Global Beat Fusion: Kronos Quartet's New York Tundra

The Kronos Quartet is an institution in classical music. Performing or composing for them is a rite of passage, and the honor's not easily won. You have to play to fit in with this crowd.
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In the Indian music tradition, each rag was written to be played during a certain time of day. To this day traditionalists stick to that format. The idea is that this captures the essence of nature's movement in song; it also attunes the musicians and listeners with the melodies of earth. This philosophy creates the foundation of all ten musicians who performed on the third night of Kronos Quartet's four-night stand at Carnegie Hall's Zankel Hall on March 13. The evening, entitled "Tundra Songs," was a tribute to the heritage and future of Nordic and Shamanic music. It was a fitting evening many ways. New York City was pounded by sleet and forty-mile-an-hour winds. The nature both inside the venue and out merged, and we islanders had our own taste of the Arctic.

Kronos has become an institution in classical music, only it's always been classical without constriction. Since forming in 1973, the quartet has commissioned over 650 pieces by an impressive range of composers. While their bio lists a fraction of those musical icons, the reality is that over the last three-and-a-half decades, performing or composing for Kronos is its own rite of passage. Given the dexterity and inventiveness of the six artists that joined them for "Tundra Songs," the honor is not easily won. You have to play to fit in with this crowd.

The Kronos name is so strong that these four men are more about featuring music and not featuring themselves all the time. Of the fifteen pieces performed, the quartet was only on stage for two. You don't attend a Kronos show because you necessarily want to see Kronos. You trust the band's judgment and open your ears to what they offer. It's like finding a mixed tape from your favorite musician. You want to hear what they listen to, what inspires them to make the music they make. Rarely are you disappointed.

The kantele is from the zither family, native to Finland, Estonia, and Karelia. Ritva Koistinen grew up in Eno, Finland, and has been listening to and playing it as long as she can remember. Listening to her pluck softly in the large hall was a treat, especially on the traditional folk song, "Church Bells of Konevitsa." Her interpretation of the prolific Estonian composer Arvo Pärt's "Pari Intervallo" was another highlight. It was a serene beginning that, outside the overdramatic flourishes Koistinen felt necessary to throw in, served as the evening's alap, a quieting down before the flight began.

Hurdy-Gurdy is both the name of the following duo and the instrument that is played, which is a little weird (think of a rock band named Guitar or Drum Set). Stefan Brisland-Ferner and Totte Mattsson come from established Swedish bands, though thought that their instrument was getting enough respect. They also felt it wasn't diverse enough, so instead of reeling off the standard folk, they played into processors and created drum beats, bass lines, and ambient soundscapes derived from their one "lackluster" tool. The result on stage was an epic display of Celtic and Arabic drenched battle songs where every aspect, looped or live, was played by that peculiar instrument that from afar looks like a sarod with a crank that has to be turned the entire time. Their debut album, Prototyp, does not do justice to where they've evolved, and their stage presence, friendly and affable, was a treat.

Kimmo Pohjonen long ago realized his folk training on the accordion was too expectable. Since the '90s he's been creating thick avant-garde electronica meant for dancing and confusing the hell out of listeners--the confusion arising from the question: What the hell is making those sounds? Like Hurdy-Gurdy, Pohjonen records his accordion and voice on stage and then Samuli Kosminen processes them right into his laptop, immediately dumping it back onto stage in the form of percussion. His drumming ability is breakbeat and inspiring. Watching these two men come on stage, wrapped in long black gothic skirts, Pohjonen in a vest with no shirt beneath and sporting a balding Mohawk, is like walking into a tent at Burning Man on the night of the Apocalypse. They had me glued to my seat for every second of their thirty-five minute set, and even when my friend commented that their last piece ("Voima") sounded a little David Copperfield-ish, I was remained consumed by the thunder of Finnish gods crashing hammers into frozen oceans.

The same friend remarked that "this isn't a show, it's a festival," and he was right. Feasting at the excellent Cuban restaurant, Guantanamera, beforehand, we had expected the 10 pm show to be wrapped up by midnight. Little chance. It was 12:45 when we finally stood, after being wrapped into Tundra mythology with the five movements of Derek Charke's commissioned piece for Kronos Quartet. When Charke, who has lived in the Arctic before, was asked to write it, he was immediately trekked to Nunavut, the northernmost edge of Canada, to record shrimp, krill, seals, ice, and ravens. These noises were sprinkled in throughout.

Nunavut is the size of Western Europe and houses less than 30,000 people. Looking at pictures of it reminds me Werner Herzog's documentary on Antarctica, Encounters at the End of the World, a place where humans can only live three or four months a year. So it was fitting that Kronos asked Inuit throat singer Tanya Tagaq to perform the vocal "parts" of Charke's piece. You often could not tell whether it was the seals and ravens that he recorded or Tagaq herself, which was the point. Her music is so outrageously unexplainable that while even if you can't bear to listen to some of it, you're intrigued and can't turn away. That's the sense I had when listening to her latest album, Auk/Blood, which featured Mike Patton, himself one of the more outlandish vocalists of our time.

Hearing Tagaq vocalize (while some of it is singing, that's really not the proper word) is a lesson in breath control. She is able to both utilize inhale and exhale, not to mention retention, with its own unique tone, while employing the overtone of a second "voice" to the mix. It is a ritual technique for entering trance, a state she most definitely reached while the four men nimbly ran over Charke's composition. The closest thing to compare Tagaq to is Bjork's Medulla phase, a no-brainer considering Tagaq sings on that record and toured the album with her.

Humans have long strengthened their relationship with nature by listening to it. When today we listen more to our machines than the songs of wind and sun and earth, we miss the inspiration behind our union, the force behind our seclusion. Hearing these musicians making machines work for nature while paying homage to it, the sold out crowd was returned to that singular intention of music, made when humans started making it: connection.

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