A desire to counteract war with music has always been the driving force behind the Kronos Quartet, finds Susan Nickalls
“Who would Kronos have been working with in 1914?” That’s the question David Harrington, violinist and founder of the Kronos Quartet, asked himself when considering how they might mark the centenary of the beginning of the First World War through music. It’s a tantalising thought and the answer will be revealed tonight before one of the world’s most musically daring and adventurous quartets takes to the stage. Audiences are advised to turn up early for the special 30-minute curtain-raiser Harrington refers to as a pre-show musical collage.
“If Kronos was around in 1914 I would hope we would have been working with all sorts of composers and musicians from places like Armenia, Greece, India and China. So we’ve put together some material from many different parts of the world so that as the audience walks in, each person will have their own experience of different sonic elements.”
One of these is a recording from 1917 of Zabelle Panossian, a young Armenian girl living in America, singing a song by the Armenian ethnographer and composer Komitas. Harrington recalls it was one of the greatest performances he’d ever heard, full of the horror of the Armenian genocide in 1915 which also happened during the First World War.
These extracts from early parts of the 20th century were collected over the course of a year as Harrington exchanged musical discoveries with composer Aleksandra Vrebalov, whose new work for quartet and film, Beyond Zero: 1914-1918, receives its UK premiere tonight.
Over the years Vrebalov, who was born in Serbia but now lives in New York, has written ten works for the Kronos Quartet, so she was a natural choice for the commission, says Harrington. “During the Nato bombing of Belgrade I remember talking to her on the telephone whilst she was there. She is the only composer who has written for us that knows what it’s like to write music during the middle of a war, because it was happening outside her window. I thought that her familiarity and direct contact with fear and violence and everything that war brings would be an important kind of knowledge to have in order to write the sort of piece that ought to be written.”
In Beyond Zero, Vrebalov draws on an eclectic mix of art created during and immediately after the First World War for inspiration. These include the writings of war poets Wilfred Owen and Siegfried Sassoon, the Dada movement, the music of Satie and Debussy as well as the chilling sound of air-raid sirens. She also juxtaposes historical recordings of political speeches from 1917 and the military commands of Serbian and Bosnian troops during the 1990s war in the former Yugoslavia with what she regards as some of the “finest expressions of spirit and creativity” at the time: Bartok playing his 1916 Piano Suite and the German poet Richard Huelsenbeck reading Chorus Sanctus, written the same year.
It also seemed a natural choice for Harrington to ask Bill Morrison to produce images to go with Vrebalov’s music. The film-maker had previously produced a film for Kronos made up of internet clips of the Occupy movement’s protests to go with a movement of Philip Glass’s String Quartet No5. Some of the archive footage Morrison discovered has never been seen by modern audiences before and by scanning the original film on to HD he has preserved it for future generations.
When I spoke to Harrington last week he happened to be in Maryland, just a stone’s throw from the United States National Archives where Morrison discovered the film footage. “Quite a lot of this film was ready to be thrown out which is quite shocking. There are lots of reasons why this is an amazing film, but one of them is the colour elements in this 100-year-old film. A lot of people think Bill added colour, but these amazingly vibrant colours occur naturally because of the oxidisation of the film. It’s incredible what he does, where the past takes on this life that happens through decomposition.” Morrison compiled the film from a scratch recording Kronos made of Vrebalov’s piece. As a result the cuts between the music and film elements are extremely precise, creating drama both on the screen and on stage with the quartet, Harrington says, having to be “sharp”.
The first part of the concert, Prelude to a Black Hole, begins with another piece by Vrebalov; Byzantine Chant, featuring the Byzantine hymn Eternal Memory to the Virtuous sung by monks from Serbia’s Kovilj monastery in rememberance of all those who lost their lives in the First World War and all conflicts thereafter. Pieces written by Stravinsky, Geeshie Wiley, Tanburi Cemil Bey, Webern, and Ives follow, concluding with Kronos Quartet’s arrangement of Rachmaninov’s Nunc Dimittis from All Night Virgil, or Vespers. This piece features a low B flat, thought to be the lowest note written for a human voice, and it is this note that forms the beginning of Beyond Zero.
War seems to be a recurring theme for the Kronos Quartet – the impeteus for Harrington to form the group came from George Crumb’s reflections on the Vietnam War in Black Angels. He firmly believes one of the tasks for musicians is to attempt to counterbalance wars.
“Music needs to attempt to find solutions or directions for the future within the knowledge we have of the past. My feeling is I’ve tried to find bullet-proof music for the last 40 years and although I haven’t found it so far, I won’t give up. I can imagine this incredibly strong powerful music that would envelop all of us, especially children, and protect us from the ravages of violence and war. Since I can imagine it, I know it exists somewhere, somehow, it’s a question of finding people who can make it for us.”
Originally published in The Scotsman
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