Known for stretching, bending and breaking the boundaries of string quartet music for more than 30 years, the San Francisco-based Kronos Quartet attracts audiences seeking innovative and ground-breaking performances of music inspired by anything from Icelandic rockor Palestinian political electronica to Polish minimalism or Middle Eastern folk music. Given Kronos’ reputation for surprising, exciting and even shocking its audiences, the first half of Saturday’s concert didn’t quite live up to my expectations.
The evening began with the intense dissonances of J G Thirlwell’s Nomatophobis (fear of words, or naming). The frenetic repetition of the first section of this piece failed to draw me in but as it slowed down I became more engaged. The ghostly, pianissimo siren sounds at the end of the work had the audience leaning in towards the stage, determined to catch every last note.
The following three works were short pieces from the quartet’s most recent album Floodplains, a collection of music “inspired by the idea that areas prone to devastating flooding will experience creative rebirth after a catastrophe.” I had been really looking forward to hearing what the quartet would do with an Iraqi pop song, a traditional Iranian lullaby and a piece by Palestinian musical collective Ramallah Underground. But I was ultimately disappointed in what I heard, which basically seemed like a string quartet playing with a backing tape that rarely added to their sound in an interesting way, and often did little more than provide a driving beat. There was nothing unpleasant or offensive about the music but I felt that listening to the original versions of the three pieces may have been just as, if not more, engaging. Perhaps if Kronos had performed live with Ramallah Underground the performance may have been more interesting, or if the hand-drum that creates the gunshot rhythms heard in the Iraqi song had been played onstage rather than on a recording. But as it was, something was missing. Scatter by Swedish duo Hurdy-Gurdy had a similar effect: in the end the string quartet sound reduced the hurdy-gurdy music to fairly uninteresting background or back-up music.
Aleksandra Vrebalov’s ...hold me, neighbour, in this storm redeemed this first part of the concert for me. Her innovative use of recorded sounds such as prayer calls and church bells, as well as her use of ethnic Balkan instruments combining with the epitomical sound of Western classical music, the string quartet, created an impression of a Balkan landscape in all its raw glory.There was an unrefined, almost primitive quality to the first part of the work which was amplified by the real-life sounds (voices, bells) that emerged from behind the strings. As the music transformed into folk-inspired melodies punctuated with shouts and stamps I felt as if I were being taken on a journey through the Balkans as music and non-musical sounds from the region’s diverse cultures drifted past my ears and then away again. Vrebalov’s explanation of the work as “a way to connect histories and places” in a land devastated by the violence of ethnic intolerance made absolute sense when I listened to the music.
The second half of the concert opened with Polish composer Hanna Kulenty’s String Quartet no. 4 (A Cradle Song). Based on a melody she originally wrote for her newborn daughter who died at the age of ten, this work is supposed to bring a new, positive meaning to a melody that obviously has a deep significance for Kulenty. I heard more of an intense, almost obsessive repetition framed by hauntingly beautiful wailing at the beginning and end of the piece, rather than something positive or uplifting. But this work was eclipsed by the dramatic highlight of the concert: Jon Rose’s Music From 4 Fences.
Rose is an Australian composer and musician who has been playing fences as musical instruments since 1983. His composition for Kronos represents the first time that fences have been played on a concert stage and judging by the reception of the work on Saturday night, it is an incredibly effective music and theatre piece. The members of the quartet each stood in front of a mobile fence which they played by plucking, bowing and hitting its wires. The placement of the fences on the stage and the physicality involved in playing them emphasised the visual drama of this set-up. The sound of these fences is like no other string instrument: it is cold, hard, inhuman and machine-like, evoking images of chainsaws and prisons as well as more abstract notions of war, desolation, conflict and distance. Rose has found inspiration in border fences and barbed wire rabbit fences and this was directly evident in his composition. By the end of the work, the Kronos Quartet were enclosed by their own fences as angled projections of their faces and bodies moved on the walls surrounding them, and there was a strange, riveting beauty amidst the ugliness of it all.
Performing new and experimental music, particularly in an ensemble that is traditionally associated with Western ‘high art’ and classical music, is a risky business.The fact that the Kronos Quartet have been doing it for over 30 years and that hey are still considered to be avant-garde is an outstanding achievement in itself and it is inevitable that some of this group’s experiments will be less successful than others. Nevertheless, Kronos should not be permitted to rely on its reputation for being new and exciting and some of the music in this concert just didn’t seem particularly inventive or original. But if the quartet continues to play music by composers like Vrebalov and Rose it will maintain the element of excitement that its audiences have come to expect.
Melbourne Recital Centre
Venue: Elisabeth Murdoch Hall
Date/Time: Saturday, June 6, 2009 at 7:30pm