Arts & Events

New: Kronos Quartet Resets the Clock

By Lou Fancher
Wednesday October 19, 2011 - 11:02:00 AM

You're too late to catch the Kronos Quartet’s most recent one night stand on the UC Berkeley Campus, but don't despair: they return February 12 at 7 p.m. to Hertz Hall. Their appearance in the same venue earlier this month was a revelation.

Not content to simply play masterfully while representing acclaimed composer Steve Reich’s grand themes of terror and peace, Kronos Quartet used bow and string to transcend the limits of time and place.

It was Sunday, October 9th, 2011, at Berkeley’s Hertz Hall, and yet, it was not. 

Following the pulsing trajectory of Reich’s signature repetitions, Kronos violinists David Harrington and John Sherba, violist Hank Dutt and cellist Jeffrey Zeigler presented four works, including the Bay Area premiere of WTC 9/11, composed in response to the September 11 attacks on the World Trade Center. 

The composer, whose works have been inspected, analyzed, and declared “pioneering” for their minimalism, has developed thick, multi-layered profiles in more recent compositions. Submarine themes rise to the surface in both subtle and obvious ways, but always, there is a pounding, forward-leaning momentum to the music. 

Triple Quartet (1999), its three movements played without pause, drove listeners up jagged Alpine slopes with its feverish energy. Lighting Designer Laurence Neff’s blue lights glinted off the instruments and cast angular, marine shadows across the stage floor, extending the cool, edginess of the sound. A swirling adagio section allowed respite, as if to catch one’s breath, before the final movement returned to a vigorous, uphill battle to reach the summit. 

It was Berkeley, and it was Switzerland. 

Selections from The Cave (1993) developed from transcribed phrases chosen for their melodic content. With an underlying pulse reminiscent of a heart monitor or car alarm (one, you want to continue; one, you pray will stop), the work gained intensity from blurted vocal fragments (recorded) and percussive instrumentation (live). Middle Eastern influences signaled a mournful cello solo, with Zeigler’s extended droning accompanied by a muffled, prison-crowd-like recording. 

The third work before intermission was the eagerly-awaited WTC 9/11. Here then, is where Reich’s musical topography reached both into the past, with phone and fire alarms, and into the future, with the quartet’s instruments assuming a textual, nearly spoken voice. 

The triple decker delivery—three string quartets twisting into one, with occasionally indecipherable recorded words featuring residents and fire department personnel remembering the tragic day—swept the sold-out audience out of the present. 

A comment, overheard in the lobby during intermission, said it all: “I felt like I was right there, on the street. I couldn’t breathe.” 

The final piece, Different Trains, was the most compelling compilation of voice and instrument. Sweeping from recordings of Holocaust survivors telling their stories to American and European trains to the buoyant voice of retired Pullman porter Lawrence Davis, the spoken samples embraced all of history. It was war, Reich’s own cross-continental travel after his parents’ divorce, and every traveler in Hertz Hall’s memory of real or imagined journeys. 

The three movements revealed another Reich hallmark: sweet swells signaling the end of breath-taking runs with either an exhausted sigh, or a death defying leap into silence. A silence broken finally, after seconds of rest, by the lengthy applause from the time travelers in Berkeley.