Kronos Quartet/Wu Man Carnegie Hall November 3, 2009
Although not officially part of Carnegie Hall's spectacular Ancient Paths, Modern Voices season of Chinese culture, this concert was certainly well-timed to sit beside its less innovative brethren. Perhaps the program's decidedly non-traditional stance was the main reason. Also, the Kronos collaboration with pipa player Wu Man was itself an advance taste of another Carnegie season. In 2010, Kronos will be initiating several further musical meetings as part of the well-established Perspectives series.
The first part of the evening was dedicated to Tan Dun's Ghost Opera, which entered the Kronos repertoire back in 1994. It was directly commissioned by the Quartet, and featured Wu Man in its original form. This reading sounded quite different from the recorded album version, with a heightened aura of ritualised minimalism. The Kronos players and Wu Man arrived either from different quarters, or were poised at the sides of the stage. The piece makes prime use of pausing space, with isolated vocal outbursts and gently splashed water, held in strategically-arranged glass bowls. Parchment drapes turn players into shadow-beings. The Kronos players are known for their concern with staging, but this becomes one of their more theatrical outings, its ceremonial nature of equal importance, and even inseparable from, the music. Indeed, the music has become the ritual, and maybe that's why witnessing the work in the flesh feels so removed from the domestic audio- only situation. The piece finishes with Wu Man pulling thick crinkling sounds from the stretched parchment, and setting off a gargantuan gong-rumble, providing a powerful shock following the vestigial traces of the work's overall body. Tan Dun was in the house, standing up to acknowledge the vigorous applause.
Following the intermission, Kronos and Wu Man gave the world premiere of "A Chinese Home," which could be described as either a multi-media suite or a performance art happening. Unusually for Kronos, this is a developed collaboration rather than a work credited to a single composer. The violinist David Harrington and Wu Man have worked out the four-part narrative sequence with director and visual designer Chen Shi- Zheng. Much of the music is blooming from a traditional root, at first folkish, then moving into populist song. It traverses the decades like a veritable history of Chinese popular music.
Having just said that Ghost Opera finds Kronos at their most theatrical: it's an old-fashioned concert piece when compared to "A Chinese Home."
The players behave as if they're the house band for a depraved flop- house, swigging booze, tossing off phrases that blend old-fashioned romance with eternal seediness, with Wu Man even downing her pipa, to become a night club torch singer. The musical patchwork evolves from traditional to Western-influenced midnight cabaret, inextricably linked to a decade-by-decade narrative.
The film backdrop is a dominant element, flooded with an image-parade that veers from technicolor kitsch revolutionary propaganda to the monochrome documentation of horrific corpse mountains. Maybe there are other reasons why this piece didn't appear as part of the mainline Chinese culture season. Although not explicitly commenting upon the Mao years, there's a way in which imagery is paraded that combines atrocity with superficiality, irony with patriotism, tragedy with slapstick. From capitalism to communism alike. When combined with the musical panorama speeding past, the effect is of a wordless, abstract, observational character that would certainly make this work unwelcome in China. This is not to say that the cultural life of many other countries couldn't be sieved through in a similar fashion. However, some lands are more accustomed to such ironic mangling.
The entire piece increases in intensity incrementally, reaching an apocalyptic conclusion when Wu Man straps on her electric pipa (an instrument that we'd surely never even dreamed of before), plugged into a spread of feedback effects pedals. She crafts great crests of sculpted noise, barely in control of the chaos, as Kronos unpack their collection of Made In Hong Kong mechanised toys, which are bleeping, rotating, squawking and bumping until they've carpeted the entire stage. It's a prime evocation of how China ended the last century, girding its loins for a coming economic flowering. One of the reasons that the piece succeeds as an entity is listeners' sense of its inarguable uniqueness. Even though "A Chinese Home" utilizes many familiar elements, they've never been grafted together before in anything quite like this multi-sensory configuration.
Jessica Pavone/The Toomai String Quartet Roulette November 10, 2009