Works by Reich, Gordon, Rose, Riley, Sigur Rós

Kronos Quartet, National Youth Choir of Scotland/Bell

Royal Concert Hall, Glasgow, 30 May 2009 4.5 stars

Jay BlakebergCurrently touring the debut of Steve Reich's WTC 9/11, the Kronos Quartet landed in Glasgow for an exciting weekend of innovative music-making as part of Glasgow Concert Halls' continuing Minimal series. Tonight, they were joined in two recent works for quartet and choir by the National Youth Choir of Scotland.

Characteristically, the Reich was couched in a pointedly intelligent programme that wove a rich and piquant web of lightly-worn allusion. For instance, the title of the opening number ('Oh Mother, the Handsome Man Tortures Me') takes on an inscrutable layer of irony once one learns that it originated in the Iraq of the Saddam period. It is, nevertheless, just a title; the music is a vibrant, driving dance. Hank Dutt forsakes his viola for a tambourine, while the remaining three render an impressive simulation of the oral style (while reading from notation) to generate an initial euphoria.

So much so that the announcement of Terry Riley's name prior to the second number prompts a sprinkling of cheers, and, as the choir makes their way to the stage, the kind of squealing that historically accompanies rock stars. Except it turns out that these squeals are part of Riley's score, uttered as the chorus-members make their way to the stage. Riley's title ('Another Secret eQuation') speaks of a secular—one might say new-age, though not in a pejorative way—exploration of 'divine inspiration', grown from a relationship with the physicist Hans Siegmann, who, like Einstein, also played the violin. What transpires is a somewhat laconic meditation on enthusiasm, passion, and intergenerational comprehension in a pleasant post-tonal style reminiscent of Gavin Bryars—though listeners familiar with the one will be just as likely to be familiar with the other.

If there was a flaw in the programming, it was that the following work, Michael Gordon's Exalted, was less sharply differentiated from the Riley as one might have liked. Being also composed for choir and quartet, there was an obvious resemblance, but beyond that—and despite the familiar Gordon thumbprints in the pulsing repetitions and descending melodic figures—there was an architectural similarity that seemed to conflate the two works into a single, overlong span. Gordon's text is taken from the Kaddish, and in his setting he moderates his normally robust, urban/industrial aesthetic—perhaps obliged by the softer timbres of quartet and voice. The choice of text distances him from the question Riley is asking (one might take it as an answer of some sort); the result is an efficient work that is a little short of imperative drive.

Following that, with the stage once more to themselves, the quartet took on a signature cross-genre adventure, with an arrangement of the Sigur Rós song 'Flugufrelsarinn' (the fly freer; in the original lyric, the narrator attempts to rescue flies from the jaws of salmon). With warm reverb and a bit of flange creating a dubby, trippy aura that other composers might well emulate, there was some exceptionally fine writing for the viola, antiphonally contrasted to the more acerbic principal violin.

And then, a pause.

An exaggerated gap for tuning and emotional centring, before Steve Reich's WTC 9/11. There are intriguingly partial accounts in circulation about the genesis of this project, which evolved to become a sequel to Reich's landmark Different Trains, composed in the mid 1980s. Initially the thought was to make another work incorporating recorded voices. Thoughts about how to manipulate the sound preceded the emergence of subject, notably with the idea of digitally elongating fragments of words, turning them into drones capable of harmonic linking. The 9/11 theme followed, with recorded texts drawn from NORAD and the fire service on the morning of the attack; from conversations with friends and neighbours in lower Manhattan about memories of the day from the perspective of 2010; and from Jews observing Shmira while bodies awaited identification in the attack's aftermath—a practice that includes the recital of biblical passages.

This material is condensed to a running time of around fifteen minutes—somewhat shorter than Different Trains, and an economy that is in its own way expressive. The work is more intimate in feel, besides that, because digital technology enables Reich to manipulate the speech rhythms subtly so that their fit to the quartet members is more organically musical.

Echoing Different Trains, the opening sound is not of a train's bell, but the beeping of a phone off its hook. Voices from NORAD, the air traffic controllers tracking the first plane's diverted trajectory, and then the fire department after it has struck, capture the immediacy of the unfolding moment in the intensely concentrated first phase. Seen from the distance of nine years, the second phase skilfully unfolds, without entirely relinquishing, that intensity, before a sombre emotional engagement fastens the ear to the concluding part. The drone trope, a thicker texture than a verbal description might suggest, is particularly effective, subliminally forging a link with Shostakovich's eighth quartet with its drones evoking bombing raids of a previous era.

Although that's the end of WTC 9/11, it doesn’t go away as the concluding work begins. For Jon Rose's Music from 4 Fences, the quartet lay aside their instruments and wheel segments of fence to the centre of the stage, one by one. These segments are equipped with cameras, whose distorted images are projected behind; and of course the wires are equipped with pick-ups to enable amplification as the musicians bow, strike and pluck.

Rose began playing fences in Australia during the 1980s, but over the years the abstract acoustic enquiry has matured into a critique. Which four fences isn't disclosed, but the design incorporates imagery as appropriate to farmland as to the gulag and to the border; it is no coincidence that he was arrested by the Israeli Defence Forces while playing the separation fence in Ramallah. The broken wire at the climax of the work looked accidental, but it symbolized an overcoming. And if any doubt remained about the contextual message, two encores—one from the Ramallah Underground, the other an Egyptian tango—wrapped it up and posted it.

By Peter Cudmore

Photo: Kronos by Jay Blakesberg

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