"The fact is, the inspiration of 'Black Angels' is something that is very imbedded in my thinking," (David) Harrington says. "Hearing it created a set of demands, and even expectations, of my own future, my own life. In a lot of ways, the work that Kronos has done is a set of variations on that piece." — Washington Post
Since they first shocked the classical music world in the early 1970's with string quartet versions of rock classics like Jimi Hendrix's Purple Haze, Kronos Quartet has gone on to become one of the most diverse, best–known and most influential contemporary string quartets in the world. This fall, YBCA and Kronos Quartet embark on a multi–year partnership to explore the continuing evolution of this extraordinary musical powerhouse. The new partnership launches with the San Francisco premiere of a new staging of Black Angels, George Crumb's musical response to the Vietnam War, which was the inspiration for the formation of the Kronos Quartet. When violinist David Harrington first heard Black Angels on the radio, he thought it was "something wild, something scary" and "absolutely the right music to play," and we agree.
Crumb's score draws from an arsenal of sounds, including shouting, chanting, whistling, whispering, gongs, maracas and crystal glasses, to depict a voyage of the soul in three parts — Departure (the fall from grace), Absence (spiritual annihilation) and Return (redemption). The program will also feature the world premiere of a new work co–commissioned by YBCA and the Kronos Performing Arts Association, String Quartet No. 3 "A Threnody for Those Who Remain", by 29–year–old Iranian composer/pianist Sahba Aminikia, a student at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music. This new work for quartet and electronics is deeply informed by Aminikia's childhood during the Iran–Iraq War in the 1980's and includes recordings of the iconic air raid alarm of his youth, as well as TV and radio propaganda from that era. San Francisco composer, performer, journalist and activist Bob Ostertag wrote All the Rage for Kronos in 1993. The piece was developed from a recording Ostertag made of a riot in San Francisco in October 1991, which followed California Governor Pete Wilson's veto of a bill designed to protect gays and lesbians from discrimination.
About Black Angels
Adapted from Tom Moon, 1,000 Recordings to Hear Before You Die, Workman Publishing
During the heyday of the classical music "avant–garde" in the 1960s and '70s, composers believed they had a mandate to reinvent music from the ground up. George Crumb was one of the very few who actually managed to do it. His works — pieces like Black Angels written for string quartet in 1970, the centerpiece of this astounding disc by the Kronos Quartet — are perverse and often startling constellations of sound that challenge conventional notions of how music should be organized.
In this and other Crumb pieces, for example, one doesn't detect clear beginnings or endings; instead, the music is a procession of episodes, dazzling textures, and extreme chords that rarely seem to lead into or connect with one another. The Kronos dives in, and within a minute or so of the first movement, gets deep into Crumb's punishing soundscape — the knotted, crying chords were inspired by the Vietnam war, but the piece conjures any place from which there is no clearly marked exit. The four string players gnaw and chatter as if they're reenacting an aerial attack, yet the juxtapositions of sound register with the force of body blows. Crumb relies heavily on percussion (his scores require players to strike a cymbal with a double bass bow). Though he does notate his work, parts of this piece suggest that the "score" might be a collage. He asks musicians to think in broad shapes, not notes, and the effects he generates can be awesome. They can also be terrifying.
David Harrington, the first violinist and conceptual force behind the Kronos Quartet, once said that he initially formed the group to play pieces like Black Angels. Crumb's challenging piece, which is in some ways closer to the howling dissonance of heavy metal than string quartet music, aligns perfectly with the group's sensibility. Keen interpreters of the traditional repertoire, the four musicians are determined to escape its confines, and do this by applying a rock–auteur sensibility to recording projects. Kronos has commissioned notable contemporary classical works, but just as often goes outside of that world. Its concept albums include Monk Suite, devoted to the works of jazz composer–pianist Thelonious Monk, and the terrific Pieces of Africa, which gathers propulsive and often polyrhythmic work from contemporary African composers.
The theme of Black Angels might be broadly described as "disillusionment with humanity occasioned by war." The Kronos complements Crumb's piece with Dmitri Shostakovich's String Quartet No. 8, a woeful, sometimes forbidding testament to the victims of fascism. Also here is a striking interpretation of Thomas Tallis's motet "Spem in alium," and a scratchy recording of a Charles Ives song to which the Kronos fashioned apt accompaniment.
Where Crumb wants listeners to wander over barren lands and share the agony of battle, Shostakovich, whose work closes the disc, describes something less visual but no less visceral — a soul–ravaging brutality, the kind that's accomplished without bullets.
About String Quartet No. 3 "A Threnody for Those Who Remain"
"Around 8:00 A.M. on Sunday, December 20th, 2009, I received a call in San Francisco from my sister in Iran, telling me that my dad had passed away in a car crash on a highway in Tehran on the way home. Shocked and hysterical, I bought a plane ticket for the day after to Frankfurt, and then on to Tehran, where I spent 20 days. After I got back to San Francisco, I had coffee with David Harrington from Kronos to talk about a new project. We both came up with this idea: how strange it is that our loved ones leave us so swiftly and suddenly, and with an ocean of sorrow and grief that lasts until the end of our lives.
"This piece is directly inspired by my trip and what I went through during this journey. The first movement draws from my childhood memories during the 1980s, while Iran was at war with Iraq, right after the Islamic revolution that overthrew the Shāh. This movement is based on a game I used to play with my dad as a kid, basically standing on his feet and having him walk me around the house. This felt like the most enjoyable thing I could do with my dad at that time.
"In the second movement, I gathered material from a typical ritual lamentation ceremony from the southern regions of Iran, where most of the residents are primarily from African and Arabian cultures. The drums (Damām), cymbals and the scream–like human voices (called Kél in this culture) are essential elements of a common lamentation ceremony in Bandar Abbās and Boushehr. This movement is informed by nightmares I had during the flight to back to Tehran.
"The last movement draws from the days I spent in Tehran, where in the early morning, after being awakened by the voices of sparrows, you hear the Azān, the call for morning prayer. The call to prayer I have used in this piece is one of the most symbolic and famous forms of its kind, by Rahim Moazzén–zādéh. It is the symbol of Persianized Islam, as this was the first time Azān had been sung in Persian modes. Although I am not a Muslim myself, the Azān evokes my hometown, and reminds me of this time trying to overcome grief, which still seems like a never–ending pain.
"The piece ends with calls of 'Allāh–u–akbar' (God is great), with which the people protested the results of the 2009 presidential election, recorded on the rooftops of Tehran. These are the shouts that I heard all the time at night during my stay."
About All the Rage
"All the Rage was developed from a recording I made of a riot in San Francisco in October 1991, which followed California Governor Pete Wilson's veto of a bill designed to protect gays and lesbians from discrimination.
First, I sifted through the recording and isolated those sections that to my ear suggested music. Some of these involved screaming, whistles, or windows being smashed. Two were based on slogans chanted by the crowd ("We're Not Going Back" and "Queers Fight Back"). Two more were based on individual voices (one shouting "Go For It," and several people yelling "Burn it" as the California State Office Building caught fire). I then developed these fragments into full musical structures through various digital editing techniques, and added the text by Sara Miles.
Kronos parts were developed directly from the recorded material. In some cases, this took the form of a minutely detailed transcription of the pitch inflections of the recorded sounds. In other sections, the process from tape to string parts was more complex, and the relationship between the two less obvious.
Much of the peculiar sound of this music comes from the whistles that many queers carry as a basic self–defense tool, and which emerged from peoples' pockets by the hundreds during the riot. The whistles used in performance by the Kronos Quartet are provided by Community United Against Violence, a San–Francisco–based organization which assists victims of queer–bashings."
About spell no. 4, for a changing world
"I wrote spell no. 4, for a changing world as a birthday present to my friend David Harrington. David and the Kronos Quartet have been my family, my mentors and my inspiration since I moved to the United States 15 years ago.
"This family extends beyond geography, language, ideology: it is a family of music makers who know life through sound. In this family the sound of bombs is never victorious, and lullaby in any language only means love. In this family when one fifth of the humanity is hungry, in Pythagorean terms we know we cannot resonate well as a whole.
"spell no. 4 is written for amplified string quartet, Tibetan bowl, chimes, and prerecorded sounds of shells, broken glass, and a choral piece, The Prayer of The Blind, which I wrote and sang in Novi Sad, Serbia in 1989. The piece belongs to a cycle of spells, all written from February 2008 to October 2009."
About Fog Tropes II
"The original version of Fog Tropes (1982) was written for brass sextet and tape. Because of the timbral unity of brass and foghorns, there is a built–in wholeness to the music. The idea of a new version for string quartet and tape (the tape part is identical to the original) is predicated on an opposite supposition that the pre–recorded sounds and the live sounds would be of contrasting natures.
"It is really a different piece of music despite the common background. Even though the quartet follows harmonic–melodic paths similar to the brass of version one, the effect is wholly different; yet the underlying effect is the same. In the original version, the tape sounds appear first and the brass parts creep in underneath. Here it is the opposite; the quartet begins and it is the foghorns and allies that subtly emerge underneath.
"The tape part existed independently as a composition created in 1981. The collage of sounds from the maritime areas of San Francisco was wedded with vocal keenings and the sounds of the Balinese flute, gambuh. When I added the brass parts in 1982, I troped the music—in the medieval sense — with a new layer. Now it is twice troped, and thus the title Fog Tropes II."
This program launches a three year partnership between Kronos Quartet and YBCA, a collaborative endeavor to generate new work, to explore experimental new forms of expression and to illumine ideas and stories that are reflective of the complicated world around us. Kronos Quartet brings together an extraordinary legacy of evoking powerful expression with an unflagging commitment to supporting new artists and global perspectives. What an amazing opportunity to explore some of the most adventurous and potent composers of our times, through the eye of the visionary David Harrington. Tonight's program is emblematic of that commitment to support bold expression and profound human response.
As I'm spending time with this particular program, immersed in the notes and words from the composers, I'm struck by the themes and patterns that emerge, the poetic arc of this program, and I think of David Harrington as a curator who has constructed a powerful journey through these resonant works. Threaded throughout the program are reflections and responses to a turbulent world, shouts and shards of memory, fragments of ideas and ideals, sounds and echoes, cries of injustice. These works emerge from times of loss, chaos and conflict and delve deeply into our Big Idea ENCOUNTER: Engaging the social context—an idea that explores projects that expose and challenge some of the inequalities that exist in the contemporary world and make us think and feel more deeply about issues of social justice. Embedded in this program are personal and collective responses, protests to injustice and victimization and calls to recognize current realities and loss of liberties.
Composer Aleksandra Vrebalov once said, "This family extends beyond geography, language, ideology: it is a family of music makers who know life through sound. In this family the sound of bombs is never victorious, and lullaby in any language only means love." I can't think of a more poetic reminder of the entanglement of life and art, and the artists' vital role in reflecting and commenting on the world around us.
—Angela Mattox, Performing Arts Curator
The Kronos Quartet and Yerba Buena Center for the Arts are pleased to announce a multi–year partnership which begins during the 2010/11 season. YBCA will be Kronos' exclusive San Francisco home for concerts and experimentation for three seasons. Kronos and YBCA will co–produce performances and will co–commission at least three new works during the residency.
"Kronos is thrilled to begin a three year partnership with Yerba Buena Center for the Arts. There has never been a time in the last 37 years when I have felt as energized, as passionate and as committed to the music of the future as I do right now. We are inspired by the Center's programs and artistic vision, and we feel a great synergy in our mutual commitment to the creation and performance of new work. We are excited by the opportunity to deepen our relationship with YBCA and its audiences. Kronos has always loved performing at YBCA, and we look forward to planning very special programs and performances in our home town."
—David Harrington, Artistic Director, Kronos Quartet
"The Kronos Quartet is one of the world's leading string quartets, pushing the boundaries of contemporary music and constantly reinventing themselves through their explorations with artistic partners. YBCA is thrilled to celebrate this new venture with the Kronos Quartet — an organization that shares our vision and commitment to innovation — which is sure to delight music fans with new works and experimentations for several years to come."
—Kenneth J. Foster, Executive Director of Yerba Buena Center for the Arts
YBCA's programs are made possible in part by:
The San Francisco Foundation
National Endowment for the Arts
Adobe Foundation Fund
YBCA Performance 10–11 is made possible in part by:
The Doris Duke Charitable Foundation
The William and Flora Hewlett Foundation
Additional Funding for YBCA Performance 10–11:
Zellerbach Family Foundation, New England Foundation for the Arts, National Endowment for the Arts, and Members of Yerba Buena Center for the Arts