, pensive melody. Matching the plangent subject matter (the lyrics included a clerical harangue), the music ranged from metallic to darkly tuneful, the vocals from Orwellian to folkish. As “Goodbyes” progressed, Kronos took Dennehy’s ritardando into the emotional territory of trance. “Goodbyes” also introduced the first of a set of abstract visual projections by lighting designer Laurence Neff that persistently distracted throughout the performance. The Kronos Quartet doesn’t need a light show to impress.
Kronos next played the New York premiere of Vladimir Martynov’s Schubert-Quintet (Unfinished), joined by their former cellist Joan Jeanrenaud. This piece, which began unpromisingly with what appeared to be ponderous, minimalist repetition, drew out Martynov’s professed 21st-century versions of Schubert’s “infinite heavenly lengths” into celestial strings of somniferous reverie. Transported into delta waves by music like this, a listener gets the distinct impression that the composer and musicians are, in fact, intentional and instrumental hypnotists.
To honor the present eminence of Philip Glass, Kronos played his “String Quartet No. 5” while a short political film by Bill Morrison was projected. Morrison’s juxtaposition and implicit conflation of Occupy Wall Street with protests in Greece, Egypt’s Tahrir Square, and other places were graphic, if sometimes dubious. Again, unfortunately, the visuals overwhelmed the music, as the notorious UC Davis Police Lt. John Pike casually pepper-sprayed kneeling protesters. This disconnect was exacerbated by the obvious fact that the composition wasn’t written as the film’s score, but rather incongruously grafted on. Context, in this case, made it impossible to objectively experience Glass, who admittedly is being overperformed this year.
Back on track, Kronos played Nicole Lizée’s extragalactic “Death to Kosmische,” in New York premiere, incorporating a variety of exotic and electronic elements. These included the softly major-key melodic omnichord, a descendent of the autoharp and zither, and the stylophone, a miniature synthesizer whose subtle auditory effects ensemble were best known to Kronos and sound designer Scott Fraser. Zeigler and Dutt first took these instruments up as Harrington and Sherba played minimal two-note oscillations, the resulting effect that of a roomful of batty aunts jamming in the listener’s cranial attic, cranking electronic music boxes, or reincarnated as alien musicians in a nightclub on exoplanet GJ1214b. With its electronic vibrato/reverb and instrumental novelty, “Death” was arguably the most electrifying composition of the evening. Lizée, who wrote that this piece reflected her fascination with “musical hauntology,” appeared afterward, taking bows to enthusiastic applause.
The evening closed with a world premiere of Michael Hearst’s“Secret Word.” If the title sounds familiar, it is: the “Secret Word” was a feature of the television series Pee-wee’s Playhouse. Although Hearst disclaimed the connection, attributing the idea to Harrington, he did put together the equivalent of the unanimous, cacophonous scream à la Pee-wee when about 50 audience members trooped onstage to make the requisite racket with a variety of musical instruments and noisemakers, including triangles and vuvuzelas, laid out on tables around the stage. “Secret Word” began innocuously to a string-quartet waltz tempo until Jacob Garchik appeared playing an elephantine white sousaphone, joined by Hearst himself playing a rare and singular claviola, essentially a wind/keyboard/pipe instrument. When Zeigler abandoned his cello for a pair of cymbals, and violinist Sherba squeezed a rubber chicken, all bets were off. Needless to say, this unprofound composition was immensely popular, sent the audience home with lighter hearts, and said something about Kronos: that after four decades, innumerable collaborations, and a world of experience, they aren’t taking things—or themselves—too seriously. Although we never did learn the secret word, it had to be either fun or Kronos—consummate musicians in confident stride, comfortably connecting with their audience.