10 October 2011

Kronos plays Reich at Cal

Last night I went over to Berkeley for the Cal Performances presentation of a Kronos Quartet Steve Reich program. I have heard less of Reich's music than that of other minimalists (a label I'm sure they all reject) like Glass or Adams. I'm not sure why, since I always am interested in it when I hear it. Maybe it was just that Glass made regular trips to Boston when I lived there and was starting to listen to music, and Reich maybe did not. Hertz Hall was packed and the audience was attentive and enthusiastic. (A cell phone did go off, loudly, during one of the pieces, but there was so much recorded ambient noise that at first I wasn't sure if it was intentional or a delightfully Cagean accident.)

Kronos played the Triple Quartet, selections from The Cave, WTC 9/11 (the Bay Area premiere), and then, after the intermission, Different Trains, followed as an encore by an arrangement for string quartet of Perotin’s Viderunt Omnes. All of the Reich pieces except for The Cave were Kronos commissions. All of the pieces except for the Perotin made heavy use of pre-recorded material.

I go to the trouble and expense of live performances because the music sounds different from a recording, more vivid and immediate and subject to chance and fate and the happenstance of how one feels and where one sits; they’re, you know, live. Here’s my basic reaction to sitting in a concert hall and listening to a piece that depends on pre-recorded material, even if I enjoy the piece: I always wonder, “Why did I have to trek out to a concert hall, wait around for the performance to start (usually at an inconvenient time), and pay (usually two to five times the cost of a CD) just to listen to a recording (only one I can’t listen to repeatedly)?”

The Triple Quartet provided an exciting opening. It can be played by three quartets, or by one quartet to a recording of the other two parts, which is how it was done here. I loved the piece and so have little to say about it, except that I would love to hear it again.

The second piece, The Cave, refers (according to the program notes) to The Cave of the Patriarch, the traditional burial place of Abraham, Sarah, and their offspring, as well as of Adam and Eve. It is also a place sacred to Muslims, who venerate Abraham. I liked the piece (yes, we’ve gone from love to like), but the whole Jewish/Islam aspect is only clear if you’ve read what I’ll call the liner notes. The musical material is generated from the taped remarks, which is a very interesting way to generate music, but the remarks themselves don’t reveal much, except that the setting is somewhere in the Middle East.

There’s what I think is a muezzin’s call to prayer, though it could just as easily be a chanted psalm; it sounds vaguely religious and definitely middle eastern – the point is, without annotation you don’t really know where you are. I can see how working on this material would be fascinating for the musicians involved, but for an audience member (this one, anyway) it worked more as absolute music, which made me wonder why there was so clearly a program imposed on it. It was fine on a purely aesthetic level – sounds are sounds, which are interesting – but if you deliberately write a piece about “the only place in the world where both Jews and Muslims worship,” then I’m thinking you have more on your mind than purely formal issues, though it was a little difficult to say what that might be. Perhaps the string quartet is as unsuited as lyric poetry to dealing effectively with political issues.

But the Cave did provide an excellent political and cultural context for the last piece on the first half of the program, WTC 9/11, which of course commemorates the September 11 attack on the World Trade Center. I had listened to the new recording of the brief (about 15 minute) piece on Saturday. My immediate reaction was disappointment. I thought hearing it live might change my mind. It didn’t. It seemed to me that this piece more than any of the others last night relied on recorded voices, so much so that I felt the music was reduced to underscoring. It all sounded the way you would expect it to sound.

The taped voices themselves are manipulated much less than in the other pieces on the program, which, on the one hand, is fine because it would be grotesque to make artsy arrangements of this material, but on the other hand is – setting aside the political and emotional content, and I realize this is itself a slightly grotesque complaint – kind of dull and dutiful. We’ve all heard all this before. In fact we’ve heard this material treated in the same way before (with heavy use of taped recollections from survivors), in John Adams’s 2002 piece, On the Transmigration of Souls, a work I found more oblique and to my ears therefore more evocative and wide-ranging than this one.

According to the program notes, “the Kronos Quartet asked [Reich] for a piece using pre-recorded voices.” He eventually realized that the voices should be from 9/11. He was in Vermont during the attack but his son, grand-daughter, and daughter-in-law were all in his apartment four blocks from the World Trade Center (fortunately it seems they were not injured). So centering the piece on 9/11 was Reich’s idea (and the timing with the tenth anniversary of the attacks is just a coincidence). He’s a composer, so of course his way of processing our time is through composing. But as an audience member, I didn’t feel he was saying anything I hadn’t already heard too often. I think it was a piece he needed to write, but it wasn’t a piece I needed to hear.

It’s hard to believe it was only two years ago when I was mocking the SF Symphony for scheduling their season-opening free public concert, a cheery program of waltzes, on September 11. And I still feel it was weird of them not to acknowledge the date. But I’m also feeling that it’s become rote, disingenuous, and intentionally naïve (let me be clear that I’m talking about the effect on me and not the motives of anyone involved last night) to recite the martyrology for our dead 3,000 while completely ignoring the over 100,000 (that’s only Iraqi civilians, and only an estimate) that we have since killed using our 3,000 as an excuse. WTC 9/11 is not a dishonest or shameful piece, and it’s not fatuous propaganda like Heart of a Soldier, but it’s also not very illuminating or interesting. It felt like a hard little lump that Reich had to get out of his system.

So for me the evening was on a downward trend, despite the beauty and intensity of the Quartet’s playing (which I think was amplified, to compete against the pre-recorded tapes; I was sitting far back in the hall, which is not where I usually sit so I'm not that familiar with the sound quality there, but the instruments sounded amplified until the encore, when there was to my ears a definite change away from a mechanical sound).

Different Trains is from 1988, which makes it the earliest Reich piece played Sunday night. He notes in the program that it began a new musical direction for him. It is based on his memory of cross-country train trips he took as a child, accompanied by his governess, shuttling between his divorced parents in New York City and Los Angeles from 1939 to 1942, and his later realization that if he had been a European rather than American Jew during those years he most likely would have been taking a train ride to a death camp. So there is a political and cultural context here, as in The Cave and WTC 9/11 (though I felt Different Trains conveyed the context more urgently and successfully than the other two).

The contexts and connotations of the three pieces played off each other in interesting ways (with the jagged and swirling Triple Quartet acting as prelude). I thought WTC 9/11 gained from the context (which it does not have in the recording, on which it appears first and is followed by the pleasingly gamelan-like Mallet Quartet), but it lost by being another taped-voices-and-string-accompaniment piece on a program made up of them – it made the method seem less like a necessity or a way of respecting the dead than like a mode.

I wondered during some of the pieces if they would work as well with a live vocalist. It would be interesting to hear some of them that way. But it wouldn’t work for all of them – one of the important recorded voices in Different Trains is Lawrence Davis, a retired Pullman porter who used to work the Los Angeles-New York line that Reich rode. Pullman porter was one of the very limited number of jobs open to black men in America at that time. Davis’s inclusion is a subtle and necessary link between American politics and American racism and the political situation and looming racial genocide in Europe at the same time. His voice complicates and deepens the piece. And obviously you can’t have a vocalist imitating the sound of an elderly black man without sounding offensively like a minstrel show. But using a vocalist instead of tape could work in some other places. There’s a sense of somewhat fetishistic “authenticity” about the insistence on a particular recorded voice that limits the possibility of what can happen in a live performance.

Sadly for me, I am the sort of person who often has little to say about something he loves except that he loved it (usually expressed as “that was nice; I enjoyed it”), but who has plenty to say about his nagging thoughts during something he loves less. So I should point out that I really did enjoy the music (not so much WTC 9/11, but I was glad to hear it) and the performers. But my ticket cost me I think $45 (that’s with a subscriber discount), and given that most of the evening involved listening to recordings, I have to wonder if this was the best use of my time and money. I didn’t feel disappointed or ripped off, but I could have stayed home and had basically the same experience for a fraction of the trouble and cost.

This frustration of a live performance that wasn’t quite live was really brought home by the encore. I had not previously heard of the medieval composer Perotin (though there’s always the possibility I had heard his music on some recording while not registering the name; coincidentally this morning Amazon recommended a Perotin disc to me, which needless to say I bought). He is apparently a favorite composer of Reich’s, who brought him to the attention of first violin David Harrington. It was a mystical and witty piece, played with stately tenderness. And it was the first time all evening I felt I was experiencing something I could only have experienced live.

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