If the Kronos Quartet had their way, every new slice of contemporary music would be a string quartet. In the basement of Carnegie Hall, the Kronos Quartet, composed of string aficionados David Harrington, John Sherba, Hank Dutt, and Sunny Yang, premiered three new works and performed one newish work to celebrate the life of Kronos’ dear friend, Larry Neff.

Kronos Quartet © Jay Blakesberg
Kronos Quartet
© Jay Blakesberg

Intrigued by the duality of freedom and restriction in the process of making music, composer Merlijn Twaalfhoven was featured first on the program in the world première of On Parole. While contemporary composers sometimes eschew systematic notation, Twaalfhoven aimed specifically at bar-lines, which are historically used for organizing notes on a page. Since 21st century ears cannot often distinguish bar lines during performance after years of listening to rubato, improvisational jazz and most compositions of the 20th century, the composer’s struggle is almost entirely academic. Nevertheless, the piece was quite effective and Kronos never underwhelms.

 The quartet began with quiet togetherness as the players “trilled” open strings to octave harmonics. Twaalfhoven did draw lines as far as form and motif, but players often drifted on tangents and de-synced to achieve the effect of freedom. Near the halfway mark, the quartet heightened to a climactic halt; however, the pulsating rhythm on open strings continued in the back of the hall. Slowly, forty-or-so students (of the Face the Music program) filled the stage and aisles of the auditorium, playing both from cues given on stage and at their own will. The effect was immensely heartwarming as the integration of young talent is always amicable.

The Kronos Quartet performed the second piece, Bryce Dessner’s Tenebre, with personal and emotional significance at this concert. Larry Neff, who passed away last autumn, was the Kronos Quartet’s production manager, lighting designer, and “general fix-it guy”; Tenebre was originally commissioned in 2011 to honor his 25th year with the Kronos Quartet. Dessner essentially took the Christian Tenebrae service, in which 15 candles are extinguished to symbolize darkness, and reversed it to symbolize “Larry’s illumination of Kronos’ music”. Beginning quite like On Parole, high strings awakened along muted tremolos, during which the cello played double stops as far as the hand can stretch. Eventually, a significant motif emerged, comprised of the combination of two intervals, one leaping and one resolving. To satiate the Kronos Quartet’s appetite for extended techniques, Dessner experimented with bowing, calling for circular bowing and brushing of the bow down the strings. Amidst perfectly placed harmonics and cello pizzicati, a recording of letters of the alphabet accompanied the quartet for a period. In a climactic finale, the group crescendoed to the sky, leaving a solo viola stranded to decay.   

The second world premiere, Derek Charke’s Dear Creator, help us return to the centre of our hearts, featured the use of recorded sound to enhance his quartet writing. This composition is hyper-conceptualized and is, unfortunately for the reader, better to listen to than read about. Essentially, Charke journeyed to Alberta’s Athabasca oil sands and wrote a piece to envelop the experience. He recorded the sounds of industrial work and nature, which he then integrated with the musical sounds written for the quartet. Having read the program only after listening to the piece, this listener recommends letting the music speak for itself. Embarking rhythmically and forcefully, the piece began with fast eighth notes and a violin melody up in the stratosphere. Violent sounds of machinery alternated with the sounds of birds and the quartet reacted to the commotion, sometimes taking tempi from, for instance, a truck backing up. The most notable part was when cellist Sunny Yang struck her instrument in a jazz bass style of pizzicato that is not utilized enough in cello writing.

Finally, the pièce de résistance of the evening was Aleksandra Vrebalov’s score to Bill Morrison’s film Beyond Zero: 1914-1918. The film is certainly not the type one might invite friends over to watch with popcorn and martinis. Instead, Beyond Zero: 1914-1918 is a collection of moving pictures of World War I from the United States Library of Congress’ archives. The images are tarnished because the film deteriorated over time, but this only intensifies the anxiety of the film, creating a seizure-inducing effect to complement the angst-driven music.

Vrebalov’s score began with a phonograph recording of Bartók playing his own Piano Suite and concluded with members of the Byzantine Chorus of Kovilj Monastery singing the hymn “Eternal Memory to the Virtuous”. The string quartet writing following the action of the film quite like many 20th century film scores; however, Vrebalov accompanied scenes of violence and destruction with remorse rather than exhilaration. The composer also included the use of recorded speech, Huelsenbeck reading his “Chorus Sanctus”, to decorous effect. The film was intensely symbolic, engrossing about every war trope imaginable: bidding farewell, marching to battle, stumbling through training, dreaming of loved ones, fighting the enemy, and ultimately dying with honor.