Monday, May 11, 2015

SFIFF58: Kronos Quartet Beyond Zero: 1914-1918

Last Wednesday evening I attended a live event at the San Francisco International Film Festival, featuring the Kronos Quartet performing music by Aleksandra Vrebalov, accompanied with a film by Bill Morrison. Ms. Vrebalov's 45-minute piece memorializes World War I. It unfolds in long, sustained passages that at times evoke sirens, wailing or insect noises. A harsh middle section depicts relentless tramping or marching. At the end of the piece, the violinists leave their chairs & softly strike 2 hanging cylindrical bells. The Kronos Quartet gave an incisive, proficient performance. The piece also incorporates recorded sounds of sirens, human speech & chanting. The 1st thing we hear is an eerie recording of a high, keening soprano, which we later found out was a 1916 recording of an Armenian song, with Bartok at the piano.

In a reversal of the usual process, Mr. Morrison created his film to match the music. It's all archival World War I footage. We see military parades, training exercises, troops out in the field & airplanes in the sky. All the footage is badly decomposed, & the images seem to be decaying before our eyes. The film & music fit together well to create a grim & ghostly mood.

Festival programmer Sean Uyehara conducted a Q&A with the musicians afterward. 1st violinist David Harrington said this is the 1st time they have played the piece in a movie theater & joked that the smell of popcorn was just great. Cellist Sunny Yang told us that the music is so physically demanding that she has change her bow grip partway through the percussive middle section in order to keep going.

Drew Cameron, a papermaker & Iraq War veteran, joined the Q&A to tell us about the Combat Paper Project, which turns military uniforms into paper for art works. Mr. Cameron had his talking points down & pointed out that the borders of Iraq were drawn after the fall of the Ottoman Empire at the end of World War I. The line for this event began forming at least an hour before, & the audience was attentive & respectful.

§ Kronos Quartet Beyond Zero: 1914-1918
A Work for Quartet with Film
Kronos Quartet
Aleksandra Vrebalov, composer
Bill Morrison, filmmaker
2014, USA, 60 mins.

§ 58th San Francisco International Film Festival
May 6, 2015   6:30 p.m.   Sundance Kabuki Cinemas

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