Hell on Earth and Hell Beyond: the Kronos Quartet in Usher Hall

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Hieronymus Bosch, Triptych of the Last Judgment (detail), 1504, Berlin.

Hieronymus Bosch, Triptych of the Last Judgment (detail), 1504, Berlin.

Kronos Quartet
Usher Hall, Sat 21 Aug: 8:00pm

David Harrington, Violin
John Sherba, Violin
Hank Dutt, Viola
Jeffrey Zeigler, Cello

Aleksandra Vrebalov –  …hold me, neighbor, in this storm…
Steve Reich – Different Trains
George Crumb – Black Angels

The greatest surprise in the Kronos Quartet’s concert at Usher Hall was that this was their very first appearance at the Edinburgh Festival. I’d have thought that they’d be regulars going back many years, given their well-known mixture of daring repertory and popular appeal. For almost forty years now, they have achieved almost cult status by playing a certain kind of contemporary music: challenging works which demand concentration but which are sufficiently colorful and aggressive that they commandeer the audience’s attention from start to finish. The works in this concert were all endowed with a vast range of color, thanks to the introduction of quite a menagerie of alien instruments and the almost constant use of electronic enhancements. Along with this, the compositions exceeded the limits of music, since they were performances in themselves through the use of elaborate props and lighting — and all of them made their effect by conjuring up images in our imaginations, and through this imagery, telling stories, or relating experiences, feelings, and ideas in a poetic way that more or less consistently suggests a narrative. This internal Gesamtkunstwerk is entirely in harmony with the Edinburgh Festival, and I shouldn’t be surprised to see them here again.

Two of the pieces are well-known and have been associated with the Kronians for many years: Steve Reich’s Different Trains, and George Crumb’s Black Angels. The introductory work “…hold me, neighbor, in this storm…” is a recent commission from the Serbian-American composer, Aleksandra Vrebalov. Its particular story is the transformation of her native country since the fall of socialist Yugoslavia. She relates this as a dialogue between the western string quartet and two traditional instruments, the tapan, a resonant, throaty drum, and the gusle, a one-stringed bowed instrument, on which oral bards from all over the former Yugoslavia accompanied their epics, but which also served in dance music and lyrical songs. In the Tito era, as everybody knows, the culture of the various Balkan states became homogenized and westernized. When Yugoslavia fell apart, ethnic culture re-merged, along with unspeakable internecine hostility and violence. The audience was invited to decide for themselves whether the Serbian and western instruments were engaging in a dialogue or a struggle. I’d opt for the former, although the conversation was at times extremely aggressive and threatening. The work began with a strain on the gusle, played by first violin, David Harrington, almost as if he had grown up with it. Violist Hank Dutt took over the tapan. The natural sounds of these instruments was eventually swallowed up by electronic treatments, which mediated between the farouche qualities of the Balkan instruments and the string quartet. As the the two elements came together, the common language seemed to be mostly Bartókian. It’s certainly appropriate, since Bartók made a deep exploration of Balkan folk music, and I shouldn’t be surprised if we heard some of the tunes he transcribed, or something like them, in the earlier part of the piece. Hence the resolution of the dialogue seemed in some ways a step backwards, but an appeal to classic authority isn’t always a bad thing. In any case, it’s an impressive and well-wrought piece, and I’ll certainly be looking out for Vrebalov’s work in the future.

In Different Trains, Steve Reich relates train-oriented aspects American and European life from the 1930s through the war to the post-war period. The first movement evokes railway life in Depression America. The second relates the rounding up of Jews for delivery to concentration camps and their journeys into this hell. The final movement brings us into the emigration of the survivors to America and and their travels to homes in the US. This conjured up a vivid cinematic experience in my mind, actually far more vivid than if the visual details had been filled in with actors, sets, and costumes. As one would expect, the interjections and shouts of conductors and travellers sound out above a train-like ostinato. Reich’s style proved itself a powerful vehicle for historical narration.

George Crumb’s Black Angels, on the other hand, is a work of a different order — a true masterpiece in the great American tradition of Edgar Allan Poe and Ambrose Bierce. It is a poem which has not merely been set to music, but its macabre depictions are purely imagined within the music. Beyond his own imagination Crumb draws on the whole tradition of Apocalyptic imagery, from the earliest illuminated manuscripts, through Bosch, Dürer, to John Martin and beyond. I’d have to do more study to enumerate his sources with any precision. In fact, there is no one source. Crumb appears to have studied this material in considerable breadth and depth for many years, and he has clearly absorbed it into his psyche. The sounds themselves sing of the nastier parts of the other world in an intense absorbing and graphical way, whether they come straight from the quartet’s instruments, hung when not in use ominously from hooks suspended from the ceiling, suggesting some Boschian horror, from water-filled glasses, or from the almost constantly active loudspeakers. Why do I mention the pictorial tradition? There is a physical and visual referent contained within Crumb’s eerie sonic world. Besides, the imagery of the Apocalypse is stronger for most of us, since the Biblical text is so ambiguous and open to a vast array of differing interpretations. Only a certain sort of person would actually memorize St. John’s text and carry it with him, and those who would claim to have a clear understanding of the Revelation are fewer still. Fortunately Crumb appears to be interested exclusively in the poetic aspects of the tradition, which he treats with irony and black humor. I can trace no moral message here, beyond, perhaps, a deep pessimism.

Usher Hall was close to full with excited Festival-goers and Kronos groupies. At the conclusion there was a whistling and shouting that one rarely hears at classical concerts. It was at the end that I learned that the Kronos Quartet were at the festival for the first time…also that they were breaking a long-time rule of never playing an encore after Black Angels. For this they lightened up a bit and played music from a film score: The Fountain by Darren Aronofsky. It was also rather nice to see how genuinely surprised and delighted they were at their reception. After the performance, they, like us, repaired to Blue for some late-night restoration after their evening of incredibly hard work.

About the author

Michael Miller

Michael Miller, Editor and Publisher of New York Arts and The Berkshire Review, an International Journal for the Arts, was trained as a classicist and art historian at Harvard and Oxford, worked in the art world for many years as a curator and dealer, and contributed reviews and articles to Bostonia, Master Drawings, Drawing, Threshold, and North American Opera Journal, as well as numerous articles for scholarly and popular periodicals. He has taught courses in classics, the English language, and art history at Oberlin, Rutgers, New York University, the New School, and Williams. Currently, when he is not at work on The Berkshire Review and New York Arts, he writes fiction, pursues photography, and publishes scholarly work. In 2011 he contributed an introductory essay to Leonard Freed: The Italians / exh. cat. Io Amo L’Italia, exhibition at Le Stelline, Milan, and wrote the revised the section on American opera houses in The Grove Dictionary of American Music. He is currently at work on a libretto for a new opera by Lewis Spratlan, Midi, an adaptation of Euripides’ Medea set in the French West Indies, ca. 1930.

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