Kronos Quartet to perform “Beyond Zero: 1914-1918”

by Mac Emery | 2/9/15 6:10pm

The sights and sounds of a globally scarring cataclysm will bombard attendees from the bows of the Kronos Quartet, before a backdrop of absorbing historical footage, during the group’s upcoming performance of “Beyond Zero: 1914-1918” today.

The performance is the product of a collaboration between the Kronos Quartet — two violins, a viola and a cello — filmmaker Bill Morrison and contemporary composer Aleksandra Vrebalov as they aim to addressethe harrowing legacy of World War I through a combination of music and film. The Grammy award-winning Kronos Quartet will begin the performance with “Prelude to a Black Hole,” an array of nine musical pieces that relate to the years surrounding World War I. The instrumental selections range from ancient Byzantine chants to a string piece by avant-garde composer Igor Stravinsky. Kronos, which The New York Times called a mentor to several generations of musicians, will then play “Beyond Zero: 1914-1918,” an original work by contemporary composer Vrebalov that will be partnered with war footage arranged by Morrison.

Vrebalov said that the idea for a work addressing World War I sprouted in 2011 as the centennial anniversary of World War I approached and follows a longstanding relationship between her and the Kronos Quartet.

One of the quartet’s violinists, David Harrington, said that the group was excited to work with Vrebalov, given their history together.

“She’s written incredibly vivid, wonderful music for us in many different forms and we’ve played her music in many circumstances,” he said.

Filmmaker Bill Morrison soon joined the project and introduced the element of historical film to the collaboration. The granular, decaying texture of the war footage he unearthed in national archives filtered into the musical composition of “Beyond Zero,” Vrebalov said. While she penned the composition, Morrison organized footage around the resulting score.

“There are elements of the texture and the process of decay that I saw in the film that I used as the approach to my own project,” Vrebalov said. “There are places in music where things are happening and then all of a sudden they collapse and then they come back.”

During Kronos’ performance of “Beyond Zero,” meticulously arranged footage convulses and unreels across the screen behind them and select audio clips will overlay the group’s performance, Vrebalov said. These include the disturbing proclamations of a wartime speech, the piercing shrill of air raid sirens and a chillingly placid piano piece recorded during the period as countries devolved into violent chaos. The piece’s focus on the devastation of the war is void of idealism in the traditional sense, though amongst the havoc, integrity and beauty may emerge from other sources, she said.

“There is no idealism about the war or anything that war has meant to the people then,” Vrebalov said. “But there is idealism about the beauty of people and also a lot of beauty that I saw in the faces of all those young people who just live their lives and who are basically just swallowed by the global circumstances. So the beauty is in the people.”

The prelude, dubbed with the sinister title “Prelude to a Black Hole,” stages the historical context of the hectic time and bridges those historical sentiments with the modern creation, she said.

In culling selections for the prelude from the abundance of notable works composed during that tumultuous period, Harrington said he projected Kronos into the past to decide which pieces most reflected Kronos’ tastes.

“Well one thing that I imagined doing, was thinking of, if Kronos were active around 1914, from what I know about music right now, who would some of the composers be who we would have been working with?”

Music professor Theodore Levin described the show as stylistically diverse.

“Kronos has been at the forefront of contemporary music around the world for 40 years,” Levin said. “They revolutionized the repertoire of the string quartet.”

Both Harrington and Vrebalov said the performance will be an opportunity for the audience to advance its understanding of World War I and its continued relevance, even as its dates recede into the remoteness of history.

“I think that for a musical experience to be considering these sorts of things, I think it can be helpful for a college audience,” Harrington said. “The more you learn the more you realize all the wars since then have been influenced by that one.”

Vrebalov, who cited her own experiences in modern day Serbia as influential to her perspective on war, said that she hoped to promote awareness of the historical event.

“It will be another element of their awareness, especially the waste of human life that happens in all wars, not only World War One,” she said.

In addition to Tuesday’s performance, Kornos will speak at a music class and hold a post-performance discussion, Levin said.

The Kronos Quartet will perform “Beyond Zero” today at 7 p.m. in Spaulding Auditorium. Harrington said that the quartet may play supplemental period pieces before the performance formally starts. Tickets will cost between $10 and $50 for students and between $17 and $50 for the general audience.