Ideas and imagination…unfettered.


Kronos Quartet with special guest Tanya Tagaq

Kronos Quartet with special guest Tanya Tagaq

Kronos Quartet, the group that opened this year’s 21C New Music Festival, and which most famously signifies new music to many, has been performing for more than forty years. All irony aside, they show no signs of slowing or changing direction.

With a new project, Fifty for the Future, Kronos hopes to map music that will inspire generations to come. Typical of Kronos’s musical egalitarianism, the scores, recordings and performance notes of the fifty works to be composed by twenty-five women and twenty-five men over the next five years will be offered free on-line. Four of the works were presented at 21C’s gala opening.

The much-anticipated performance by vocalist Tanya Tagaq included the premiere of her Snow Angel/Sivunittinni…as well as Nunavut, her show-stopping collaboration with Kronos.

Photo credit: Lisa Sakulensky

Photo credit: Lisa Sakulensky

Up first was Montreal composer Nicole Lizée’s Fibre-Optic Flowers, a throw-back to the mid-20th century fascination with aleatoric sound, including pre-recorded tape sequences and a typewriter. While it may seem an odd choice to open a concert of contemporary music, it’s also an homage to the sound that spawned twenty-first century exploration.

Mark Appelbaum’s Darmstadt Kindergarten, on the other hand, took us all the way into the future. The composer’s hilarious, off-the-cuff introduction, replete with hand gestures in what he calls his “post-sound” approach, set the tone for much of what followed. While the music may be serious, he seemed to say, we needn’t be. Despite ending in silence as the musicians dropped out one by one, like Haydn’s Farewell Symphony, his terse, energetic score preceding the “signed” portion of the piece was riveting.

Franghiz Ali-Zadeh has long been a Kronos favourite, with her sinuous themes and Arabic modalities. One of the “fifty,” Ali-Zadeh’s beautiful, rhapsodic Dance invokes the daily rhythms of life in her native Azerbaijan.

Nothing can easily describe what Tagaq does, though to say she conjures the immense spirit of the Canadian north in her diminutive being is not an exaggeration…

Photo credit: Lisa Sakulensky

Photo credit: Lisa Sakulensky

A real find (and we always want to “find” things at festivals like this), as well as another of the “fifty”, the hypnotic Sunjata’s Time by balafon virtuoso Fodé Lassana Diabaté is a thematically simple yet rhythmically complex piece. It’s stunning.

The much-anticipated performance by vocalist Tanya Tagaq included the premiere of her Snow Angel/Sivunittinni (also one of the “fifty”) as well as Nunavut, her show-stopping collaboration with Kronos. If you haven’t heard Tagaq’s vocalizations, well, then you haven’t heard them. But you should. As Kronos founder David Harrington said in his introduction, “She makes sounds like nothing else in the universe.”

Indeed, nothing can easily describe what Tagaq does, though to say she conjures the immense spirit of the Canadian north in her diminutive being is not an exaggeration, as she swirls hands over and around the floor, crawls up the musicians and their instruments, evoking images of spirits and flames and Northern Lights, while creating a seemingly limitless flow of sounds. She is one of the most fearless and committed performers ever. It’s no wonder Harrington calls her the “Jimi Hendrix of Inuit throat singing.”

Aleksandra Vrebalov’s vigorous My Desert, My Rose, another of the “fifty,” is largely improvisatory in nature. Vrebalov describes her work as “a journey of four characters [who] end up in the same space, time, language.” She credits the piece’s inspiration to twenty years of exposure to Kronos rehearsals and performances.

“Audience members may wish to avoid this piece if there is any history of PTSD…”

With their remarkable capacity for bring the obscure into the light, Kronos’s generosity also extends into the past. Kronos hired Jacob Garchik, to reinvent and arrange Geeshie Wiley’s Last Kind Words. Wiley, an American blues singer about whom little is known, recorded this very catchy number with its minstrelsy, cakewalk feel around 1930.

Another effective crossover arrangement from Garchik was Flow, by performance artist Laurie Anderson. A simple yet beautiful lullaby from a woman whose artistic tastes are as broad as Kronos’s, the piece provided an appropriate lull before the final work.

The program read, “Audience members may wish to avoid this piece if there is any history of PTSD…” Fair enough, but who would want to avoid a work as stunningly real as Mary Kouyoumdjian’s Bombs of Beirut? Music seldom gets this graphic or this literal, under- and overlain as it is with interviews of people who experienced the Lebanese Civil War first-hand, as well as live recordings of the bombing of civilian targets. It puts you right there. In a word: unforgettable.

Three encores and a twenty-minute chat later, many of us left the concert overwhelmed by all the newness, but nonetheless grateful for the performers’ extraordinary generosity in sharing what they love to do. It was as though we’d spent not three hours, but a week travelling intensely in some of the world’s most exotic locales. It’s hard to feel anything but awe for the experience.

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Photo credit: David Tronetti

Photo credit: David Tronetti

Jeffrey Round is the author of nine novels, including the Lambda Award-winning Lake On The Mountain, and a poetry collection, In the Museum of Leonardo da Vinci. His first two books, A Cage of Bones and The P-town Murders, were listed on AfterElton’s Top 50 Greatest Gay Books. He is a founding member of the Naked Heart Festival of Words.


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