BAM Gives New York Premiere to Memorial Composition

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Kronos Quartet will perform “Awakening” for four nights later this month

Kronos Quartet's David Harrington, John Sherba, Hank Dutt, and Jeffrey Zeigler at the Polar Music Prize in Stockholm, Sweden on August 30, 2011 (Photo Courtesy: Rex Features/AP Images)

When Michael Gordon visited his son’s preschool in Lower Manhattan in the days following September 11, 2001, the outpouring of comments coming from the three- and four- year olds astounded him.

“The children would be sitting around doing what they normally do, and then all of a sudden, one of them would burst out something about 9/11, and the others would start talking,” Gordon recalled during a recent interview with National Public Radio.

Upon learning that his son’s teacher had been recording the children’s comments on tape, Gordon was inspired. As a composer, he began to imagine using the voices in a work of music. “It slowly became a symphony of voices,” he said in the NPR interview. “It sounds like there are a thousand people singing in this huge cry.”

Gordon originally wrote the string quartet piece, entitled “The Sad Park,” for the Kronos Quartet, and it was premiered in San Francisco on the fifth anniversary of the 9/11 attacks. Now it will be performed for the first time in the city where the attacks occurred. Kronos Quartet will give the New York premiere of “The Sad Park” as part of a broader memorial program entitled “Awakening.”

The concert’s four night-run at the BAM Harvey Theatre is taking place
on September 21- 24. The concert tickets range in price from $20-$50. In addition to the performances, “Artists Respond to 9/11” will include a conversation with David Harrington, Kronos’ co-founder and lead violinist, on the evening of September 22.

Subtitled “A Musical Meditation of the Anniversary of 9/11,” “Awakening” includes pieces by composers from more than a dozen countries. The message is one of global unity transcending terrorism, intolerance, and hatred. Luke Dubois, a professor of music at Columbia University, said it is both natural and difficult for artists to creatively respond to catastrophe. “The hardest part of making art about tragedy is creating it in a way that actually represents a personal reaction that’s not exploitative.”

At one point in “The Sad Park,” for instance, a child says, “Two evil planes broke in little pieces and fire came.” An electronic saw grinding against bits of scrap metal produces a disturbing pitch, and the boy continues, ”There was a big
boom and then there was teeny fiery coming out.” Violins produce a succession of amplified squeaks to envelop his tiny voice.

“We took snippets of things kids were saying and stretched them out,” said Dubois, who worked on the sound design with Gordon. “There’s a melody like the tune of a song when a voice is electronically stretched out over time.”

Elsewhere in its program, “Awakening” showcases musical elements from 12 countries: India, Argentina, Germany, Iran, Iraq, Sweden, Uzbekistan, Finland, Sweden, Russia, Canada, and the United States. The first section envelops the audience with music from Central Asia: “Awakening” by Dmitri Yanov-Yanovsky from Uzbekistan; “Oh Mother, the Handsome Man Tortures Me” from an unnamed artist in Iraq; “Lullaby” from Iran; and “Alap” by Ram Narayan Raga from India.

“The idea was to create music that was unexpected for a string quartet to play,” Harrington said. Each melody has a meditative quality and causes the audience to reflect on the spiritual nature of the music. As a reviewer wrote in the San Francisco Classical Voice, “The reference to Islam is unavoidable; the connection between the intense spirituality in these melodies in context of Islamic fundamentalism is material for heavy reflection.”

For the past 30 years, Kronos Quartet has been defying the traditional expectations of a string quartet’s range and context. The unconventional ensemble includes Harrington, Hank Dutt on the viola, Jeffrey Zeigler on the cello, and John Sherba on the remaining violins. Harrington has famously said, “I’ve always wanted the string quartet to be vital, and energetic, and alive, and cool, and not afraid to kick ass and be absolutely beautiful and ugly if it has to be; but is has to be expressive of life.”

Since the premiere of “Awakening,” scores of media outlets had their own
interpretations of the performance. A critic in the Financial Times wrote that
the piece “alarms, terrifies, soothes and ultimately proposes a measure of hope.” In the Los Angeles Times, Mark Swed offered this description: “Four quartet players ferociously banged on metal with hammers and electric tools; the final grouping in Kronos’ 90-minute set, played without intermission, then lifted the restored spirits.”

Swed ended his review by writing, “All is not well in the world, and Kronos, which played with searing intensity all evening, does not pretend that it is; but hope springs from understanding, from open ears.”

The quartet’s recent work has also stirred controversy. The cover of its commemorative album with composer Steve Reich, “WTC 9/11,” showed the iconic image of the second plane flying into the World Trade Center’s South Tower. In the face of criticism that it was exploiting the tragedy, the quartet replaced the photograph with a more suggestive illustration of billowing clouds of smoke and ash.

During Kronos’ 2006 premiere of “Awakening,” Harrington wrote: “Most of us carry within ourselves an alarming movie replaying the events of September 11, 2001. Kronos offers a new soundtrack to this internal movie.”

Now, five years later, the purpose of “Awakening” has evolved: “We hope to create equilibrium in the midst of imbalance,” Harrington put it, “a special covering on an open wound.”

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