On entering the Barbican hall, I was immediately struck by the piles of scrap metal on stage that, due to the rather unambiguous title of the concert, brought to mind provocative images of Ground Zero. As part of a week-long residency in the Barbican, the Kronos Quartet, one of the most celebrated contemporary ensembles in the world, were about to perform the UK premiere of a special programme originally conceived to mark the fifth anniversary of the events of 9/11.
The first section of the concert was dedicated to the performance of various traditional Middle-Eastern pieces, which were reorchestrated for Kronos and were largely assisted by pre-recorded tape. The arrangements themselves were very good. They felt genuine and uncompromising, as the Eastern-inflicted ornamentation and the original melodies' quarter tones were kept intact in their transfer to western string instruments.
For the rearrangement of Einstrürzende Neubauten's Armenia which followed, the quartet, apart from filling their usual roles, beat the various bits of scrap metal on stage with cellist Jeffrey Zeigler even using an angle grinder that set off a firework-like display. At one point, first violinist David Harrington began shouting in a low demonic tone reminiscent of a heavy metal vocal style. Although visually exciting, the piece didn't really work overall. It seemed as though the performers were attempting to do too much at once, and the piece wasn't long enough to accommodate any sort of exploration in timbre. Still, it was admirable to see these versatile musicians willing to expand beyond the roles of string players to those of extended percussionists.
John Oswald's Spectre was equal parts a musical and theatrical performance. Initially, the quartet began by playing extremely wide and slow vibrati over several octaves, which clashed boldly with the pre-recorded static string ensemble samples. As the tape part became more colourful and layered, the quartet started bowing the bodies of the instruments in various places, rather than the strings themselves, eventually flailing their arms wildly in the air to what sounded like a plane crashing. It was a histrionic and wildly entertaining spectacle, and one of the better parts of the evening.
Another highlight was the dynamic and thrilling performance of Michael Gordon's The Sad Park. The first movement opened with a low fidelity loop of a child talking about the September 11 attacks: 'Two evil planes broke in little pieces and fire came.' As the loop repeated, it was gradually treated with time warping, pitch altering and delay effects, until it sounded closer to a very slow synthesiser glissando. Over this, the quartet played quietly consonant and repeated staccato chords that gradually slowed down and became legato, with Harrington imitating the melody that results from the slowed down loop. The impact was subtle and beautifully moving.
The fourth movement completely contrasted with the first. The quartet, heavily treated with distortion, played bombastic syncopated rhythmic patterns that recalled the sound of a progressive rock band, but without the drums or signature guitar solo. At the same time, there were parallels with the first movement. Descending glissandi in the strings were apparent throughout, vaguely evoking an alarm of some description. Again, the tape part consisted of a densely altered child's voice. Tiny fragments of the recording were repeatedly stuttered and completely incomprehensible. With The Sad Park, Gordon has made the right choice in interpreting the subject matter in an abstract way. It felt a lot more tasteful and enigmatic than Steve Reich's recent disappointing WTC 9/11 effort, also written for the Kronos Quartet and tape.
Darkness 9/11 was heart-warming and sentimental, something I had learned to expect from Golijov, but not necessarily from Santaolalla, whose input was hard to detect. The sentimentality worked here, though, because of its placement in the programme, immediately after the distorted chaos of The Sad Park. The slow melodic beauty of Darkness 9/11 immediately brought to mind Ennio Morricone's wonderful 'A Dimly Lit Room' from his score to Once Upon a Time in the West. It sounded as though a string ensemble much larger than a quartet were performing here, and it is unclear whether this was due to assistance from a pre-recorded ensemble on the tape part, or simply because of the lavish amount of reverb applied to the live instruments. Either way it supplemented overall lush execution of the piece very effectively.
The rather pretty cello-led quartet writing of Terry Riley's One Earth, One Love, One People was spoiled by an inadequate tape part, which consisted of drab delay-treated percussion, interview snippets, and dated sweeping filter effects, but it was the title of the piece, repeatedly uttered by a monotonous female voice, aided by rather literal Planet Earth-themed visuals, that really made me cringe. It is a conviction worthy of Bono, and reflects, perhaps, how Terry Riley has gone a little off the ball of late.
The final part of the concert consisted of reorchestrated folk tunes from Scandinavia and Russia. Although quite pretty, these pieces sounded largely unremarkable and served as an anti-climax to the evening. Vladimir Martynov's The Beatitudes, in particular, came across as overly sentimental. Because of the rather self-indulgent overuse of saccharine major ninth chords, coupled with the excessive amounts reverb applied to the quartet, I had to remind myself that this was, in fact, one of the leading contemporary ensembles live in concert, and not the over-produced soundtrack to the closing credits of a schmaltzy Hollywood film.
I think that, on a whole, this concert would have probably worked a lot more effectively on an American audience because of their close ties to the subject matter. On an actual performance level, the Kronos Quartet were world class throughout, presenting some genuinely fresh and powerful pieces, most notably Spectre and The Sad Park, but the manner in which the programme was presented felt tasteless. Because of the concert's title, the Ground Zero-themed stage setup, and the unmistakable grandiose aural imagery that recalled the attack, interpreting the order of the pieces to literally correspond with the order of events was unavoidable. If this was the intention, then the first section seemed to exhibit, in some way, the Islamic terrorists at the heart of the attack. That in itself would be offensive, but to link them to pieces that originate in countries such as India (Raga Mishra Bhairavi: Alap), which had no role in the events of September 11, just because the music sounds vaguely Eastern, is bordering on vulgar, and completely incorrect.
By Paul McGuire
Photo Credits: Zoran Orlic and