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Arts Festival Review: Kronos Quartet & Wu Man

Mar 12, 2013 Music

David Larsen on why one of the world’s greatest contemporary ensembles left him seething.

Kronos Quartet and Wu Man
USA and China

The Civic, March 9 2013

To begin with, let me assure the Kronos Quartet and their guest, pipa virtuoso Wu Man, that anything I may have said on Twitter about setting fire to the theatre during their Auckland Arts Festival concert was not intended literally. Empty performative statements designed to vent anger are clearly something they know all about, so I expect them to understand.

And there’s that word. “Understand”. There’s an old Blackadder sketch in which a troop called The Jumping Jews of Jerusalem, tasked with delighting the people of London, spend fifteen minutes jumping on the spot. As they file off stage to a resounding lack of applause, one of them mutters, “I don’t think they understood it”. The line neatly skewers the notion of art as pure text, an array of packaged ideas whose proper decoding will redeem any aesthetic experience, no matter how exasperating or dull. I would never have expected to need to tell Kronos, for decades now one of the great contemporary performance ensembles, that music consists of more than meaning.

The first sound to emerge out of long silence after the lights went down at the Civic last Sunday night was a distant noise of wind. Gentle spot-lights illuminated three milky-translucent bowls spaced widely round the stage, and a hand dipped into one of them: one of the players whispered into view, cupping handfuls of water and letting them fall back. The amplified sound of falling droplets filled the air.

We were in the early moments of Tan Dun’s Ghost Opera, and so far it was beautiful. The players, individually lit within the overall dark, slowly phased in an arrangement of a Bach keyboard prelude, over which first one, then several of them shouted ugly monosyllables – “Ya! Ya! Ya!” – before the quotation fell apart into swooping, increasingly chaotic glissandos.

This was no longer beautiful, though the crude rawness of it was briefly interesting. Gutteral interjections continued to break up melodic lines couched in a variety of Western and traditional Chinese registers. Cellist Jeffrey Zeigler, backlit behind a screen and visible only in outline, declaimed, “Our little life is rounded with a sleep”, in the exaggerated, idiot tones of an actor doing vocal warm-ups.

So: air and water. East and West. Melody and noise. Meaningful words spoken in a meaningless way. Beginnings (Bach’s Prelude) and endings (Shakespeare’s “sleep”). The theatre was awash in charged oppositions and brute conceptual elements, from which one could construct all sorts of readings. But music is not merely text. It isn’t even mostly text. And decoding an unpleasant experience does not change the fact that you have just spent a subjective eternity listening to people grunting “Ya!” at you. The formal restrictions within which classical music operates long ago expanded out past the horizon in all directions; there was a time when a conceptually driven piece of no musical merit could claim to be boldly experimental, and therefore worth listening to simply as proof of what might be possible. That time was last century. Ghost Opera: well, exactly.

For the second half of the program, we switched from vague please-interpret-this conceptual washes to reductive over-emphasis. A Chinese Home, written in collaboration by Wu Man, Kronos first violin David Harrington and New York dramatist Chen Shi-Zheng, combines a continuous composite of projected film clips with stage acting and live music, sketching out a loose history of China from pre-modern times through the Cultural Revolution to the present. There were technical issues – light reflection off the screen from the brightly lit players, mostly – and the impossibility of following the film and the acting simultaneously was annoying.

The music was a pastiche of many styles. Several times, long bowed notes in close harmony were counterpointed by spiky, astringent plucking from the pipa, and caught my attention and held it. I found these moments rich and rewarding, but they were over quickly, and their contribution to the narrative was obscure; and the narrative, in this piece, trumped all. As we watched the enforced revolutionary raptures of Mao’s China give way to the hyper-capitalist pseudo-communism of today, the music contracted to an angry amplified roar from the pipa, and the quartet abandoned their instruments to act out a dumb-show: oppressed factory workers, labouring in flickering dimness to bring the world worthless plastic electronica. The end.

This was naive protest art, empty of anything except the kind of meaning that can be spraypainted on a wall. There was no danger of anyone needing to mutter, “I don’t think they understood it”. When you hit people over the head with slogan-level thinking, understanding is the one thing you can count on. But I don’t go to concerts hoping against hope that some brave soul will preach me a sermon. I left this one wishing I’d left a lot earlier.



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