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‘you're a song to see: … you're a sight to sing’

Sydney Opera House
03/07/2005 -  
Steve Reich: Pendulum Music, John Zorn: Cat O’Nine Tails, Scott Johnson: How it Happens , Mark Grey: Bertoia I, Bernard Herrmann: The Day the Earth Stood Still, Conlon Nancarrow: Boogie Woogie #3A, Krzysztof Penderecki: Quarteto per archi, Terry Riley: One Earth, One Love (from Sun Rings) , Mark Grey: Bertoia II, Sigur RÓS: Rugufrelsarinn

Kronos Quartet: David Harrington (violin), John Sherba (violin), Hank Dutt (viola), Jennifer Culp (cello).
Design: Alexander V Nichols (scenic & projection), Larry Neff (lighting), Mark Grey (sound)

The Kronos Quartet’s return to Australia after a 10 year absence is a cause for celebration. No other string quartet has a repertoire of such breadth and originality, nor has any collaborated with such an eclectic range of prominent composers. Even if not everything they do works, a Kronos recital is always stimulating.

The quartet’s tour opened the 60th Anniversary Season of Musica Viva Australia, which presents around 2,500 concerts each year.

The quartet is touring Australia with two programs. The first consists of four string quartets and a didgeridoo solo. Two of the quartets are by Peter Sculthorpe (one commissioned by Kronos), who is Musica Viva’s featured composer for 2005. The other two are by Haydn and Mozart, respectively. The didgeridoo solo is played by its composer, William Barton. The second program is titled Visual Music and it is this program that I attended. Visual Music was billed as ‘an audiovisual spectacular, a continuous, unfolding experience that stretches the boundaries between music and visual art’.

The program lasted 90 minutes (no interval) and consisted of ten works, all, with the exception of Penderecki, by composers born, or based, in the USA. The auditorium and stage remained darkened throughout the concert. The performers wore black and, in the dark, their faces were difficult to see. The backdrop consisted of four white panels forming a screen on to which the images were projected. All images where black-and-white. For one work the quartet was seated behind the screen so that their outlines could be discerned behind the projected images. Stage-lighting consisted of subdued, coloured lights. The audience generally did not know when a piece had finished, so avoided applauding during breaks. The effect of this all this was to create a rather sombre, impersonal ambience.

The quartet played their conventional instruments for all the works except those by Reich and Grey. Reich’s work is ‘scored’ for four suspended microphones that swing back and forth creating feedback pulses. The players’ only role in this piece was to set the four microphones swinging to start the piece. In the two works by Mark Grey, the sounds were computer-generated, but their timbral colours were controlled by the players via infra-red sensors on four metal Bertoia sculptures placed on stage.

Reich described his swinging microphone work as ‘a totally oddball piece’ and felt that in it he was making his peace with John Cage. He described the piece as ‘kind of funny’. I, for one, found the constant noise from the microphones irritating and uninteresting, and was please when it came to an end.

Apparently it was Zorn’s short attention span that led him to produce musical moments jotted down on cards whenever they occurred to him. The fifteen minute piece, Cat O’Nine Tails commissioned by Kronos, is a sequence of such cards. It was beautifully played and the hectic animations (including what I think was a fleeting glimpse of a cartoon cat!) suited the music and were delightful.

Johnson’s How it Happens is a work that features the haunting voice of the liberal journalist I.F. Stone. Snatches of Stone’s statements were magnificently blended with the quartet’s hypnotic accompaniment. This was a mesmerizing work of great power and atmosphere.

Mark Grey’s Bertoia I made his Bertoia II, played later in the program, redundant. Both pieces were played on four sculptures (sample groups) accompanied by projections of images of Harry Bertoia’s Sonambient sculptures. These consist of long plate-mounted rods, many of which had metal beaters attached to their tips. They sway when brushed, resembling bulrushes waving in the wind. No discernable change in the aleatoric sounds derived from similar sample groups made Bertoia II significantly different from Bertoia I.

The next work was a quartet transcription of a movie score by Bernard Herrmann, composer of scores for movies such as ‘Psycho’, ‘Vertigo’, ‘North by Northwest’, ‘Taxi Driver’. The Day the Earth Stood Still was a 1951 classic sci-fi movie and the members of the quartet created a skilfully blended sound of haunting splendour.

It must have been extremely difficult to transcribe Nancarrow’s Boogie Woogie #3A for string quartet. His celebrated works were composed by punching them into player piano rolls. Trimpin, a collaborator and confidant of the composer, designed a system for scanning the rolls so that they could be converted into computer recognizable codes. Stephen Prutsman, a composer and pianist, arranged the parts played by the Kronos Quartet. The quartet played with their usual verve and refinement.

Penderecki’s work was the only item on the program in which I felt that the visual effects were revelatory. In this performance of the composer’s effervescent 1960 string quartet, the musicians faced the back of stage where the projected score passed across the screen as they played. It was fascinating to follow this exploratory score as the music unfolded. The soft tapping of bows, the gentle pizzicatos, the almost inaudible bowed harmonics, and the virtuoso ensemble work, were all accurately revealed to us in both sight and sound.

Sun Rings was nearly a casualty of September 11, 2001. After this technologically-based act of terrorism, the relevance of a work celebrating the glories of technology was questioned by all parties concerned in its production. Fortunately Riley was able to rescue the work after he heard novelist Alice Walker (‘The Color Purple’) intone her September 11 mantra, ‘One Earth, One People, One Love’. He incorporated Walker’s voice in intoning these words into the work and, as with Stone’s voice in How it Happens , Walker’s voice imbues Sun Rings with integrity, dignity, and humanity.

The final work was a string quartet version of a pop song by an Icelandic group, Sigur RÓS. The song,Rugufrelsarinn, relates a parable of salvation and sacrifice. This work combined ecstasy and elegy in equal measure and was a fitting end to a stimulating evening of music.

In the final analysis, it was only in the Penderecki work that the visual aspect of the performance was valuable to this reviewer. For the rest, I would have enjoyed this music equally well, maybe more, on a well lit stage without the visual projections and lights. Visual effects may have a place as a way of augmenting live music, but, with the exception of score projection (analogous to surtitles or subtitles in opera?); the Kronos Quartet does not seem to have found it yet.

Mark Selikowitz



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