Performance Tuesday, February 28, 2012 | 7:30 PM

Kronos Quartet

Zankel Hall
Even after 30 years, Kronos Quartet continues to electrify us with energetic performances of fascinating new music; a breathtaking success, it’s no wonder that Rolling Stone calls the group “classical music’s Fab Four.” On an evening that features two New York premieres and two world premieres of music by composers from around the world, Kronos Quartet is joined by its original cellist, Joan Jeanrenaud.
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One Hundred Goodbyes (Céad Slán)

About the Composer

Born in Dublin in 1970, Donnacha Dennehy has received commissions from Dawn Upshaw, Kronos Quartet, Alarm Will Sound, The Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra, Bang on a Can, Icebreaker, Joanna MacGregor, Percussion Group of The Hague, RTÉ National Symphony Orchestra, BBC Ulster Orchestra, and San Francisco Contemporary Music Players, among others.

His work has been featured in many festivals, such as ISCM World Music Days, the Huddersfield Contemporary Music Festival in the UK, WNYC’s New Sounds Live, Bang on a Can, Ultima in Oslo, Música Viva Lisbon, Saarbrücken, Schleswig-Holstein, and Gaudeamus in Amsterdam.

Returning to Ireland after studies abroad in the United States, France, and Holland, Dennehy founded the Crash Ensemble, Dublin’s renowned new-music group, in 1997. Alongside singers Dawn Upshaw and Iarla Ó Lionáird, Crash Ensemble features on the 2011 Nonesuch release of Dennehy’s music, entitled Grá agus Bás. NPR named it one of its “50 favorite albums’’ (in any genre) of 2011.

In the Composer’s Own Words

In 1926, the fledgling Irish government, four years after independence, hired a man called Dr. Wilhelm Doegen to travel the Irish countryside to make recordings of traditional songs and Gaelic speech that were part of a dying folklore. Doegen, then director of the so-called “Sound Department” at the Prussian State Library in Berlin, had achieved a degree of fame for his detailed work as a field recordist, linguist, and phoneticist. Given his background, his main interest was in the speaking voice, and this material forms the bulk of what he recorded with his assistant, Karl Tempel, in his travels around Ireland from 1928 to 1931. Nevertheless, he also made some remarkable recordings of sean nós, an unaccompanied vocal music that has been fascinating to me for some time now. These recordings are the earliest made of this oral tradition and capture many songs that nowadays have been forgotten.

One Hundred Goodbyes (Céad Slán) is built around a number of samples from Doegen’s recordings of sean nós songs, which I weave in and out of the musical fabric. On a deeper level, the melodic and semantic make-up of these songs influences the musical processes that develop in the string quartet. This influence is not traditional, but rather reflected by my own postcolonial upbringing, as it were, as a suburban Dubliner engrossed in contemporary music. All the same, both on an intuitive level (my entire family comes from rural Kerry in the south) and because of my strong interest in the way history shapes our present in ways that we are not completely conscious of, I am compulsively attracted to exploring and exploding this source material that speaks to me both familiarly and unfamiliarly.

Although Doegen did manage to record a number of well-known sean nós singers on his travels, the bulk of his recordings are of unknown country-folk. I concentrate on these unknowns in this piece, as in fact the deeply human and alive aspect of their voices (after all these years) spoke most viscerally to me. The piece ultimately is in three movements, connected attacca, and each takes one sean nós song as its principal point of departure.

The first movement samples a song called “A Dhonncha is Léan Liom” (“Donnacha do not grieve for me”), which is essentially a stiff warning from a priest, Fr. Dáithí O’Brien, to a certain Donnacha O’Suilleabháin (Denis O’Sullivan) to reverse his decision to convert from Catholicism to Protestantism, a choice often made on financial grounds because of the stiff so-called Penal Laws against Catholics in the 18th and early-19th centuries. Samples from this song are intercut occasionally with rather fearsome-sounding recitations of the “Our Father” prayer in Irish. (Doegen made a huge amount of recordings of Irish prayers for some reason!)

The second movement makes use of the beautiful “Tomás Bán” (“White Thomas”) as its primary basis. “Tomás Bán” is still sung in the west of Ireland, and it concerns itself with the story of a man sentenced to death for marrying above his station. Although sung by a man here, the song is a plea for clemency from the woman (of the higher class) who loves him.

The final movement is created around “Céad Slán A Abhainn Mór” (“One Hundred Goodbyes to the Big River”), as sung in a very distinctive glottal fashion by a woman from the north of the country. It feels like a fitting tribute to the voices living on through these recordings, though their bodies are long dead.

Schubert-Quintet (Unfinished)

About the Composer

Born in Moscow in 1946, Vladimir Martynov studied piano under M. Mezhlumov and composition under N. Sidelnikov at the Moscow Conservatory. Martynov belongs to the generation of major Soviet/Russian composers after Alfred Schnittke, Edison Denisov, and Sofia Gubaidulina.

In 1973, he began working in the electronic music studio of the Scriabin Museum, the meeting-ground of many of the leading composers of the Russian avant-garde. A rock-group, the Boomerang, was formed in the studio with Martynov’s active participation, and he wrote the rock-opera The Seraphic Visions of St. Francis of Assisi (1978) for the group. At the same time, he was also exploring the possibilities of the minimalist system concurrently with Arvo Pärt and Valentin Silvestrov.

The diversity of Martynov’s interests led him to study folk music, and he traveled extensively throughout Russia, the Caucasus, and Tajikistan. At the end of the 1970s, he embarked on an investigation of early Russian religious chant. During this period, he accepted a teaching post at the Theological Institute of the Trinity-Saint Sergius, and his output was mainly devoted to church music. Starting in the mid-1980s, he began to produce new works that combined the experiments of his former period, while continuing his involvement with minimalism (Opus post I, Opus post II for piano, Twelve Victories of King Arthur for seven pianos). At the same time, he was also widening his explorations of the great religious themes in works such as Apocalypse, Lamentations of Jeremiah, Magnificat, Stabat Mater, Requiem, and Litanies to the Virgin.

Despite his interest in different genres, Martynov’s philosophy of music and composition compels him to look for the essence or core of music. The convention that defines today’s performances establishes musical elements as separate: the musician, the thing or object (the music), and the audience. Martynov’s idea of composition is to make a space where there is interaction between audience, the music, and the musicians. He has written, “The time comes for a new epoch, a new folklore, a new ritual. The time comes when there will no longer be a place for composers. All the texts and music have already been created ... The only thing left for us is to try to explain them and extrapolate their meaning.”

In the Composer’s Own Words

If in the 19th century Schumann could write of Schubert’s “heavenly lengths,” emphasizing the fact that, despite their heavenly qualities, the lengths were all the same a little long, now in the 21st century Schubert’s lengths appear to be so heavenly that one cannot get enough of them. Every time I come into contact with Schubert’s music, I want to prolong forever each moment of sound. I want to examine every turn, every Schubertian pause through a magnifying glass or even a microscope. The score of Schubert-Quintet presents a version of just this way of looking at Schubert’s music. This is a 21st-century view of Schubert. If for Schumann they were simply “heavenly lengths,” they appear to me as “infinite heavenly lengths”—that is, lengths with no end. For this reason, the score carries the subtitle Unfinished.

Death to Kosmische

About the Composer

Nicole Lizée is a composer, sound artist, and keyboardist based in Montreal, Quebec. Her compositions range from works for large ensemble and solo turntablist that feature DJ techniques fully notated and integrated into a concert setting, to other unorthodox instrument combinations that include the Atari 2600 video game console, Simon and Merlin handheld games, and karaoke tapes. Lizée has received commissions from many artists and ensembles, such as l’Orchestre Métropolitain du Grand Montréal, CBC, So Percussion, and Darcy James Argue’s Secret Society. In 2010, she was awarded a fellowship from the prestigious Civitella Ranieri Foundation based in New York City and Italy. She has twice been named a finalist for the Jules-Léger Prize, most recently in 2007 for This Will Not Be Televised scored for chamber ensemble and turntables, and recommended among the top 10 at the 2008 International Rostrum of Composers. In 2002, she was awarded the Canada Council for the Arts Robert Fleming Prize, and in 2004 she was nominated for an Opus Prize.

In the Composer’s Own Words

Death to Kosmische is a work that reflects my fascination with the notion of musical hauntology and the residual perception of music, as well as my love/hate relationship with the idea of genres. The musical elements of the piece could be construed as the faded and twisted remnants of the Kosmische style of electronic music. To do this, I have incorporated two archaic pieces of music technology (the stylophone and the omnichord) and have presented them through the gauze of echoes and reverberation, as well as through imitations of this technology as played by the strings. I think of the work as both a distillation and an expansion of one or several memories of music that are irrevocably altered by the impermanence of the mind. Only ghosts remain.

Secret Word

About the Composer

Michael Hearst is a composer, multi-instrumentalist, and writer. He is a founding member of the band One Ring Zero, which has released nine albums, including As Smart As We Are, Planets, and The Recipe Project. Hearst’s solo works include the albums Songs for Ice Cream Trucks and the forthcoming Songs for Unusual Creatures, as well as the soundtracks for the movies The House of Suh and The Good Mother. As a writer, Hearst’s work has appeared in such journals as McSweeney’s, The Lifted Brow, and Post Road. His children’s book Unusual Creatures will be released by Chronicle Books in the fall. Hearst has performed and given lectures and workshops at universities, museums, and cultural centers around the world, and has appeared on such shows as NPR’s Fresh Air, A&E’s Breakfast with the Arts, and NBC’s The Today Show.

In the Composer’s Own Words

“What do you think of Pee-wee’s Playhouse?” David Harrington asked me over Skype. He’d wanted to talk on Skype so he could see my reaction to his new idea. It was the winter of 2010, and the Kronos Quartet was on break, back home in San Francisco. I was in my apartment in Brooklyn, surrounded by my oddball musical instruments: theremins, daxophones, stylophones, claviolas, automatons, and otamatones.

“What do I think of Pee-wee’s Playhouse? I love Pee-wee’s Playhouse,” I said, with slight trepidation, wondering where all this was going. But it was true—I had watched the show religiously when it aired in the mid- to late-1980s. As a young teenager, I would shovel cereal into my mouth on Saturday mornings while Pee-wee Herman ran around his wacked-out house like a madman, turning knobs on Conky the robot, giggling in the lap of Chairy, and yelling with his arms in the air when the scary door-to-door salesman showed up. I would anticipate the moment when Globey, Pterri, Clockey, Randy, Cowboy Curtis, Miss Yvonne, or any of the other members of the gang accidentally spoke the Secret Word, setting off an eruption of screams and nonsensical sound effects throughout the playhouse. To this day, I find myself singing the show’s theme song when I’m having trouble getting myself out of bed in the morning (in the voice of Cyndi Lauper, of course): “Git outta byed! They’ll be no more nyapin …”

So on Skype with David, I’m sure my face didn’t lie: He asked if I wanted to compose a tribute to Pee-wee’s Playhouse, and I lit up at the idea.

David’s fascination with Pee-wee began with his own kids. The amazing soundtracks were part of the sonic fiber of his family. His daughter would, from time to time, remind him of the show’s brilliant use of sound. And now as a grandfather, having gone back and re-watched and re-heard the episodes for a second round, he began to realize how incredibly unique every aspect of Pee-wee’s Playhouse was. He recently told me in an email, “In terms of sheer sound effects, there has never been anything like it on TV.”

The music for Pee-wee’s Playhouse was composed by a rotating cast of diverse musicians, including Mark Mothersbaugh, Danny Elfman, Todd Rundgren, Dweezil Zappa, and Van Dyke Parks. The audio tracks incorporate some of the most bizarre sound effects and whacked-out melodies known to television: a barrage of blips and beeps layered on top of quirky polkas and dreamy waltzes—a Foley artist’s loony bin, which closely relates to the kind of music I love to compose and play around with. David has been to my apartment and played with my collection of oddball musical instruments and toys, and I have done the same at the Kronos headquarters in San Francisco—two adults rummaging through boxes of pull-string dolls, wind-up whistling tops, and horns that require us to turn them around several times just to figure out where the mouthpieces are. Clearly, David has also heard the crooked waltzes and polkas I love to incorporate into my own compositions. My inspirations have often pulled from the creative works of Mothersbaugh, Elfman, and Parks, as well as those who came before: Raymond Scott, Carl Stalling, Kurt Weill, and even Saint-Saëns, Prokofiev, and Beethoven, for that matter.

As a teenager watching TV on a Saturday morning, I probably wished I could create something as exciting and loony as Pee-wee’s Playhouse. Perhaps, at some point, I even wished that one day I’d create something that would get performed by the Kronos Quartet at Carnegie Hall. And here we are. Thank you for the inspiration, Pee-wee. May all your wishes be granted, too. In the immortal words of Jambi the Genie, “Mecca lecca hi, mecca hiney ho!”

This performance is part of Fast Forward.

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