In a Storm of Fragments with the Kronos Quartet, at UNC

The composer Aleksandra Vrebalov. Photo: Biljana Ustic.

The composer Aleksandra Vrebalov. Photo: Biljana Ustic.


Carolina Performing Arts has just presented a ferociously affective program by the Kronos Quartet–which, I regret to inform you, will not repeat in Memorial Hall. You will have to travel to hear and see the two linked works by Aleksandra Vrebalov, with film by Bill Morrison. Prelude to a Black Hole, and Beyond Zero: 1914-1918 were included in CPA’s World War I Centenary Project, but Vrebalov’s intense musical collage about that war is relevant to the consideration of any war–or the perpetual war in which we now live.

Vrebalov was born in the former Yugoslavia in 1970, but left Serbia in 1995. She must know quite a bit about war, both WWI and more recent horrors. She’s composed for Kronos before; their styles mesh very well. From the menace behind the resonant strings, to the explosive pizzicato, the relentless appetite for repetition, the controlled surges of power, the exquisite interludes of unexpected beauty and fervent sensuality–the quartet gave this rather brainy music an overpowering muscular force, a vitality, that underlined the stupidity of its deathless subject.

Prelude to a Black Hole combines recorded music from the period with the quartet’s playing of musical selections written around the time of the “Great War,” and some ancient and traditional tunes. Sometimes the two alternated, sometimes the quartet played on top of the recording. It was eerie, the past bleeding through into the now. Just as the gorgeous sonorities of the Kronos musicians were about to sweep you away, the composer snapped you back to remembrance of wreckage, change and death. As interesting as it was on its own, Prelude to a Black Hole was also a prelude to a much more powerful piece of music.

Beyond Zero: 1914-1918, written for the Kronos Quartet, is described as “a new work for quartet with film.”  It also included recorded sound, but here the live playing rolled over those sounds like a tank brigade. The film was made by piecing images from period films and linking them visually to the sounds and rhythms of the music. The original film, 100 years old, had badly deteriorated, and the resulting new film is highly expressionistic. From aural and visual bits and pieces, the music and film reap the whirlwind of war. The film–glimpses of cavalry and tanks, ravaged country and wrecked cities, soldiers and nurses, dirigibles and aeroplanes, dissolved between stretches of ruined filmstock–greatly augmented the experience of hearing the music–but the music would be whole without the film, whereas the film would not stand on its own. Together, however, they comprise a successful 21st century version of the total work of art.

Upcoming at CPA, in the WWI Centenary Project, is Benjamin Britten’s War Requiem, op. 66, dedicated by him to four of his friends killed during WWI. The March 5 concert will feature soprano Christine Goerke, Anthony Dean Griffey, tenor, Nathan Gunn, baritone, and the UNC Symphony and the Carolina Choir. And in the field of new music for quartet, March 28 will see the return of the wonderful Brooklyn Rider quartet, with a fantastic program from a variety of contemporary composers.

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