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Last night Christina and I attended “Kronos at 40,” a sold-out concert by Kronos Quartet at the Chan Centre at the University of British Columbia celebrating the string quartet’s 40th anniversary as a working unit. The programme, a gathering of contemporary work and commissioned arrangements of folk and roots music, was fairly typical – if anything Kronos does can be said to be typical – of what has become the quartet’s cultural mission: a strong commitment to fostering new, sonically-arresting, cutting-edge composition and to disseminating those often challenging soundscapes to as wide an audience as they can draw. That commitment was powerfully evident last night, for me, in the taut rhythmic virtuosity that each member of the group – David Harrington, Hank Dutt, John Sherba and new cellist Sunny Yang – brought to every piece they played. Whatever a composer’s method, approach, aesthetic, they were on it, utterly and unflinchingly. And after forty years, absolutely nothing about their energy, enthusiasm or dedication to all kinds of new music has diminished.
Highlights from last night’s performance included a brief but wonderfully nuanced version of an arrangement by trombonist-improviser-composer Jacob Garchik of a blues by the little-known Geeshie Wiley, “Last Kind Words.” The unresolved subtleties and the powerful timbres of Wiley’s voice that ghost through the song’s surface-noise-laden original recording (from around 1930) are translated by Garchik into gently interlacing dissonances across a palette of strings, with Harrington’s violin taking a kind of vocal lead, weaving in and out of the other lines with a give-and-take that offers a present-day mirroring of the collaborative call and response of traditional African-American form. It worked brilliantly, I thought. There were fine arrangements, too, of Iranian, Ottoman and Jewish songs, as well as electronically- and instrumentally-augmented compositions by Canadians John Oswald and Nicole Lizée, and by Serbian-born Aleksandra Vrebalov. They played three encores, arrangements of Greek and Columbian melodies and a killer version of what was has been their signature piece, Jimi Hendrix’s “Purple Haze,” complete with light-show and rumbling feedback: they rocked the house, really.
The centerpiece of the concert was the world premiere of Philip Glass’s String Quartet No. 6, commissioned for Kronos’s 40thanniversary, as (according to the composer’s notes) “the most recent result of a long and ripening friendship between myself and the Kronos Quartet.” Before the concert, Eleanor Wachtel interviewed Philip Glass on stage at the Chan; the interview was being recorded for broadcast, she said, on CBC Radio on November 19, on Ideas. Their conversation concentrated on Glass’s history of collaborating with Kronos and with filmmaker Godfrey Reggio, particularly Glass’s soundtrack to Reggio’s The Visitors, but Glass also talked – very warmly and personably – about his own aesthetics, and his compositional style. He noted how Kronos’s “love and dedication” to the form “were unparalleled,” and said that the string quartet as a genre could create the “most intimate expression of a composer’s work,” allowing for “a maximum of density and clarity at the same time.” The quartet is “a prism through which the light of music can shine and be broken into colours.” He also noted how he has a difficult time extricating himself from the aural world of his music, of hearing his compositions – such as this new string quartet – from an objective outside: “I’m probably the person who knows least about what they sound like.” He also said he has been concerned with thinking about “where music comes from,” with “what music is,” and has decided that “music is a place . . . a real place,” defining “a consensual reality” that can be inhabited in composing and performing: in music, we become “citizens of the same country.”
His String Quartet No. 6 opened a door into that place. The performance was about half an hour, and consisted of three movements, at tempos (maybe allegro -andante – allegro) creating a kind of envelope or frame that seemed to reflect a classical formalism; Glass mentioned Haydn in his earlier remarks, and there is something of Haydn’s structural symmetry carried forward in Glass’s writing. Glass also referred to the dynamic feel of Bartok, and it’s important to recognize that this sixth quartet also enacts a certain loosening in its textures, particularly around the dynamics; the hurried contrapuntal minimalism of his early work is moderated in this work into waves of surge and release, which Kronos managed brilliantly. In the third movement, I thought I kept hearing echoes of MGM-style film music, but afterward Christina told me she thought those were traces of Aaron Copland’s folk idiom and I think she was right – whether Glass intended these echoes or not, the work communicates a sense of a late Americana that is both moving and engrossing. It was a true privilege to be able to hear this music, and to hear Philip Glass speak.