Kronos in Glasgow - Kronos Quartet and Matmos interview
Glasgow mini-festival features Alim Qasimov and Steve Reich's WTC 9/11
Open-minded musical outfit Kronos Quartet is bringing a selection of friends to Glasgow for a mini-festival this May. Jonny Ensall unpicks an eclectic programme
You don’t need to have a vinyl collection full of minimalist composers’ masterworks to have heard the music of Kronos Quartet. You could be a hardened electronic enthusiast, or a pure pop believer; your ears will not have escaped their string performances. Consider, for example, that during a 33-year career, artistic director and violinist David Harrington and his troupe have put bow to catgut in collaborations with Björk, David Bowie, Tom Waits, Faith No More and Nelly Furtado, as well as performing the Clint Mansell-penned scores to the Darren Aronofsky movies Requiem for a Dream and The Fountain.
And this represents only the tip of the iceberg-like body of Kronos’ output. The rest of their frenetic schedule is taken up by more obscure musical projects – Inuit throat singing anyone? – and performances of the avant-garde Steve Reich, Philip Glass and Terry Riley compositions that have established the group’s status as brilliant, progressive musicians.
Coming up this month is the four-day Kronos in Glasgow mini-festival. Harrington has picked a selection of collaborators – from traditional Azerbaijani singer Alim Qasimov, to Baltimore-based electronic pioneers Matmos, to aforementioned Inuit throat singer Tanya Tagaq – to take over a range of Glasgow concert venues over a long weekend. Kronos themselves feature on almost every bill and, in the opening concert, will be making the Scottish premiere of Steve Reich’s recent composition WTC 9/11.
‘People are normally pretty stunned,’ Harrington says of WTC 9/11’s reception. ‘I know I was stunned when we first played it.’ Reich is considered by many to be the grandfather of minimalist composition. Though he wouldn’t use that term, ‘minimalist’, Harrington corrects, just as ‘it’s doubtful that Debussy used the term impressionist’. ‘As with ‘Different Trains’ which [Reich] wrote for Kronos in 1988, this new piece, WTC 9/11, opens more doors for not only sonic but also emotional possibilities, and for the future of the entire medium,’ Harrington goes on, with typically feverish conviction. ‘Really, I think it’s adding to what it means to make a concert or make a musical statement.’
‘Different Trains’ recreated the atmosphere of the trains carrying prisoners to concentration camps in World War II Europe, and used vocal samples from Holocaust survivors talking about their experiences. Similarly, WTC 9/11 uses recordings, taken from the day of the World Trade Centre attacks. Even with these on-the-ground elements, is it within the powers of music to make sense of such atrocious events?
‘My father in-law used to say that it’s like trying to teach a dog algebra,’ Harrington offers. ‘There are certain things that are not understandable – either our brains aren’t big enough or the world is too complex. Generally, music itself is like that. I find that the world that we’re living in has so many possibilities and so many histories, not only acts of violence are mysterious but even acts of kindness … Ultimately a lot of things are down to instinct and feeling, like the fact that some of the words near the opening of WTC 9/11 can’t be discerned very clearly doesn’t bother me, because even if I can’t hear them I know what they mean.’
WTC 9/11 is a highlight of the programme, but it’s one of the more straightforward experiences on offer over four experimental days. In the same opening concert Kronos will be playing Music from 4 Fences – a Jon Rose composition that has the quartet taking their bows to industrial-strength barbed wire fences. Though Harrington is clear that it is possible to play pitched music on a fence, he acknowledges that the performance also benefits from a sense of spectacle.
‘It’s very clear that as time goes on there are more barbed wire fences in the world not less, and we’re seeing them every night on the news, whether it’s Guantánamo, whether it’s Palestine or Israel or between North and South Korea … I believe it’s up to musicians to create images, and the idea of bowing a barbed wire fence to me seems like a very important statement.’
If it also seems that these are precariously high levels of pretension, then be thankful for duo Matmos, whose eclectic, sample-based electronica has a home on popular indie label Matador, and who share the same easygoing, upbeat outlook on dance music as artists such as Daedalus, Matthew Herbert and Four Tet. Matmos band member MC Schmidt describes his experience of working with Kronos in less effusive terms than Harrington is prone to.
‘My thought was “OK, these are master bowers-of-things”. So we brought them a lot of crazy things to bow, among them a toilet seat, a rack for a deep fat fryer, bells … and I have to tell you that I don’t think this idea appealed to them very much. They sort of whacked on them with their bows – when you’re the guy from Matmos, you just don’t know that not everyone understands that when you apply a violin bow to a deep fat fryer rack that you can actually get lovely sonorous sounds out of it, but apparently if you’re a master violin player you look at a deep fat fryer and you think “deep fat fryer”.’
A fence and a fryer are, then, very different beasts. But, leaving aside questions of what can and cannot be bowed, Schmidt shares Harrington’s same fascination with one of the key concepts of the weekend: repetition. Specifically, how it is that music that is echoic and minimal can also be lively and appealing? Harrington explains, ‘whether it’s music that you might hear on the radio, or whether it’s music that you would hear in commercials on television, there are certain ways of repeating things that reinforce or that comfort or lull in some cases, and composers and musicians, probably forever, have used various forms of repetition. I mean, the opening of WTC 9/11 for example, it’s [the sound of] a phone that is off the hook and it’s bleeping in a rhythmic way.’
Schmidt, another Reich admirer, also has a take on this idea. ‘I discovered Steve Reich’s music more as a stoner. Like, “Uh this is trippy to listen to” … and it was a revelation for me when I read about him saying that in fact it’s to pay more attention … [repetition] is to highlight the differences in things, not to forget about the differences in them. You repeat things so that when something changes it throws it into a starker contrast. That was amazing to me. It was also a, sort of, “snap out of it you lazy stoner’’ moment.
Various venues, Glasgow, Thu 12-Sun 15 May, concerts priced individually (£10-£17.50).
Kronos in Glasgow: Highlights
Resonance at Hamilton Mausoleum
Hand-picked as a venue by Kronos’ David Harrington as it has the ‘longest natural reverb of any place in the world’, this special event will include performances from Ritva Koistinen, Catriona McKay, Tanya Tagaq and Alim Qasimov. Tickets will be given away for free via a golden ticket lottery that anyone with a ticket to any other Kronos in Glasgow event will be eligible to enter.
Hamilton Mausoleum, Fri 13 May, 5pm. Call the Concert Halls box office on 0141 353 8000 to register your interest.
Featuring the National Youth Choir of Scotland joining forces with Kronos Quartet, as well as the Scottish premiere of Steve Reich’s WTC 9/11 and a performance of Jon Rose’s Music from 4 Fences to close.
Royal Concert Hall, Main Auditorium, Fri 13 May, 8pm.
Matmos and Tanya Tagaq
A later and livelier performance, with electronic act Matmos and throat singer Tanya Tagaq leading Kronos in some unusual directions. ‘Inuit throat-singing is normally done between two women,’ Harrington explains about Tagaq. ‘But Tanya sounds like more than one person all by herself.’
Old Fruitmarket, Sat 14 May, 11pm.
Play-Along with Dr Craig Woodson
Woodson, a Cleveland percussion teacher and ‘serious ethnomusicologist’, will lead a kid-friendly music-making workshop. Says Harrington: ‘Craig delights in teaching people that basically any object can become a musical object, you don’t have to have a lot of money to be involved in making sounds.’
Royal Concert Hall, Main Auditorium, Sun 15 May, 3pm.
Kronos will be joined by Wu Man, a pipa (Chinese lute) player, for a performance of Terry Riley’s The Cusp of Magic, a composition inspired by Harrington’s granddaughter’s toys. ‘Basically I invited Terry to come over to our house and play Emily’s instruments with me and he recorded a lot of the toys and they became central elements in one of the movements.’
Royal Concert Hall, Main Auditorium, Sun 15 May, 7pm.