|Photography by Eleonora Collini|
For more than 30 years Kronos Quartet (violinists David Harrington and John Sherba, violist Hank Dutt and cellist Jeffrey Zeigler) have pursued a singular artistic vision, combining a spirit of fearless exploration with a commitment to expanding the context of the string quartet, and they’ve remained on the cutting edge, introducing a wide range of new music from the realms of classical, jazz and rock – plus various world cultures – to the chamber-music stage.
The program of their sold-out concert at the beautiful Hackney Empire, London on Tuesday the 24th January was a perfect example of their ambitious artistic choices and well representative of their long career. The show was part of the week-long ‘Awakenings’ residency under the auspices of the Barbican with which the American string quartet have collaborated since 2003.
They opened with three pieces composed by young emerging artists Bryce Dessner (better known for being the guitarist in the indie-rock band The National), Missy Mazzoli, and Tyondai Braxton (formerly of post-rock instrumental outfit Battles). Dressner’s sinuous "Aheym (Homeward)" was originally commissioned for a Kronos Quartet concert in Prospect Park (near which Dessner lives) and it’s an autobiographical homage to the Jewish community in Brooklyn, a musical evocation of the idea of flight and passage over gripping rhythms and layered melodies. The original Philip Glass-like rhythms from the opening return in developed alterations before becoming progressively dynamic and exploding into a passionate, mind-blowing final climax.
Missy Mazzoli’s "Harp and Altar" (originally commissioned in 2009) is an inventive ode to the Brooklyn Bridge. The title comes from a poem by Hart Crane, in which he describes the famous New York Bridge as "that harp and altar of the Fury fused." Halfway through the piece Gabriel Kahane’s pre-recorded voice enters, singing fragments of these lines from that poem, floating amid mildly dissonant chords and loop effects till a closing blaze of red light.
Tyondai Braxton has been making music in New York for most of the past decade, both in the ecstatic prog-rock band Battles (for which he played guitar and vocals) and as an ambitious loop-mining solo artist. He first composed "Uffe’s Woodshop" for his Stravinsky-inspired album Central Market, but the version played at the Hackney Empire the other day is a string rearrangement of it.
Kronos quartet then performed Randall Woolf’s arrangement of jazz musician Thelonious Monk’s "Round Midnight" featuring drums loops and electronic, almost dance melodies not present in the original, and Jacob Garchik’s transcription of "Smyrneiko Minore", an old Greek song that Marika Papagika recorded in New York in 1918, probably the weakest moment of the concert.
The London premieres of two minimalist masterpieces followed: Terry Riley’s "Another secret eQuation" and Michael Gordon’s "Exalted", both accompanied by the Trinity Laban Chamber Choir, conducted by Stephen Jackson. Riley has been collaborating with Kronos Quartet since 1980 and this recent work (written in commemoration of physicist and violinist Hans Siegmann) is one of the most interesting he has composed for them. The Youth Choir came onstage emitting intermittent discomforting wails and cries before the quartet started playing post-tonal, liturgical harmonies alternated by vibrant, Latin rhythms over spacey lyrics that mix onomatopoeia with youthful inquiries about the state of the Universe.
There is an architectural similarity between this Riley’s composition and the tonal sophistication of "Exalted" which seemed to blend the two works into a single, overlong span. The latter featured Gordon’s characteristic pulsing repetitions and descending melodic figures over the choir’s interpolation of the first four words of the Kaddish in Aramaic ("Yitgaddal v’yitkaddash sh’meh rabba – Exalted and sanctified is God’s great name"). The cello played a repetitive, hypnotic sliding note against a staccato pedal motif from the rest of the quartet, while the text ping-ponged between the female and male voices and before the violin performed a wild, metal solo. The audience, stunned, exploded when at the end Gordon himself went on stage.
The second half of the concert saw Kronos Quartet coming back (after changing their clothes to a totally black outfit) to play George Crumb’s "Black Angels" (the work that was the reason why in 1973 Harrington formed the quartet), in a new, more theatrical stage version devised four years ago. The composition was originally conceived as a representation of the fight between the devil (embodied by the violin) and God (whose voice is played by the cello), but was then associated by the author to the Vietnam War. It’s an experimental work that along with violins, viola and cello, features maracas, suspended tam-tams and mallets, almost wordless vocals (shouting, whispering, whistling) and crystal glasses. A numerological symbolism around the fatal numbers 7 and 13 pervades the whole work and there are several allusions to tonal music, perhaps the most evident of which is a quotation from Shubert’s "Death and the Maiden". In the original diagram (included in the score) the four musicians were placed in a box-like formation, whereas this new stage version sees them all aligned at the front of the stage, each with a microphone hanging from the ceiling and the tam-tams behind them. A collective gasp was heard among audience members when Harrington, Sherba, and Dutt, on raised platforms, bowed crystal goblets lighted from beneath as Jeffrey Zeigler played a haunting cello soliloquy. A well-deserved near-standing ovation and loud, warm cheers followed the end of the performance.