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The Theater of the Kronos Quartet and Wu Man

The pleasure of seeing and hearing the Kronos Quartet perform with Wu Man on February 17, 2008, at the Clarice Smith Performing Arts Center in College Park, Maryland, was equal in the Dresser's collection of exquisite experiences to a meal she once was served in Kyoto, Japan.
L to R: Kronos Quartet members David Harrington, John Sherba, Hank Dutt and Jeffrey Zeigler perform with Wu Man, pipa (behind scrim)
Photo by Luis Delgado

The Kronos menu was Terry Riley's The Cusp of Magic and Tan Dun's Ghost Opera. Like the Japanese meal that not only was artistically presented and had a story to go with its culinary arrangement on the plate but was also delicious, the musical presentation was not only exciting for its aural textures and uplifting energy but also for its surprising theatricality. What the Dresser means is that she anticipated hearing an outstanding concert from the Kronos Quartet, but what she did not expect was how visually artful this particular concert would be.


The evening began with The Cusp of Magic. The title refers to the summer solstice. This work was written and commissioned for the Kronos Quartet and Wu Man on the Chinese instrument known as the pipa as part of a national series of works from Meet the Composer Commissioning Music/USA made possible by the National Endowment for the Arts, The Helen F. Whitaker Fund, and the Target Foundation. Premiering in 2005, the work has six movements with an intriguing combination of titles: "The Cusp of Magic," "Buddha's Bedroom," "The Nursery," "Royal Wedding," "Emily and Alice," and "Prayer Circle."

The Dresser thinks a profile of the composer might help in understanding the mix of titles and the use of the pipa. Riley.JPGPhoto by Stuart Brinin

In 1964, Terry Riley presented his groundbreaking In C, a tonal composition employing repetition and static harmonies. Along with Steve Reich and Philip Glass, Riley has been classified as a minimalist, a term which these composers abjure. Influenced by the long buzzing and droning music of La Monte Young, considered by some to be the first minimalist, Riley distinguished his music by its complex rhythmic patterns. After he aired In C, he quit producing formal compositions in favor of improvisation and the study of North Indian vocal techniques. Study of Indian music led to his interest in instruments that allowed subtle tuning. In 1979 when he and David Harrington of the Kronos Quartet were on the faculty of Mills College in Oakland, California, Riley resumed notating music. His collaborations with Kronos helped him realize that he could incorporate his love of Indian music and jazz with the music of traditional classical instruments. Program notes quote Riley as follows:

My compositions for Kronos are the most important of my notated works, each one staking out a different mood and musical structure and setting up new challenges for composer and performer. In this work, the different timbre and resonance of the Chinese pipa and the Western string ensemble highlight the crossover regions of cultural reference, so that Western musical themes might be projected with Eastern accent and vice-versa. My plan was to make these regions seamless so that the listener is carried between worlds without an awareness of how he/she ends up there.

While The Cusp of Magic begins with attention focused on complex drumming patterns (Movement 1 "The Cusp of Magic"), the majority of the work shifts the focus to the pipa (a lute like instrument), the human voice (some live, some recorded), and a succession of exotic and familiar sounds emanating from wooden prayers beads, a harmonica, different kinds of noisemakers, sleigh bells, a music box, the voice of a toy doll. Lead violinist David Harrington alternates playing his violin with such instruments as a bass drum, hand-held drums, a toy violin, harmonica, woodblocks. Underneath this mesmerizing blend of sounds continues intricate rhythmic progressions. When the piece ended, the Dresser felt like she had been in the nursery of precocious children and at Buddhist temple praying.


Ghost Opera, commissioned for the Kronos Quartet and Wu Man by the Brooklyn Academy of Music, National Endowment for the Arts and Hancher Auditorium/University of Iowa, was initially what drew the Dresser to this concert. wuman_rightcol.jpgShe had bought the CD when she attended a Baltimore Symphony Orchestra concert featuring Tan's The Map of Asia. The CD is sensually interesting to hear, but seeing the Kronos Quartet and Wu Man perform the piece made the Dresser realize how much a listener of the CD misses. Also while The Cusp of Magic has its table of toys and curious instruments as well as the balletic strumming of the pipa by Wu Man, Ghost Opera involves the players moving on and off stage; creating sounds that involve water, paper, stones, and metal; vocalizations from every member of the ensemble; and employing screens and lighting to create shadows.

If this five-movement work that premiered at the Brooklyn Academy of Music in 1995 seems like a chamber opera and not a chamber music composition, a look at the program notes confirms that notion. Tan's inspiration for this work was shamanistic "ghost operas" of the Chinese peasant culture. In these folk operas that go back 4,000 years, people and spirits of the future, past and nature communicate with each other. Formally in the program, Tan lays out this opera as follows.

Timeframe and cast:

Now--string quartet and pipa
Past--Bach, folksong, monks, Shakespeare
Forever--water, stones, metal, paper

Next, Tan offers a mandala that summarizes diagrammatically the relationships between the string quartet and pipa (located in a centered box inside the circle), the voices of the past (assigned to four equal quadrants of the circle) and the natural, eternal elements (water, paper, stones, metal rim the exterior of the circle in north, east, south, and west positions respectively).

Finally, his short libretto assigns the parts.

Bach: Prelude

Monks: Ya O Ya

Folksong: [In Chinese with the following translation]
.................Little cabbage ya
.................Earth yellow ya
.................Two or three years ya
.................No papa, mama, ya

.................We are such stuff
.................As dreams are made on,
.................And our little life is rounded with a sleep.

Bach: Prelude

Monk: Ya O

Folksong: Tsai

.................Yea, all which it inherit, shall dissolve
.................And, like this insubstantial pageant faded,
.................Leave not a rock behind.

Monk: Ya

Bach: Prelude

The five movements of the work are, according to the CD (curiously this information did not appear in the program playbill), "Act 1, Bach, Monks, and Shakespeare," "Act 2, Earth Dance," "Act 3, Dialogue with 'Little Cabbage,'" "Act 4, Metal and Stone," and "Act 5, Song of Paper." Unlike The Cusp of Magic giving traditional pause between the movements, Ghost Opera has no discernable breaks between its "acts." However, an interior silence occurs in a scene where the musicians are conducted to play but only move without producing any sound. Was this a nod to John Cage, the Dresser wondered, or just something part of a Chinese folk opera?


To a Western ear like the Dresser's, Ghost Opera stays close to its folk roots while mixing in Western culture. At points, the Kronos violins sound like that one-stringed Chinese violin we now hear played in the streets of America. Sometimes the violins sound like fiddle music of American hoedowns. Vocalizations run the spectrum of Chinese and English words to expellations of breath in big gusts of "ha." Other non-linguistic vocalizations seem like yelps one might hear from costumed dragon dancers at the Chinese New Year. The recitation of quotes from Shakespeare follows the modulated tones of Chinese language and takes the listener by surprise. Oh, the Dresser exclaimed to herself, those are English words! Kronos_5-preview.jpgKronos Quartet violinist John Sherba in Tan Dun's Ghost Opera
Photo by Luis Delgado

Three large bowls of water are played with hands swirling through the liquid in combination with a water gong that is dipped and bowed. Oh, the Dresser wondered to herself, how did the musicians dry their hands--surely they didn't go back to their violins with wet hands? The use of tapping stones becomes more exotic as the musicians hold them close to their lips and employ their opened mouths as an echo chambers. Small cymbals are played in stylized ways that change in sound from noises like the clash of trashcan lids to the clang of kitchen pot lids. A musician buzzes a small piece of paper between his lips. More dramatically Wu Man undulates and therefore rattles a large banner of paper suspended from the ceiling. It's a banquet of carefully measured sound and flowing lyrical music.

The Cusp of Magic and Ghost Opera are works the Dresser would love to hear and see again in live performance. However, just like that meal she had in Kyoto with a man who no longer walks this planet in any visible way the Dresser can discern, it's likely she will have to savor the memory of this extraordinary concert.

Carrie Bennett explores the natural world and human relationships in her extended poems making up her Word Works Washington Prize-winning book biography of water. Here are some excerpts that reverberate with this review and concert.

you are the one nobody waits for
.............. the one for whom there are
.............. no arrivals last minute in the last hours .... of night

thin is the stem that bends in no breeze ... you wouldn't make it
....................... in this weather ... with waves up to here and
a water always wanting more
............................ of your body than ... you want to give

of course you anticipated this
the light falling through the screen that way

how does something look
..................................... like gold
in the back of a throat a house of numbered rooms

we were the couple
swimming in the gulf
........................ the only two
the sky the water
the pine trees twisting
the sand
............................... when all the days
started leading away ...

by Carried Bennet
from "covered the mark"
published in biography of water

Copyright © 2005 Carried Bennett


Comments (1)

Good God what do i know of the world but what I read here!

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This page contains a single entry from the blog posted on February 19, 2008 8:43 AM.

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