No chamber group has done more to change the musical landscape than the Kronos Quartet, and its short Barbican residency bade fair to reinforce the point.
First they made a foray to the Hackney Empire with a programme entitled Made in America, in which they reminded us where they had come from musically, and where they intended to go next. Terry Riley, one of their longest-running collaborators, contributed a chorus-plus-strings work entitled Another Secret eQuation[sic] which opened with un-pitched choral wails and ended in an ecological lamentation; Michael Gordon carried on the choral torch with a gamey piece where each voice became a cog in a vast machine powered by hocketing and shouting, with the quartet providing a sonic carpet beneath. We got an exquisite arrangement of a Judaeo-Greek song by Jacob Garchik, and a theatrical elaboration of the work which first set Kronos on their path - George Crumb’s Black Angels, an enchanting essay in amplified acoustic sound, here tricked out with tam-tams and batteries of water-glasses. This was a revelatory evening.
The plan for Kronos’s main event sounded great on paper. Under the title Awakening: A Musical Meditation on the Anniversary of 9/11, they would give the London premiere of a composite work whose centre of gravity would consist of excerpts from Michael Gordon’s The Sad Park, in which Manhattan children’s thoughts recorded at Ground Zero formed an innocent commentary on the terrorist outrage. Packed round this core would be songs culled from all over Europe and Asia.
It started with a glissando elaboration of an Uzbek melody, followed by a gutsy number from Iraq, then an Iranian lullaby, then an Indian-influenced viola solo over a tampura drone. Then things got heavy, with the string players taking it in turns to belabour pots and pans and operate power-tools; some incomprehensible children’s voices were briefly heard over the din; a woman’s voice was heard intoning the mantra One Earth, One People, One Love; then came a section where the players silently mimed furious bowing over a deafening sound-track, while lighting changes came and went. The only real event was an all-too-brief appearance by the New London Children’s Choir. The Kronos looked pleased with themselves at the end. God knows why.