Magazine article Strings

Casting Call

Magazine article Strings

Casting Call

Article excerpt


For many fans of avant-garde music, a major milestone-and something of a turning point-in the mainstreaming of theatrics and chamber music was Kronos Quartet's 1980 staging of the groundbreaking Live Video, an evening-length multimedia work that, Kronos violinist David Harrington says, was the most complex concert the quartet had ever put together, a show involving sets and projections and multiple costume changes. This was the beginning of over two decades of innovation, including Kronos performing music that incorporates recorded readings of graffiti taken from the walls of prison camps, and on another occasion mixing music with the sounds of trains and the voices of Holocaust survivors. On yet another occasion, in 1979, Kronos astonished audiences at Mills College in Oakland, California, by performing James Brown's "Sex Machine" while appearing onstage with a tenfoot singing robot.

"Then, and now, with the newer things we've been trying, we always try putting ourselves in the position of being a listener and a viewer," says Harrington. "We ask ourselves, 'What would it be like to go to a Kronos concert and have this happen? Or this?' When we played that live concert at Mills College with the robot, we were having a great time. We'd never done anything like that before, at that time, and we thought it would be interesting to attempt something like that -and it was. It challenged the way people thought about what a concert was.

"That's a good thing."

For centuries, chamber musicians have tinkered with the way their music is performed in front of audiences, experimenting with the most basic elements of staging and lighting, moving flower arrangements on and off the stage, shifting the candelabra from one side to the other in an effort to create the perfect mood and environment for the enjoyment of the music. For the most part, the world of chamber music has remained separate from the worlds of theater, opera, and ballet. While there have been daring attempts to soften boundaries between the arts-the 1960s I-'luxus movement, for instance, which blended various artistic disciplines-such experimentation has almost always taken place on the fringes of the musical world.

That is changing.

The calculated artistic abandon of the Kronos Quartet and others-radical experiments in marrying classical music with elements of traditional and modern theater in nonoperatic settings as well as multimedia-is just one example of the mainstreaming of theater-and-chamber music hybrids. Clearly, the use of theatrical and cinematic methods in live chamber music is slowly, steadily expanding. One need only note how many touring musicians have added projectionists and set designers and lighting directors and costumers to their payrolls to realize that the chamber-music scene has, to a degree, gone theatrical.

To those musicians who have begun incorporating nonmusical elements into their live performances-from British violinist Daniel Hope's spoken-word collaborations with Austrian actor Klaus Maria Brandauer to Teatro La Fenice's recent chamber-music collaboration on a play based on the letters and diaries of Clara Schumann to Patricia Cleveland Peck's 2004 play The Cello and the Nightingale profiling string player Beatrice Harrison-such trends are part of an evolution that only makes sense. After all, such stuff is part of the language of popular culture, both influenced by and influencing that culture, and many modern musicians are active members and technologically in-tune heirs of that culture.

"Oh, I'm greatly influenced by the world I live in," agrees cellist Joan Jeanrenaud, formerly of Kronos Quartet and now a solo performer and composer with a fondness for innovative multimedia presentations. "Let's face it, every day we are inundated with sounds, visual images, performance of all kinds. There's no way you can get away from it, really, and I think we have to accept that. …

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