The Kronos Quartet is well known for their ability to push the boundaries of what a string quartet can accomplish. In this year’s Auckland Arts Festival they and their regular collaborator, Chinese pipa virtuoso Wu Man, have brought along a programme consisting of Tan Dun’s Ghost Opera and the performance piece A Chinese Home, put together by the performers themselves. My only previous exposure to Tan Dun’s music has been the concertos based on his film scores Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, Hero and The Banquet. While I enjoyed the films, I found the concertos to be rather repetitive and short of inspiration; hence I approached Ghost Opera with a certain amount of trepidation. However, I couldn’t have been more enthralled and delighted by what the Kronos Quartet and Wu Man offered.

Kronos Quartet with Wu Man © Jay Blakesberg
Kronos Quartet with Wu Man
© Jay Blakesberg

Ghost Opera is modelled on a traditional Chinese exorcism ceremony; in the composer’s words, a “dialogue between past and future, spirit and nature”. Interestingly, the quartet play not just their usual instruments but also use water, paper, metal and stone as instruments in their own right. A monk’s interjections are vocalised by the performers throughout. Quotes from Shakespeare are heard, but intoned as if following the intonations of the Chinese language. Bach features heavily in the work, his Prelude in C sharp major making several appearances throughout. Occasionally it seemed as though the Bach piece and Chinese folk music were being played concurrently; a surprisingly natural soundworld was created. The Bach excerpts were gorgeously inflected by the Kronos Quartet, making one want to hear more Baroque music from them in the future. These moments were contrasted with other parts of the score that are much more rhythmically rigorous. The whole piece has a subtle meditative quality that is bewitching to hear and to watch. There is much movement too; one member of the quartet started playing in the side aisle and the performers sporadically ascended a platform at the rear of the stage behind what appeared to be a gauze screen. Wu Man’s playing of the pipa (a kind of Chinese lute) is a joy throughout; extremely virtuosic but absolutely effortless.

Most astonishing about this work, and indeed the whole concert, was the range of sound textures the performers were able to achieve. The piece begins with first violinist David Harrington drawing his hand through a bowl of water. Later, metal gongs are immersed in the water and bowed, creating an unearthly glowing sound. Wu Man unfurls a large sheet of paper and shakes it, creating a ghostly rattle, while a member of the quartet generates a buzzing sound with their mouth a small piece of paper. At some moments, the strings took on an almost erhu-like quality. Many of these timbres were not only unusual, but almost ineffably beautiful in tone by themselves and in combination. Even a sudden moment of silence where Harrington conducted the remainder of the musicians miming plays its part in the overall texture of sound.

A Chinese Home offered a potted history of 20th-century China through music and video (directed by Chen Shi-Zheng). Pastoral scenes of rural China represented the past and were accompanied by simple arrangements of Chinese folk music. Wu Man swapped her pipa for a microphone to perform one of these as well as a later sung tribute to Chairman Mao. The performers, having started in robes for the first section, donned sunglasses to present some jazzy 1930s music in the second “Shanghai” sequence. This was interposed with video scenes from a similar vintage Chinese film and some shocking war images that jarred uncomfortably with the glitzy music. Later on, there were also some wonderfully tacky scenes from what appeared to be a Communist propaganda ballet film.

The hilarious finale, “Made in China”, featured each of the quartet members producing innumerable cheap plastic battery-powered toys from suitcases and turning them on onstage while Wu Man produced ecstatic cascades of psychedelic sound from her pipa (now turned electronic). The result was, as the music died down, the sound of the toys beeping and making their way around the stage. Again, the instrumentation of A Chinese Home is much wider than the standard string quartet. Electronics feature heavily and radios and a large percussion section make an appearance along with the aforementioned toys.

It is a tribute to the imagination and enterprise of the Kronos Quartet that many of the individual sound textures and their combinations are still replaying in my mind some hours later. Not only this, with these works the performers created a fusion of East and West that is for once absolutely effortless and completely unforced. An utterly engrossing experience.