Sunday, 29 January 2012


Barbican Hall, Thurs 26th Jan
(Part of the ‘Awakenings’ residency)

"I've always wanted the string quartet to be vital, and energetic, and alive... But it has to be expressive of life. To tell the story with grace and humor and depth. And to tell the whole story, if possible."   — Kronos founder David Harrington

Disinterring the Ghosts

What do we want? Political art that’s not sloganising! When do we want it? Now! But what happens when abstract art points at real-world events? Such as when Miro titles a painting ‘Paris 1968’ or the Kronos Quartet call a programme of music “a musical meditation on 9/11”?

Is it just the power of suggestion at work? Is there another sample group, sitting in some other concert hall, clutching guides explaining that the whole thing is about the invention of the refrigerator? And are they sagely noting the section that’s clearly dedicated to the vegetable tray?

I don’t know, because I wasn’t in the refrigerator room. But the one I was in, that kind of worked for me.

The venerable quartet take to the stage surrounded by debris, clearly designed to evoke Ground Zero. (That kind of neatly arranged stagy shorthand for debris that always has chicken wire and a bicycle wheel in it, but never mind that.) They start to play slowly and tentatively, notes at first just floating away, only gradually joining up into lines. It’s like the way improvised music normally starts, only without the improvisation.

Finally things turn into ’Awakening’, a piece in traditional Uzbeki style. In a patented Kronos method, used intermittently throughout the programme, a recording of an Uzbeki singer appears among them. The language is unfamiliar, the voice sounds distant, it’s almost a drone.

In his comic strip reaction to 9/11,‘This is Information’, Alan Moore comments “complex information is reduced to dull simplicity. Rubble, for example, contains little information. It all looks the same.”

In a similar way, we’re watching a cross between a re-enactment and a seance, where the ghosts of the dead are gradually disinterred from among the debris. In contrast to the live players, the recorded voices feel like a spectral presence.

But what’s equally important is what isn’t there. Though at points there’s projections, the debris is the nearest thing to a direct visual indicator of the attack. Those iconic newsclips of planes hitting buildings, of stunned onlookers, all are eschewed. In a piece first performed on the fifth anniversary of the attacks, such images were clearly seen as overly familiar - obstacles to coming to terms with the event. The task now is to get back to the immediacy.

From this disinterring, the programme falls into three distinct sections. The guide divides these up musically, into ‘traditional’, ‘musically dramatic’ and ‘contemporary classical.’ (Though I dislike the oxymoronic term ‘contemporary classical’, I concede I know what they mean.) In a video interview, David Harrington gives them more evocative (if extemporised) names, “the world outside“, “the event” and “the dressing on a wound.” (Though, in a highly eclectic evening, there are also huge varieties at play within these sections.)

The three sections equal to two approaches going on at once, superimposed over each other. There’s a ground-level chronology of events, plus the sonic equivalent of a commemorative wall – the place where people pin photos of the disappeared. The three sections roughly correspond to ‘human voices’, ‘disaster striking’ and ‘remembrance.’

The varieties of ethnic styles in the first section come to represent the multiplicity of people felled by the attack. The sonic violence of the mid-section, with pieces by Einsturzende Neubauten and John Oswold (described by Harrington as “fiendish”) equates to the attack itself. (It’s bizarre in a fun way to see the Kronos Quartet playing a Neubauten piece, striking sheet metal and wielding power tools while still studying their scores!)

This leads into selections from Michael Gordon’s ’The Sad Park’, which uses recorded reminiscences of the day, but only from children. Children, needless to say, do not contextualise or comment on what they experienced. They just describe it, in simple language. (“And all the persons that were in the airplane died.”)

Later, in the finale, on Sallinen’s ’Winter Was Hard’, an actual choir of children come onto stage. Not only do they contrast with the disembodied voices, they stand and sing as a group. (In the YouTube clip linked to above, Harrington comments he wanted to show them listening as much as he wanted them to sing.) The ending is not rousing but delicate, elegiac, almost a palindrome of the opening. It’s like visiting the grave of a loved one. You arrive, memories of them stir and then settle, you leave again.

Though some pieces were written specifically to commemorate 9/11, none were originally planned to be played in this sequence. That seems important, the programme is stitched from pre-existing pieces. Like the debris, they’re picked up and put together into a meaningful shape. A mix of tracks, rather than a dedicated piece, in many ways seems the best means to remember 9/11.

Reclaiming the Grief

...but anyway, if you’ve read any of my live music reviews before, you’ll know I always end up flying off at some tangent or other. And this time what interests me is the way that 9/11 so quickly became the property of the right. It was like the only way it was possible to express any sorrow over the dead was to take their side, to the point where even to mention the event seems to play into their agenda. (While of course, to quote Alan Moore from the same comic strip as before, “We all wept. I’m weeping now.”)

Take for example Paul Greengrass’ 2006 film ’United 93.’ Greengrass had previously been seen as something of a radical, for example with his 2002 film ’Bloody Sunday’which challenged the orthodoxy (read ‘cover-up’) surrounding the massacre in Northern Ireland. Though make in a similar verite style, and rivalling the other film in quality, ’United 93’ is of a very different political stripe.

Perhaps the most infamous event is the portrayal of the German plane passenger Christian Adams as a stereotypical ‘old Europe surrender monkey’, despite the quasi-documentary’s inability to source this in fact. (I’m told Oliver Stone’s ’World Trace Center’ of the same year pulls a similar volte-face for a previous political radical, but then who cares what Oliver Stone has to say about anything?)

But, with the performance happening a mere forty eight hours before Holocaust Memorial Day, I wondered whether this would continue to be the case. Of course Zionists and other reactionary groups try to make the Holocaust a tool of their agenda. (The trump-card atrocity of history, which supposedly allows them to commit their own with impunity.) But this agenda does not dominate media images of the Holocaust, which we normally think of as a human tragedy. (Disclaimer: yes, the comparison between the two events is not what you would call exact. Just go with it, okay?)

Of course, straight after 9/11 Bush’s political machine enlisted it in their drive to war; supposedly, we were with them or with the perpetrators. But that war was disastrous and the Neo Con project was derailed. (If “invade everyone, steal their stuff, then expect them to be grateful” qualified as a ‘project’ in the first place.) This piece was written for the five-year anniversary, is that significant? Does it mark a turning point? Bush remained in power to 2009, but by 2006 his star was already waning. (The two films cited above were released the same year, but film has a longer lead-time.)

Of course I should not attempt to enslave the Kronos Quartet to my mental scheme. They’re not an agitprop outfit, and their aim is clearly to rehumanise the tragedy, not quote Chomsky over Cheney. Nor would I suggest anything is calculated, in the way a spin doctor writes buzz words for focus groups into politicians’ speeches.

Nevertheless, they have a history of performing pieces with a political dimension, including a soundtrack to a gay riot. The guide comments “the Kronos Quartet have long sought to amplify contemporary music’s conversation with the real world”, and in this YouTube interview Harrington expresses anti-war, pro-peace sentiments.  Notably, the programme includes Terry Riley’s ‘One World, One People, One Love’, using a titular mantra recited by Alice Walker, hardly the sort of thing Bush would be likely to utter.

The right tended to homogenise the victims, strip their identifying differences to make them generic ‘Americans’. (While of course a fair proportion of those murdered would have been Muslims.) Wheras here, as mentioned, the multi-ethnic numbers which open the show are clearly intended to remind us of the multiplicity of the people who worked in the Towers. (In the centre of the highly diverse New York City.)

But more, similarly to the way the Zionists used the Holocaust, 9/11 was to become the defining tragedy of our time. If atrocities had been committed against Arabs, Asians or Muslims, either before or after 9/11, it didn’t matter – the Twin Towers overruled them. Our dead were deader than your dead.

Perhaps significantly, while another night in this visit was titled ’Made in America’, the remit here was decidedly wider. American corporations have the hideous buzzphrase ‘ROW’ or ‘Rest of World’, for the bit that’s left after a product has been launched in the Americas and Europe. This night was very rest of world...

Of the four pieces in the opening section, not one is white or European. I didn’t even realise until afterwards that the Uzbek opener featured the Muslim call to prayer. They notably included Iraqi and Iranian numbers. Overall, the twelve pieces hail from eleven different countries

Moreover, the programme was replete with references to other atrocities around the world; for example, the Neubauten piece, ’ Armenia’, itself sampling Armenian folk, recalled the Armenian genocide. The traditional Iraqi piece was titled the blackly humourous ’Oh Mother, the Handsome Man Tortures Me.’

When a significant event happens, it’s like all the art created before suddenly becomes recalibrated around it. (PJ Harvey’s ’Stories From the City, Stories From the Sea’, for example always seems to me to have 9/11 references, even though I’m fully aware it was released a year before.) But through this method 9/11 becomes contextualised, connected to other tragedies, rather than merely absorbing them.

Of course Riley’s mantra, ’One Earth, One People, One Love’, is unifying and so perhaps suggests at a unifying point. And, with its myriad of voices and tongues, the event does suggest at a Tower of Babel analogy, where (if not God himself) religious fanatics felled the tower that signalled human achievement.

But the tower that’s being rebuilt isn’t the original tower to commerce (or ‘world trade’) so much as, to borrow Leonard Cohen’s phrase, the tower of song. If Uzbeki music is unfamiliar to me (which it pretty much is), I am not as lost as I would be to hear Uzbek spoken. Musicians consider it natural to play together, in a way novelists don’t. Music can act as our common tongue.

It was an event which had to be more than the sum of its parts to work, in fact it couldn’t have more explicitly given itself that task. And of course, at the same time we don’t want everything spelt out for us. It’s not a jigsaw but an act of origami; we’re better leaving the venue with the parts still arranging and rearranging in our heads. Overall I’d say it was good, it was very very good and at points it was actually great.

...which may be partly why it left me thinking about other musical depictions of 9/11 which broke with Bush’s jingoism. In fact Kronos seem almost at the centre of an industry for these. I would now very much like to hear the whole of Michael Gordon’s ’The Sad Park’. In addition another Kronos commission was Steve Reich’s ’WTC 9/11’, performed at the Barbican last year, but I was unable to attend. (It’s YouTubed here.) Perhaps that right wing domination will be broken yet...

Alas a life of moneyed leisure still seems to be eluding me, so I was unable to visit London for the other two Kronos Quartet events. Though I would certainly have seen the ‘Early Music’ night if able, I was most aggrieved to have missed George Crumb’s ’Black Angels’, headlining ‘Made In America’.

A showreel for the residency:

’Oh Mother, The Handsome Man Tortures Me’ in full (albeit from elsewhere):

Coming soon! Yes I know, last time I promised ballet! Apologies to all tutu lovers I have in fact been practising my pirouettes and pas-de-deuxs all week and the ballet is coming, honest...

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