Live Review: Kronos Quartet Goes Minimalist Punk at Cal

Kronos Quartet

Kronos Quartet: Cusp of Magic
With special guest Wu Man on pipa
Sunday, January 18, 2015
Hertz Hall

Leave it to contemporary string ensemble Kronos Quartet and “Father of Minimalism” composer Terry Riley to pair world-class pipa (Chinese lute) player Wu Man with a squeaking pink plastic pig, squawking rubber chicken, stuffed children’s toys emitting motorized mantras — and create magic.

[jump] Or rather, Cusp of Magic, Riley’s mesmerizing six-movement, 45-minute montage of humor and mystery. Touched with Man’s glorious East Asian flavoring and torched by the quartet’s gritty-great bowed instrumentation, the work was a highlight of a rich program presented by CAL Performances last night, Jan. 19. The performance included South African composer Kevin Volans’ White Man Sleeps (1986) and the West Coast premiere of David T. Little’s AGENCY (2013).

Mingled in the mix throughout the evening was Kronos’ drive — think of them as a punk rock band version of a string quartet — that propels the palpable energy behind the over 800 original commissions created for them during their 40 years of making music.

Better than a hallucination, but not unlike a dream, Cusp of Magic began improbably, with violinist and Kronos founder David Harrington keeping a 108-cycle beat on bass drum and peyote rattle. Deep drones and austere harmonies played by John Sherba (violin), Hank Dutt (viola), and Sunny Yang (cello) provided counter-texture, a riverboat of sound on which to ride. Perhaps because much of the concert had already included Kronos plucking their instruments, Man’s pipa wove into the Western aesthetics organically; matching quirky with quixotic and spreading lyrical passages into languid, delicate passages.

Riley seems to recognize the moment when beauty reaches its apex and cut the moment with Harrington shaking baby rattles and aiming a pig squeak at Sherba while Yang dropped her bow to raise a brown-and-white stuffed puppy and twisted it to generate a gibberish-like “speak.” The audience laughed — adding a delightful, fourth wall layer to the soundscape.

Taking a divergent path into an eery, nightmarish space with electronic backsound, “Emily and Alice” darkened the safe place of “The Nursery” before the Cuban-infused “Prayer Circle” brought the work to a climactic close.

The work’s greatest triumph was the marriage of Kronos and Man, who wrote the lullabies she sings in two movements. Spinning her elegant phrases into metaphorical kites, like silken dragons flying over the other musicians rhythmic, grounded patterns, the textures contrasted alluringly. Occasionally, when a violin or cello line soared into her orbit, the effect was sweet, or bittersweet in the final movement’s best moments.

Cusp embraced so many lands and languages, it was almost too rich — but that didn’t mean even a sliver should be allowed to fall away.

It’s a trick and a moment to applaud Kronos’ “what’s next-ability” that the other two works on the program retained their power, even on post-show reflection. One of the fascinating captures of Kronos is their skilled vanishing: the capacity for subsuming ego, not over-playing a passage, yielding individuality without becoming bland. Such playing authenticates the style and unique aspects of each composition and surely reflects a curiosity and desire to express a composer’s intentions, as well as his or her notes.

Their approach benefited the night’s first act pieces.

White Man Sleeps brought to mind a butterfly’s fiercely beating wings, with currents of pulsing rhythms — and flight, with lofty, airborne passages. Violin groans and a funky cello solo rolled through a nursery rhyme-like section before growing somber and heavily romantic, like a drunken waltz. A call-and-response-style exchange between Dutt (his instrument sounding like a river of bees) and Yang (egging him on with nuanced prompts) curled itself into a circular ending. Who is chaser and who is chased?

It didn’t matter: Everyone won. Little’s Agency draws inspiration from Australia’s faith-based indigenous people and
Pine Gap, an American spy center in Australia. Filled with haunting string passages, electronic beeps, voiceovers cloaking the work with an ominous backdrop — the work was simultaneously otherworldly and deeply human. Earth is a world we entered as aliens, Little appears to say, and how we’ve mutated ourselves and our environment is both marvelous and frightening.

The multi-sectional work at times sounded similar to the best film scores; creating a non-linear narrative for a listener’s imagination. Program notes mention Little’s punk-metal drummer background: One only wishes his post-metal-ness were more apparent, because the works highlights hint at a grandeur that was not consistently captured.

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