Tuesday 19 August 2014

EIF 2014 – Kronos Quartet & Beyond Zero 1914-1918, or, A Little Over-fragmented

I think, on investigation, this was my first live encounter with the Kronos Quartet (I thought they were the quartet in Eraritjaritjaka at a long past Festival but was mistaken) and I was certainly glad to finally hear them live even though I was not wholly convinced by this particular programme.

This show fits effectively into Jonathan Mills's theme of impacts of war, particularly the First World War. That theme is working convincingly across theatre, opera and music programmes this year  something that hasn't always been the case with Mills's themes (I haven't seen enough of the dance strand to be able to judge whether it applies there also). This show is formed of two halves without interval. In the first the Kronos play a selection of pieces which, on close study of the programme, appear to span the period immediately before to immediately following World War One under the title of Prelude to a Black Hole. In the second, archive (often very archive) film of the conflict, recovered by Bill Morrison, is shown accompanied by a new score written by Aleksandra Vrebalov and played live by the Quartet.

There is no questioning the Kronos's artistry – especially in managing the relationship to tape and screen elements. Long stretches of the films are haunting, including both the very beginning where tanks lumber out of the damaged negative and the end where a lone parachute descends in a similar fog of deteriorating film. There is a real power in these glimpses of a world and its experiences, a suggestion of something we can never fully recover or comprehend. However, I didn't find the seemingly random and, in the later sections, repetitive organisation of the film fragments wholly effective – to me a more coherent arrangment of scenes looked possible, and a slightly shorter selection would not have led to loss of impact. Vrebalov's score also, to my ear, became repetitive, and I wasn't always convinced about the relationship between the two elements.

I found the first part of the programme, Prelude to the Black Hole, less effective again. There were some interesting juxtapositions. I was pleased to hear Webern's Op.9 Bagatelles. But I found it difficult to discern why the pieces were arranged in this particular order, and as with Beyond Zero I found the selection outstayed its welcome.

It is quite possible that the intention of this programme was to emphasise the chaotic element of war, to argue that you can't make a coherent whole out of the musical or film records of the 1914-18 period. This is clearly a valid argument but as a performance experience in this case it didn't wholly convince me. My brother however took a completely opposite view, finding it compelling throughout.

Despite my reservations about the evening, I wasn't sorry to have been present. It is an interesting experiment, and, were there another performance, I would suggest it is worth seeing particularly to see these films. In the meantime, the Kronos are on stage again tonight, this time in more familiar (for them) fare at the Usher Hall.

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