To think of music without borders is a humanistic ideal, a space where all sorts of sounds can live together, and where the problems that exist within, between, and across the borders of their country of origin no longer persist. During Thursday night’s conversation, Kronos violinist and founder David Harrington said the first of Kronos’ two concerts at the Walker was meant to “add up to a way of thinking about the future.”
While it feels too simplistic to view tonight’s concert as a utopian musical vision, it’s equally simplistic to say that these pieces performed were simply “from” the countries of the composers’ origin. Most of the pieces did deal with a specific geographic place, whether it be Iraq, Iran, India, or Canada, evoking it not only through the strings of Kronos’ instruments, but through field recordings and samples, sonic fragments of the actual world. Some felt like radio scene-setting, like the barking dogs that opened Chrake’s Cercle du Nord III, whereas other moments, such as the young girl’s wisping voice in the opening movement of Aminikia’s String Quartet No. 3: A Threnody for Those Who Remain, were processed, distorted, and transformed until they interacted and blended in counterpoint with the strings themselves.
This borderless world reached its greatest expression in the evening’s finale, …hold me, neighbor, in this storm…, written by Aleksandra Vrebalov. Inspired by a documentary about Chicago’s Serbian community, and their preservation of folk songs and traditions to a greater degree even than Serbia itself, the piece was an incredible mélange of rollicking folk dances, drums, shouts, stamps, and ghostly, disembodied voices singing and shouting Serbian songs. What the piece became was less a portrait of a place, as in Cercle du Nord III, than a portrait of someone’s memory of a place, where borders and boundaries are much more porous.
Much like the composers did with their individual pieces, the Kronos Quartet created their own world tonight. The overall program, though, was not that adventurous, when compared to a piece like Crumb’s Black Angels, which Harrington’s extolled Thursday night. Even compared to something explicitly symbolizing borders, Music for 4 Fences, tonight’s music came off as striking, yet safe. Thankfully, neither the music nor its presentation had the pretension of other hybrid and utopian musical visions (such as Jon Hassell’s so-called “fourth world” music).
There’s little need for pretension when an ensemble possesses the simply stunning capacity and imagination to produce unheard (and unheard of) sounds from instruments and ensembles that have become such a conventional part of the musical landscape. Hank Dutt’s solo in the alap from Ram Narayan’s Raga Mishra Bhairavi was astounding; I’ve never heard a viola sound anything remotely like this before. Less technically dazzling but equally beautiful was his solo in The Wheel, part of Terry Riley’s Salome Dances for Peace.
Let’s see what worlds Kronos has in store for us tomorrow night, when a whole new set of seemingly strange bedfellows share the McGuire stage.