Kronos Quartet and Fusion Music

I’m still trying to figure out how I feel about Kronos Quartet. From September 16th to 18th, a group of four musicians graced the stage at the NYUAD Arts Center, giving a unique performance each night. David Harrington (violin), John Sherba (violin), Hank Dutt (viola), and Sunny Yang (cello), have been playing music together as the Kronos Quartet for more than forty years. Making their Gulf Debut at NYUAD, the ensemble performed three distinct concerts and even presented the world premiere of some of their new work.

The kind of music that Kronos Quartet plays centers around fusion. I attended their second night’s concert which was titled, “Hold Me, Neighbor”. In this concert, they explored the “music of Turkey, Greece, Ethiopia and Iran, culminating in composer Aleksandra Vrebalov’s …hold me, neighbor, in this storm…, which juxtaposes sounds from the many cultures in her native Serbia.” Their first night (concert titled Good Medicine) featured works from Central Asia and the Middle East, and their last performance (One Earth, One People, One Love), was a musical journey involving multimedia exploring Iran’s carpet-weaving community and the war in Beirut.

When watching Hold Me, Neighbor, I remember trying to figure out which instruments were making which sounds and whether they had any external audio involved in their performance that we couldn’t see. I am not a musically talented person, but I found myself so interested in the way Kronos played their violins and cello. I had never heard those sounds come out of those kinds of instruments, culminating in a unique musical experience. In some weird way it felt like I was listening to the soundtrack of a movie, as I felt like their music was trying to tell a story through the change in pace, the rhythm, the beats, which instrument would lead, and so on. I can’t say though, that I was particularly taken by Kronos. I recall at the beginning of Toshi Reagon’s performance feeling gobsmacked, and at the end feeling like theater is indeed the path I am meant to be on. I can’t really say if I liked Kronos Quartet’s performance, but I do know that I did not not like it (double negative there). Maybe it has to do with the form in which their performance took place. Schechner does define performance as being the whole constellation of events and involving the performers and audience. Even though the space itself meant that the audience and the performance were together and sharing in this musical experience, I did not really feel involved. There is a clear divide between the performers and the audience; they play, we listen. Periodically one member of the group would introduce a piece, but he did not really explain its significance. Their music is so culturally rich and meaningful, draws from history and current issues, and I wish I could have known more about what it was that they were playing. For Hold Me, Neighbor they fused together the Turkish, Greek, Ethiopian and Iranian music, but what is their music really about? What are they trying to tell the audience? And what is it about these four places that allow their music to speak or contradict each other?

Their music reminded me of a podcast that I happened to come across one day when researching for photographic archives that exist in the MENA region. The website of the Freer and Sackler Galleries features a podcast entitled “Iraqi Jazz Fusions: Amir ElSaffar’s Two Rivers”. The music of Amir ElSaffar, and Iraqi-American jazz and classical trumpeter, is a kind of fusion music like that of Kronos, and carries a social and historical meaning behind their compositions as well. For example one of their pieces, “Blood and Ink”, is about “a form of collective expression of aneen (weeping) based on maqam mukhalif, which is said to have originated in the aftermath of the 1258 massacre of Baghdad, led by Genghis Khan’s grandson, Hulagu”. I feel like unlike Kronos, Amir ElSaffar and his ensemble are more personal in their genre of music. Their music specifically fuses Iraqi-Arabic music with contemporary jazz, and this is a result of a journey ElSaffar took to study the music of his own father’s ancestral past, whereas Kronos appropriates music and then plays pieces composed my individuals outside of their own ensemble. Of course there isn’t anything wrong with this, and ultimately Kronos Quartet is a means by which various styles of music can be fused together.

I encourage you to listen to Amir ElSaffar and read more about the meaning behind their music pieces here.

Bibliography:
“Iraqi Jazz Fusions: Amir ElSaffar’s Two Rivers.” Freer|Sackler: The Smithsonian’s Museum of Asian Art. Web. <http://www.asia.si.edu/podcasts/related/elsaffar/progNotes.asp&gt;.
“UAE Debut: Kronos Quartet.” NYUAD, The Arts Center. New York University Abu Dhabi. Web. <http://www.nyuad-artscenter.org/en_US/events/2015/kronos-quartet/&gt;.

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