By LOU FANCHER
Kronos Quartet: "Beyond Zero: 1914-1918"
Score by Aleksandra Vrebalov and film by Bill Morrison
Sunday, April 6, 2014
Hertz Hall, UC Berkeley
Better than: Actually living through WWI. Or, the hope-it-never-happens sound of WWIII, take your pick.
If your idea of "string quartet" is four geriatric guys rocking Rachmaninoff on three fiddles and a cello, think again. On Sunday night, the San Francisco-based Kronos Quartet ripped open the envelope of expectations with "Beyond Zero: 1914-1918," the world premiere of a work commissioned from Serbian-born composer Aleksandra Vrebalov and filmmaker Bill Morrison.
Yes, it's true that founder David Harrington (violin), John Sherba (violin), and Hank Dutt (viola) are three white dudes who've collectively played their instruments for over 100 years. But there's also Sunny Yang, a gut-clenchingly brilliant female cellist new to the group as of 2013. And yeah, an excerpt from Serge Rachmaninoff's "All-Night Vigil" sneaked in, but during its 40-year history, Kronos has added over 800 original, genre-bending works to the string quartet library.
A jaunt with Kronos is an auditory leap, both in time and place. Beginning with "Prelude to a Black Hole" (roughly 30 minutes that felt like 10), Kronos sketched the history of WWI in sound. These compositions, like Igor Stravinsky's "Three Pieces for String Quartet" and "Six Bagatelles" by Anton Webern, were written just before or at the war's start in 1914. Stitched seamlessly together with chronologically expected works, the bluesy tones of Wisconsin guitarist Geeshie Wiley and the yearning fluidity of a too-brief arrangement from Ottoman composer Tanburi Cemil Bey provided a captivating geographic profile.
Segueing without pause from the opening's mostly quiet, individual voices, "Beyond Zero" began peacefully, if forebodingly, with low, droning cello notes morphing into WWII London air raid sirens. The tick of an old film projector fell in lock-step with Morrison's initial images of soldiers, smiling and waving as they departed for battle. Seconds later, as the rare 35mm nitrate films showed their age by bursting into amoeba-shaped blobs or imploding toward center screen, like paper on fire, Vrebalov's score took off.
Rocketing with all the bombastic fury of war, the original, 100-year-old footage Morrison painstakingly transferred to digital media sprang to new life with Kronos' vigorous playing and a collage of recorded fragments: Military commands, shouted by Serbian and Bosnian troops during Yugoslavian conflict in 1990s; U.S. Ambassador to Germany James Watson Gerard's haunting "Loyalty Speech"; and others fueled the relentless push to a magenta-tinged climax. A dog, finding a wounded soldier in a field, barked silently at the camera operator while Yang beat rawness out of her cello and her fellow musicians scurried across tonalities like combatants under fire. The deterioration of sound and film: exploding with scratches, slashes and discoloration, compelled a listener into unprecedented thought: How can a viola sound like glass? A string quartet is a galaxy. A bow on strings can kiss. Will the insanity of war ever stop?
Arguably, an answer to that last, undeniable question -- "It must!" -- is the performance's purpose. A softly descending parachute, accompanied by the gentle croon of Serbian monks chanting a Byzantine hymn and Harrington and Sherba striking suspended gongs that sounded like church bells, brought resolve to the work's ending. Astonishingly, Vrebalov's scored projectiles, having slammed like G forces, closed with intimate whispers, shedding wisdom. Once again, Kronos has commanded attention, defied convention, and continued Harrington's quest: to discover a sound to end all wars.
The Kronos smack: Celebrating four decades together hasn't turned the group into a gang of golden geezers. Even Harrington, the founding father, plays as furiously as the day he clamped onto the slippery, shimmering sound of George Crumb's take on the Vietnam War, "Black Angels," and began a string quartet revolution.
Parachutes: Visitors to Hertz Hall could use them. With no center aisle, a rip-line or dropping in from the ceiling with a chute might be easier for center-seated folks who have to toe-step the (long) way from side aisles to their seats.