The Globe and Mail

Kronos Quartet (and Tanya Tagaq): A glorious performance that will be hard to top at the 21C Music Festival

By Robert Harris
May 26, 2016

You know you’ve witnessed something far out of the ordinary when you have to say that the most incongruous sight on Wednesday night was the presence of a string quartet on the stage of Koerner Hall.

That can’t be right, you say – string quartets are supposed to be comfortably at home on the stage of one of Toronto’s most prestigious classical music venues.

But the Kronos Quartet, one of the world’s most ambitious and creative ensembles, only seems to be a string quartet. Yes, they have two violins, a viola and a cello in their complement. But the Kronos Quartet doesn’t just perform pieces – on Wednesday night, at the opening concert of the Royal Conservatory’s 21C Music Festival, they presented a musical universe, that ranged from the Canadian Arctic to the grasslands of Africa, from the civil war in Beirut to a dance in Azerbaijan, from the deep south of the American blues to the New Music Festival in Darmstadt in the late 1950s. The Kronos Quartet elevated a concert of music to a spiritual trip through our common humanity – it was universal, all-encompassing, fabulously inclusive.

And all well played with an instrumental ensemble invented to amuse the European nobility in the mid 18th-century. The dissonance couldn’t have been stronger. An ultra-conservative Western cultural institution put at the service of an all-encompassing humanity. It was brilliant, breathtaking.

The Kronos Quartet has been around for 40 years or so, dispensing their unique brand of new musical creativity to the world. But even for them, this was a special concert. Eleven compositions, from 10 different composers, most of them either commissioned by, or written for Kronos, representing every part of the world and every possible use of music as a tool for human communication. Canadian Nicole Lizée used a series of analogue sound devices to recreate a BBC new music workshop from the 1960s. Mark Applebaum’s Darmstadt Kindergarten presented the impossible – a piece of soundless music – with gestures only – that worked beautifully. He made you hear a silent music (and taught the audience how to perform it as well).

Franghiz Ali-Zadeh brought music back to its origins in dance. Fodé Lassana Diabaté turned the Kronos Quartet into a balafon from his native Guinea, full of the simplicity that is purchased by millenia of wisdom and suffering. Aleksandra Vrebalov created perhaps the most “classical” piece of all, an improvisatory dream for the Quartet. And Mary Kouyoumdjian used the voices of her family and the intense sounds of aerial bombardment to recreate the civil war in Beirut with the Quartet at its centre.

Each piece was completely different from the one before – each lifted music out of a dry formal environment into an intense means of communication. After a while, the evening felt like a rock concert, with energy spilling off the stage, unpredictable and electric.

However, the highlight of the evening were two pieces by Canada’s own Tanya Tagaq, Sivunittinni, recently commissioned by Kronos as part of their Fifty for the Future project, and Nunavut, a collective improvisation Tagaq and Kronos first created over 10 years ago. Nunavut was the more theatrical of the works, utilizing the extraordinary power of Tagaq’s voice to create a completely otherworldly mood. Tagaq is like a Jungian archetype blown into life, a performer sounding equally male and female, guttural and girlish, at one moment a being of nature, at another a fully human personality.

At its heart, Nunavut is a series of improvised duets between Tagaq and each member of the quartet, each a highly sexualized encounter between two spirits that merge into one, and then part. You only wished Sigmund Freud had been able to witness Tagaq’s performance, because he might have readjusted his thinking about the libido if he had. Tagaq showed us that sexual passion isn’t necessarily the source of all human energy as he believed; it is merely one example of a deeper energy that exists in the universe.

And then there was Sivunittinni, the piece that was not collectively created, but composed by Tagaq alone. Interestingly, it was more musically structured, less theatrical, less wild than its companion piece. Tanya Tagaq told me last week that she appreciated David Harrington and his Quartet because they treated her as a musician, not as some sort of primal beast.Sivunittinni proved that they were right to do so. With her own language, Tagaq produced a work of formal beauty and power, visceral and structurally beautiful at the same time.

And, as well as being full of originality and creativity in their choice of program, the members of the Quartet are also superb practitioners of their art, basically reinventing the manner in which you play a stringed instrument with each new piece. I thought cellist Sunny Yang, a newer member of the Quartet, was especially fine. Her solo in the Diabate was thrilling, secure and musical – but then all of the members of the group had perfect control over their instruments.

But perhaps the greatest achievement of the Kronos Quartet is that they destroy the distinction between audience and musician, so beloved, but corrupting in the West, and essentially unheard of in the rest of the world. Kronos returns music to its communal roots, except in their case, they are creating a new community, one that shuns the restricted, and embraces the entire world. Can music ever do better?

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