Thursday, 19 May 2011

Kronos in Glasgow, Part II: The Infinite Variety and the Burning Fire of Discovery

At some point during Saturday night's Kronos Quartet concert three words struck me. They were the title of the first episode of David Attenborough's groundbreaking natural history documentary Life on Earth: "The Infinite Variety". For, having been to the Americas, Egypt, Iceland, Palestine, Australia and Iraq the previous evening, here we were embarking on yet another world tour, and a completely different one at that.

Music of Steve Reich - Sat 30 April 2011 -0222
Photo: Andy Catlin

It began in America with John Zorn's The Dead Man. The quartet seemed to have a lot of fun with this series of miniatures, not least in the energy with which they turned the pages. Kronos are, since we're on the subject of pages, more or less unique in my experience in having their music hole punched into ring binders (in one case on Friday with wedges cut out so they could fold it back on itself). They pushed their instruments to their limits. And, indeed, their bows as, in the final section, they were called upon to vigorously swat the air as if batting away imaginary wraiths, with one of them taking it in turns to provide minimal accompaniment beneath. The final unified stroke, wherein three bows came together in the manner of the swords of the three musketeers, had the same impressive synchronisation as any of their playing.

For the next two pieces they were joined by Ritva Koistinen on the kantele (a traditional Finnish plucked string instrument, according to Wikipedia). This added a nice extra colour and texture to the quartet. The new arrangement of Arvo Pärt's De Profundis was both beautiful and soothing, showing yet another of Kronos's many sides (Estonia, for those checking off the air miles). This was followed by Russian composer Vladimir Martynov's tribute To Henryk Górecki (Poland). Again, this was very nice, though for me I think the Kronos are at their most persuasive in more dynamic repertoire.

As the lights dimmed after the first interval, we got a brief film about the origin of the quartet's collaboration with the Alim Qasimov Ensemble. Interestingly, Qasimov remarked that part of the challenge and interest of the collaboration came from working with musicians who liked to write everything down as opposed to the freedom he is used to of being able to sing or breath whenever he wants. The added colour and rhythm brought by this six strong Azerbaijani group, not to mention the vibrancy of their dress, lent yet another flavour to the infinite variety of the weekend. Their music had a wonderful energy and life, especially true of the vocals of Qasimov and possibly more so of his daughter Fargana.

There followed a second interval, for in addition to offering excellent variety and excellent music, the concert also offered excellent value (the only unexcellent thing being the quality of the Guinness from the hall's bar). The third and final set was, for me, the highlight of the evening and, indeed, arguably the weekend. Here Kronos were joined by Tanya Tagaq, an Inuit throat singer. Together they performed Derek Charke's Tundra Songs which, with its samples of whale song, ice cracking and more, transported us to yet another sound world.

PhotoMartica1974 (via Wikipedia), reproduced under the GNU Free Documentation License

Tagaq produced such an incredible array of raw and guttural sounds that it is a wonder she doesn't damage her voice in the process. Add to that the drama of her stage presence as, seated in the centre of the quartet, she swayed and flowed with the music. Captivating is an understatement. Then came the central of the five continuous songs: Sedna's Song, a retelling of an Inuit myth. Tagaq's spoken narration captured wit, beauty and then hideous power as the story took its shockingly dark turn. Put simply there seemed infinite variety in this once piece alone. It was an extraordinary experience, and to say I hope they one day record it would be putting it lightly.

The concert had taken place in Glasgow's Old Fruitmarket. With its dark walls, daisy chained coloured lights and cabaret style table seating it made an altogether better fit than the Royal Concert Hall had the previous evening. The seating was unreserved but I managed to bag a prime spot midway back, meaning perfectly balanced sound, which also afforded a clear view of the stage. I couldn't have asked for better. It also reminded me how well Edinburgh's Queen's Hall in cabaret mode would suit Kronos. It makes me wonder why more classical ensembles don't perform gigs with a cabaret style layout? (The OAE are a notable exception.)

One final thought: the programme contained three Scottish and two world premieres, so five in total; or, as many as the entire 2010/11 SCO season! There's something extraordinary about this ensemble who, according to their website, have commissioned more than seven hundred works and arrangements for string quartet. It makes the orchestras and ensembles I often hear feel a little like the National Trust in comparison, conserving more than creating.

That is perhaps unfair, as many expend great effort finding new things to say about old masters, the late great Charles Mackerras being a prime example. Yet there was a telling line in the introduction carried by all the Kronos in Glasgow concert programmes in reference to their role as musical innovators:
Who would have thought that one of the most important of them would come from the apparently most conservative corner of this world: the string quartet, the homeland of Haydn, Beethoven and Mozart.
Yet in their days they too were revolutionary. Only last week I was reminded of this when I bought my most recent recording of Schubert's great C major symphony (Barbirolli and the Halle). As Michael Kennedy points out in his liner note:
Vienna then decided to perform it later the same year, but the orchestra could only cope with the first two movements. Mendelssohn put it in a London Philharmonic Society concert in 1844, but the orchestra disrupted the rehearsal with derisory remarks and laughed so much at the horn passages in the finale that the performance was abandoned.
Telling, since so many of those who today complain or take offence at the slightest trace of new music on concert programmes would likely lap the piece up. Find me an orchestral player today who laughs at those horn passages.

Of course, new is not always better. I was not, for example, terribly convinced David Garner's Lament for the Imagined which premiered in the Kronos's final concert. It did little for me and failed to evoke the Scottish diaspora that was its inspiration. It would surprise me if it stands the test of time in the manner I suspect the Reich or Charke pieces may. Nor am I saying that orchestras should abandon Schubert's great C major and other old masterpieces. They shouldn't. I love hearing them. Yet I cannot help feeling there is a better balance than is currently achieved. Why is a recent work in an orchestral programme not the rule rather than the exception? The RSNO's Ten out of 10 this year was excellent, but it hasn't been repeated or built upon for 2011. On a smaller scale there is fine work done by the likes of the Hebrides Ensemble or the Birmingham Contemporary Music Group, but it doesn't seem to be repeated by national companies in quite the same way. Even the Edinburgh International Festival, which has started to commission new music under Jonathan Mills, is often a little more conservative than it could be. When Kronos visited last year, they played what was effectively a greatest hits programme. It was superb, but why not have them back this year to do something to fit with the festival's Asian flavour, something they could easily accomplish?

Alan Davis's beautiful cover art for Fantastic Four #579

I've gone on long enough, and wandered some way from the original concert, so I'll try to wrap up now. To do so I'll turn to another inspirational figure, this time fictional scientist and superhero Reed Richards of the Fantastic Four as he resigns from a scientific conference he founded ten years before because they've grown old, tired and conservative:
The future of man is not here... it is out there. Because it's our new horizon... Because it's what's next. Because there is a fire called discovery burning within me... And I won't go back into the cave for anyone.
Those words from the FF's current scribe Jonathan Hickman are, perhaps, a little excessive for this context, not least as I don't think older classical music is a cave. And yet from this weekend I see just that fire burning in Kronos, just as it burnt in Miles Davis, and it is a wonder to behold. Would that we saw even a fraction of it more often.

The experience has left me inspired, left me wanting to get out of my musical comfort zone and try a little harder to hunt that fire down. While I will listen to virtually anything once, my concert going tends to be rather conservative. I don't plan to give up attending my local orchestras, but for various reasons I have already cut back a little on my bookings for next year. In light of this weekend, I'm now giving serious thought to filling the space with something else. What exactly I don't know, but I have a few interesting ideas. Watch this space.....

N.B. I attended a third Kronos concert on the Sunday night, but I'm not going to review it, in part because I think I was a little Kronosed out. They encored Reich's WTC 9/11, a second reading of which added depth. Often after hearing a new piece I like, I'm eager to get a second chance to catch all the things I missed, but it is rarely possible, so it was nice to have the chance for a change. There were also some beautiful arrangements of the music of James Scott Skinner (Scotland) with the added bonus of local harpist Catriona McKay. As if that wasn't enough diversity, the second half featured Chinese pipa player Wu Man.

You can find my Spotify playlist of available recordings from the three concerts here.

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