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In a time of turmoil, Kronos listens outward for healing

September 13, 2006|Mark Swed | Times Staff Writer

SAN FRANCISCO — The terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon five years ago caught us unguarded, asleep. Though stunned, we did not, at first, awaken. Instead, the disaster initially felt like a dream. Nothing seemed real. Those who witnessed it likened the collapse of buildings to special effects in a movie. Surly New Yorkers became friendly, one big family for a surreal spell. The world embraced us.

Now we are divided again. Fearful, we shut out the world. We remember the tragic losses by feeling sorry for ourselves and frightened of the future. Monday, at the World Trade Center site, officials offered solace with the help of Baroque brunch favorites played sorrowfully soft and slow (and wrong) in memory of the dead.

But at the Herbst Theater on Monday, the Kronos Quartet, in a meditation on the fifth anniversary of 9/11, set out to expand the soundtrack for that infamous day. The program was called "Awakening." The music was from here, there, everywhere -- including countries where we send troops -- and now.

With "sonic building blocks from 12 countries," the ensemble's founder and first violinist, David Harrington, wrote, "we hope to create equilibrium in the midst of imbalance: a special covering on an open wound."

The evening began with adhans, Muslim calls to prayer, from Turkey, Afghanistan and Saudi Arabia. I am unsure how to listen to them, arranged for string quartet and significantly amplified. To my ears they are interesting, mysterious music. A purist could argue that the amplification is a form of musical sacrilege. In much of the Arab world, though, adhans now blare from distorting loudspeakers on minarets, a mosque's factory whistle.

The first part of the concert remained in the East and included a raucous pop song from Saddam Hussein's Iraq, "Oh, Mother, the Handsome Man Tortures Me";a sophisticated, short string quartet score from the distinguished Uzbek composer Dmitri Yanov-Yanovsky; and a searing Indian raga by Ram Narayan vividly played by the Kronos violist Hank Dutt (the other quartet members are violinist John Sherba and cellist Jeffrey Ziegler).

What is real? Four quartet players ferociously banged on metal with hammers and electric tools, literally causing sparks to fly in an arrangement of "Armenia" by the German industrial music band Einsturzende Neubauten. They then ferociously moved their bows in the air above their strings while the air filled with thick, spectral overdubs of string sounds in "Spectre" by the resourceful Canadian electronic trickster, John Oswald.

The West Coast premiere of Michael Gordon's "Sad Park," a four-part string quartet that includes electronically modified descriptions of the World Trade Center attacks from preschoolers in Lower Manhattan, changed the dialogue. "There was a big boom and then there was teeny fiery coming out," we hear from teeny fiery voices.

The 25-minute score drones and pulses and glides and reaches a rhythmically alluring climax. Gordon (whose opera "What to Wear?" will have its premiere at REDCAT next week) accomplishes something remarkable here. He presents the children's innocence as a gift to us. Gordon's music is urban-edged, often grating post-Minimalism. Tragedy softens him, but the children restore his musical spirits.

The final grouping in Kronos' 90-minute set, played without intermission, then lifted the restored spirits. There were choices, all prayers of one sort or another. One could take away the gorgeous, embracing lyricism of Osvaldo Golijov and Gustavo Santaolalla in "Darkness 9/11," their soundtrack for one of a series of 11 short films made to reflect the events of that day.

Terry Riley's "One Earth, One People, One Love" from his gloriously galactic string quartet, "Sun Rings," looks at the big picture. A traditional Swedish song, "A Thousand Thoughts," is music of a dark night and dark heart, but as arranged for string quartet and missing its depressing lyrics it also soars.

Aulis Sallinen's "Winter Was Hard" is Finland-harsh, describing frozen black water and starving ducks. But when children selected from the Piedmont Choirs came on stage to sing it with the quartet, they became the voices of spring. They were beautiful in manner, sound and musicianship.

The children remained on stage for the last piece, Vladimir Martynov's "The Beatitudes," the first performance of a string quartet version of a short work by an electrifying Russian composer not yet well known in the West.

All is not well in the world, and Kronos, which played with searing intensity all evening, does not pretend that it is. But hope springs from understanding, from open ears. Monday's wake-up call demands wide dissemination.

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