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The Multilingual Kronos

April 17, 2007

What do you call someone who speaks three languages? Trilingual.What do you call someone who speaks two languages?
What do you call someone who speaks one language?
American. (Here the old joke stops.)
What do you call someone who speaks many, many languages? The Kronos Quartet.

Kronos Quartet

On Sunday at its Cal Performances concert in UC Berkeley's Hertz Hall, the Kronos Quartet spoke Arabic in Ljova's arrangement of an Iraqi tune, and Arabic again in Hamza El Din's Escalay. The players spoke Polish in Górecki's masterful and personal String Quartet No. 3, they spoke various dialects of American English, and they even spoke gibberish and pig latin in Zorn's The Dead Man and in Prutsman's Particle 423. They spoke all these languages fluently, and all these languages were understood, because they were spoken through the medium of music. In an age when practically everything we buy and create has global implications, and when it is possible to skip across oceans in a matter of hours, this multilingualism is crucial.

I was born and raised in the Middle East; my father's background is Yemenite. I know real Middle Eastern music when I hear it. The opening notes in Ljova's Oh Mother, the Handsome Man Tortures Me instantly put me in an Arabic-style wedding dance celebration. But once I recovered from this unexpected transport, I immediately doubted what I was hearing, which sounded nothing like a string quartet. Sound designer Scott Fraser deserves credit for this — beautiful and varied sonorities were formed throughout the concert with electronic amplification technology. But whenever amplification is used, it still takes a good deal away from the acoustic basis of the performers. The synthesized products don't come close to the depth and soul of the solo acoustic instruments.
Taking Collage to an Extreme
Next came John Zorn's The Dead Man, a tasting of six extremely short movements that was full of funny sound effects, random shifts in texture, and even the swishing and slicing of bows through the air that left clouds of rosin in their wake. I hope this was all intended as jest, because any deeper meaning the work might have held was lost to the cartoonish sound-cliche and the audience's nervous giggles. In contrast to Zorn's outrageous pranks came El Din's meditative Escalay (Water wheel). Nothing could be further removed from Zorn's urban schizophrenia than El Din's Saharan serenity and patient calm. Again, the Kronos re-created the Middle Eastern aesthetic with accuracy — the rhythms, tone colors, inflections, and phrasing all sounded native.

Synthesized music with amplification was again heavily used, to dazzling effect, in Stephen Prutsman's Particle 423. A variety of other instruments were also incorporated, including woodblocks, electric organ, drum set, and electric bass. The piece was a chaotic collage of over 400 (hence the title) musical ideas ranging from rock and roll to fiddle music and other Americana. The virtuosic display of various styles was impressive. As a whole, the messy fragments created a vibrant sense of energy, life, and diversity. Unfortunately, however, none of the fragments was coherent or even long enough to mean much individually — a missed opportunity with lots of potential. Yet this extreme-collage concept is an intriguing direction in contemporary music.

Just as I was finally getting used to the craziness and the non-string-quartet-ness of the concert, the second half featured the purely acoustic and much more traditional String Quartet No. 3 by Henryk Górecki. In utter contrast to Zorn and Prutsman, and more along the lines of El Din, this final piece on the program had a steady calmness. Four of its five movements proceed in a slow tempo whose breadth reminded me of Beethoven's late quartets. The movements featured carefully thought-out repetition, poignant harmonic manipulation, and expansive melodic breadth.

The effect was gorgeous and soothing, if nearly boring. The quartet is nicknamed "…songs are sung," which is the consequent to the antecedent "when people die…" — a line from a Russian poem. The piece indeed had an after-worldliness to it, and rounded out the concert's overarching macabre theme. Death again was invoked in the encore, Clint Mansell's Death Is the Road to Awe, a melodic yet raucous heavy-metal-style piece that was enhanced by both electronic sound manipulation and lighting design.

Overall, the concert exhibited not only the Kronos Quartet's signature mastery of varying styles but also its mastery of pacing. It challenged our attention span on both ends of the spectrum. In some of the pieces, the pace was so fast and frantic that it was impossible to keep up. In other pieces, the challenge was to maintain concentration on the monotonic simplicity and inaction. Together with the global freedom of language, it was a thrilling and fascinating balancing act.

Be'eri Moalem ( is a violist, teacher, writer, and composer.