If Only ...
Like the designers of the World Trade Center, the Kronos Quartet
set their sights high. They would recognize the fifth anniversary
of the devastation of that landmark with more than a simple
memorial. They would present an "Awakening," a "Musicial
Meditation," "a new soundtrack to an internal movie," a creation
of "equilibrium in the midst of imbalance: a special covering
on an open wound" by "using a wide range of sonic building blocks
from 12 countries."
Did they succeed?
Partially. Their carefully crafted and modulated program offered
ample material for meditation. Each of its three sections offered a
different challenge to the audience, and the performance was magnificent.
Unfortunately, the interminable centerpiece of the evening, Michael
Gordon's The Sad Park, cast such an irrevocable pall that even a
beautiful children's chorus at the end could not save the day.
Commissioned by the Kronos, it is ample proof that a piece for a
disaster should not be a disaster.
Challenge #1: Culture
The first section of the Awakening was a confrontation. While
some in America are pushing to call 9/11 Patriot Day, the Kronos
began their program with works closer to Bin Laden's homeland
than America's. A traditional call to Muslim prayer, the adhan,
was played by the Quartet from the corners of the stage, as if
from separate minarets. The four then merged at the center for
the Uzbeki composition Awakening, also based on adhans. Instead
of Manhattan hustle and bustle, an infectious popular song from
Iraq came next, "Oh Mother, the Handsome Man Tortures Me." This
is supposed to be a love song, but isn't that verb a provocation,
considering Abu Ghraib? Finally, the section was rounded off
by melismatic numbers from Iran and India. No New York yet.
Challenge #2: Hard Music
The Western avant garde was the topic of the second section,
beginning with a literally striking arrangement of Armenia,
a song by the German Industrial band Einsturzende Neubauten.
Bashing with hammers and rasping with hacksaws and spark-flying
grinders, members of the Quartet had a jolly time. Violinist
and Founder David Harrington turned into rock star and horror
master as he mouthed in highly distorted German, "Are the volcanoes
still active? Please don't disappoint me." Oh, and by the way,
the band name translates as "collapsing new buildings."
Next came John Oswald's Spectre, six minutes long and unforgettable,
followed without pause by Gordon's Park, thirty minutes long and
unendurable. Spectre starts with a tuning session that merges
into overdubs of simultaneous Kronos recordings, more than a
thousand, that according to Oswald create "a wall of sound of
veils of vibration of ghosts of events of past and future
continuously present in a virtually extended moment." At the
climax, which has been described by Harrington and listeners
alike as "747s taking off," the Quartet members, like a sped-up
cartoon, flash their bows back and forth balletically in the air
above their strings. In a word, breathtaking.
Where the jets went is the subject of Gordon's wet blanket,
played in its West Coast premiere. Gordon was walking his son
Lev to pre-kindergarten in Lower Manhattan on 9/11, the two
experiencing first hand what happened. Lev's teacher later
recorded her charges' descriptions, such as "There was a big
boom and then there was teeny fiery coming out." In fulfilling
his commission, Gordon directed sound designer Luke DuBois to
drastically distort the kids' words; meanwhile he wrote the
extremely repetitive, astringent accompaniment for the Quartet.
Frankly, I couldn't decide what the result was most like: being
trapped alive in the ruins of the WTC and not being rescued, or
being immobilized by a flu headache while having to listen to a
neighbor's kid practice the violin over and over? The meditations
of members of the audience are not known, but the effects were
clearly visible on their bodies: squirming, fidgeting, grimacing,
and for some lucky ones, sleep.
Challenge #3: Symbolic Reconciliation
After the Gordon, the concluding section of tonal works was very
welcome, but not enough to make up for previous suffering. A
joint work by Osvaldo Golijov and Gustavo Santaolalla, sounding
every bit like the Adagietto from Mahler's Fifth Symphony, was
nice, even if it was originally written for Alejandro G. Inarritu's
stark film with a mostly blank screen, sounds of a morass of
voices, and occasional flashes of people falling to the deaths
from the WTC. Terry Riley's "One Earth, One People, One Love"
from Sun Rings took a My-Country-Tis of-Thee-like melody and
accompanied it with an intriguing film and words by Neil Armstrong
and poet Alice Walker. Although opening with Armstrong's words
a shot of the Earth as seen from space moving across and off the
screen, the rest of the film consists of Walker intoning the
title while two cylinders mounted vertically on sticks swing
back and forth at each other, but just missing each time. Are
these the two cultures, East and West? Will they collide? In
fact they do, fairly gently, and the result puts them in a
parallel orbit around one another.
A Swedish folksong arranged for Quartet, then a Finnish song by
Aulis Sallinen sung by the children of the Piedmont Choirs Concert
Choir, and finally Vladimir Martynov's The Beatitudes: all were
sweet, all were fine. The kids even brought tears to my eyes.
But none were enough. The challenges proposed by this concert
of the Kronos were stimulating, laudatory. There was a lot for
the mind, some for the heart, and unfortunately, a mixed, poisoned
bag for the ear. The soundtrack was not replaced, the equilibrium
was only partially achieved, the covering for the wound had a
thirty-minute hole in it. The building block from America was
made of defective concrete.
In future anniversaries, a substitute for The Sad Park should
be found, for the rest of the music, and its framework, constitutes
an impressive contribution to the art.
Jeff Dunn <[log in to unmask]>