Kronos Quartet: Women’s Voices

The Kronos Quartet’s recent concert at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts’ Novellus Theater was unquestionably the highlight of my week. The program included a wide variety of works, and Kronos and friends performed at a very high standard. Each of the works presented was written or arranged for Kronos, including the world premieres of Vân-Ánh Vanessa Võ’s All Clear (in which the composer performed onđàn Tranh, đàn Bầu, k’ni, artillery gongs and vocals) and Danny Clay’s arrangement of music by Delia Derbyshire Mosaic (from music of Delia Derbyshire): in memory of Connie Sterne. 

Vân-Ánh Vanessa Võ

The concert began with Nicole Lizée’s Death to Kosmische (we interviewed Lizée back in February 2012, Ed.), which uses pieces of what the press release calls “archaic music technology,” the stylophone (1960) and omnichord (1980). Kosmische, as Harrington pointed out from the stage for those of us who didn’t know, is a now-extinct genre of German popular music from the 1960s. The hauntingly minimal work had electronic elements besides the “archaic” instruments which at times duplicated the quartet’s own sounds creating the illusion that there were many more than 4 players on stage. Some of the more minimalist-influenced sections sounded almost as though Kraftwerk had discovered classical music through Philip Glass’ film scores but kept their interest in “robotic” synth sounds.

The quiet part of the program was an arrangement of Laurie Anderson’s Flow. From the first muted unison note to the last, Flow captured the essence of calm. The performance was one that left one wanting more, for the sense of serene longing never to end. Kronos had a wonderfully blended sound, which added to the poignancy of the suspicion-release patterns of the piece.

San Francisco Conservatory of Music composition student and “general noise-maker” Danny Clay’s whimsical arrangement from themes by Derbyshire, Mosaic (from music of Delia Derbyshire): in memory of Connie Sterne, had the audience laughing (more than once!). In addition to their usual instruments, Kronos played whistles and other “noise-makers” which, combined with the electronics track, did a great job of capturing Derbyshire’s rich imagination. David Harrington noted that the idea was “to ask Clay to assemble a multi-layered portrait of her that celebrates her imagination and allows Kronos to explore a collection of her themes.” The piece is dedicated to Connie Sterne, a friend of Kronos whose “warmth, sun-filled smile, and encouraging presence” will be missed.

Combat Paper

Combat Paper

The program insert for the weekend’s concerts was related to Vân-Ánh Vanessa Võ’s All Clear. After hearing the piece, the connection was quite clear: Võ’s piece quoted (among other things) the Jimi Hendrix’s version of The Star Spangled Banner and Taps. Combat paper, a small piece of which was paper-clipped to the program insert explaining the project, is made from fibers gathered from veterans’ uniforms.All Clear very evocatively presented themes and images from the Vietnam War (know in Vietnam as the American War). The program note explained (in extensive quotes from David Harrington) how the piece evolved as a process, and was in many ways “composed by both” Võ and Harrington. It is worth pointing out that Kronos was founded the month after Harrington heard Crumb’s Black Angels for the first time, in order to perform that piece. Võ’s new piece, like Black Angels, captures what Crumb called the “strange things in the air” during the vietnam era, but from a very different perspective. The performance was quiet effective, and left me (and those sitting around me) in a very introspective mood. Part music and part performance art, the piece called for a wide range of instruments including a large bowl full of pebbles, artillery gongs, đàn Bầu, and Võ at one point removing her outer layer of clothing and lighting a bowl of incense.

After intermission, Kronos was joined by Inuit throat-singer Tanya Tagaq for a rousing performance of Derek Charke’s Tundra Songs (2007). In five inter-connected movements, the piece uses several elements tied to arctic life—recordings of sounds from the north (an extensive list was included in the program note, from ice cracking to mosquitoes and everything in between) and vertical and circular bowing—to match the string quartet’s sound with that of Tagaq’s throat-singing. Each movement presented a different picture of arctic life, including the story of Sedna, the Inuit goddess who created all living things. What makes Tagaq’s performance (and this piece) particularly interesting in the context of throat singing is that while Tagaq performs “alone” (without another singer), Inuit throat-singing (as opposed to the Tuvan counterpart made famous by the documentary film Genghis Blues) is usually played back-and-forth between two women as a sort of game.

Tanya Tagaq

Tanya Tagaq

I remain shocked that the theater (which seats about 700) was not sold out completely. The Kronos Quartet played wonderfully, and the program was both very “audience friendly” with lighting displays to match the music, and thought provoking on several levels. One questions remains for me: why was the concert called “Women’s Voices”? The program notes weren’t very specific about this, and although several of the pieces programmed were by female composers and both vocalists were female, nothing programmatically pointed to the concert being about women’s voices. I do commend Kronos for performing music by female composers, but I would like to think that they do so based on the merit of the music rather than the gender of the composer. If this program can be taken as a guide, I believe that to indeed be the case.

originally published on I Care If You Listen, May 27 2012

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