Thursday night I went to hear the Kronos Quartet at the Z Space @ Atraud- which may have the most uncomfortable seats of any venue in San Francisco to put your butt in for a 90-minute performance. Kronos, subject of an interesting article appearing in today's New York Times, was putting on a four-night, sold-out run of performances featuring Jon Rose's Music From 4 Fences, along with works by Terry Riley, John Zorn, Franghiz Ali-Zadeh, Felipe Perez Santiago, Amon Tobin and Scott Johnson (a full set list can be found here). The works by Rose, Ali-Zadeh and Tobin were the highlights. The others, especially Riley's piece, I found less than interesting, though overall the program had a variety and intensity that kept my attention focused through it all.
The show began with Ali-Zadeh's Mugam Sayagi, as cellist Jeffrey Zeigler sat alone onstage playing an evocative theme with other instruments accompanying him offstage. Then the rest of Kronos came onstage to deliver one of the most satisfying pieces of music I've heard at first hearing. Essentially spinning an Azeri folk tale in music, this piece transported me to a different place altogether. It was by turns lighthearted, touching, adventurous, melancholy and consistently engaging. Written for Kronos, it's a work I would love to hear again.
Amon Tobin's Bloodstone featured recorded music (as did many of the pieces performed this night) with the quartet accompanying it, sometimes in front, sometimes from behind. I'm ambivalent about this kind of performance because when the rhythm of a piece is dictated by a recording and not by the musicians onstage, I feel a sense of discovery and spontaneity inherent in the best lives performances is curtailed, if not rendered impossible to achieve through a kind of tyranny imposed by a beat that won't/ can't be altered once it's begun. In this instance though, it worked for me on the strength of the composition itself, which at times reminded me of the work Kronos did for the Requiem for a Dream soundtrack. Accompanied by a video backdrop and atmospheric lighting, the piece had an amplified force to it that I found quite satisfying.
The highlight of the evening, which definitely falls under the "and now for something completely different" category, was Rose's fence music. As Rose writes in the program, he usually has his pieces composed for fences performed in situ and one of the challenges was constructing the fences and delivering for the performance. Each member of Kronos had their own fence to play, using electrified bass bows. The fences stood about six feet tall and were perhaps about eight feet across. Composed of five wires, like a staff, only the top three lines of wire were played and attached to pick-ups. The uppermost wire was barbed and there were lights and cameras attached to the top which caught the musicians in action and projected their hands on a screen at the back of the space.
The first note was a shock. Loud like a shotgun blast, some people visibly jumped in their seats. Imagine the whomp heralding Ulrica's entrance in Verdi's Un Ballo en Maschera played by Hendrix and you'd have something approximate. Disorienting and thrilling, it only got more interesting from there, as the quartet beat, drummed, sawed and bowed their way over, against and through the fences. As much a performance piece as a musical one, whether intended or not, it was unforgettable.
I attended the concert with Axel Feldheim, who wondered afterward whether or not 4 Fences was a notated score. Fortunately, as we were leaving we espied Jon Rose standing outside so we asked him. His response, one of the most amusing things I've heard in a long time, can be read at Axel's account of the performance.