Sunday was a difficult day. Amid the glory of the weather and the Blue Angels thundering overhead across the City, I was just trying to sort out the pieces of something smashed and move forward, knowing I wasn't going to be able to put it back together. I was glad when the day began to dim and the time came to make my way to the BART station to meet Chad Newsome in Berkeley to see the Kronos Quartet perform an all Steve Reich Program. The streets were clogged with people who had come into the City for the airshow. Cars filled the streets and the sidewalks were full of people who have no idea what to do with themselves outside of their cars, exposed in the big city where everything is dirty and noisy. They looked warily at all the other people. I just wanted them to get out of the way

Down in the station, the platform was packed, as were the cars, but everyone seemed relaxed about it all and I thought it ironic I was going to hear "Different Trains" in a couple of hours.

Chad and I met at the Berkeley station and walked through campus, up to the the Bear's Lair, and had Lagunitas IPAs before the show. I think in the back of both our minds lurked thoughts of how different our lives seemed when we were students there, and what now seems, to me at least, like another life altogether.

Kronos Quartet: Photo by Michael Wislon

A full house showed up to the unusually dark (and pleasingly so) Hertz Hall. The performance began with 1999's "Triple Quartet," dedicated to Kronos. The title refers to the whole being comprised of three distinct quartets, the second and third playing "interlocking chords" in a "kind of variation form" off one another, while the first "plays melodies in canon between the first violin and viola against the second violin and cello" according to Reich's own program notes. The second and third quartets were pre-recorded by Kronos, so in essence they were playing with themselves, though not in the way usually commonly assumed. The work's movements alternate fast-slow-fast and unless one had a deep familiarity with it, or was distinctly trying to parse out the differences between each quartet, I think it would have been hard to follow which quartet was playing what by listening to a recording, so being able to watch the musicians was immensely helpful. It was an impressive performance.

Excerpts from "The Cave" came next, which left me feeling like I was back in the Middle-East, wandering through Wadi Rum, as Reich's music fully evoked the hard realities of the region. As Kronos played the slow, agonized score, the taped component featured people answering basic questions on their thoughts of biblical characters. The words don't come through necessarily, but become a wall against which the musicians constantly push against through the work's three movements. It was the least impressive score of the night, perhaps because it was the quietest, but it was still quite effective,

"WTC 9/11" begins with the disturbing, highly amplified sound of a phone off the hook. It's the sound of something dreadful, and it sets the tone for what's to come for the next fifteen minutes. I find something incredibly powerful about this piece, though at times I've wished it was longer and at others shorter. Live, it's even more powerful, as Kronos played bathed in deep blue and red lights, a projection on the wall behind them of two massive forms colliding. Again, with two recordings accompanying their own amplified instruments. The three sections move from panic of the first with its voices of air traffic controllers and fire department archives, with the musicians performing jagged, piercing lines, reminding me of a cross between the soundtracks for Psycho and Requiem for a Dream (which Kronos recorded and was heavily influenced by Reich). In the the second the tempo slows as the voices of Reich's friends and neighbors recollect the day, haltingly and repeatedly, as if no one can really even believe their own words, while the sound of the phone off the hook pulses in quietly in the background, performed by the viola.  Certain phrases are punctuated with sharp jabs from the violin, the words elongated into notes performed by the instruments. The third part is evocative of loss and remembrance, slower still, featuring more recollections and closes with a cantor singing prayers before the musicians bring a sense of halting confusion before the amplified phone returns to bring it back to its terrible beginning. It's an incredibly effective work.

The second half of the performance was the brilliant "Different Trains," a meditation on destiny developed in a sound prism of trains carrying people to their destinations- in this case out west to Los Angeles and to the gas chambers of the concentration camps. Kronos performed it with an urgency which brought a thrilling pulse to it all, even during the slower passages, creating a hypnotic effect.

There was an encore of a work by Perotin, an 11th Century composer Reich admires, entitled "Viderunt omnes." It sounded amazingly fresh for something composed 900 years ago.

Afterward we walked back through campus with Patrick, who was unusually seated in the rear of the house. We discussed the idea of using tapes and if that negated the authenticity of what constitutes a live performance. Patrick and Chad felt this was the case. I disagreed and though I didn't quite realize this part  at the time, have come to find it largely beside the point, because what we had just experienced wasn't something I could recreate at home. And that's why I wanted to get out of the house to begin with.

A final on thought on the Kronos Quartet: in the last year and a half I've seen three performances by them and each one has been radically different than the others, including one of the best shows I've seen all year (which, damn, I never posted about)- their concert with Wu Man for her hyper-creative "A Chinese Home." Always adventurous and into doing something new, stretching way beyond the traditional confines of chamber music, these are brilliant, exciting musicians. If you've yet to see them, make it a point to attend one of the upcoming concerts. Cal Performances will bring them back in February and they'll be in Santa Rosa on December 2nd with another interesting program featuring "WTC 9/11" and other works by Jewish and Muslim composers. They are also in a residency with YBCA, so there are plenty of opportunities in the months ahead.

All of the Reich compositions mentioned in this post can be heard on MOG.