The concept of the musical homage has long been the practice of composers and performers. Respect and admiration for a style or even a specific composition has served as both a vehicle for composers’ skills at musical synthesis as well as ways to honor those who preceded them. On this occasion we heard a most distinctive and unusual attempt in this tradition: Akoka: After Messiaen’s Quartet For the End of Time. Presented by Duke Performances at Duke University’s acoustically challenged Page Auditorium, this intermission-less concert was structured with Messiaen’s masterpiece as the center around which two new works seamlessly pivoted almost as extensions of the original quartet. Even with the best of intentions – as was undoubtedly the case here – as well as musicians of the highest caliber and an obvious love and respect of the featured work, the concept just didn’t work well.

The story of The Quartet for the End of Time is one of the great musical legends and a testament to the artistic spirit of man and his ability to endure in the face of unimaginable evil and suffering. In 1941, while a prisoner in a German POW camp, Messiaen wrote this work for piano, violin, cello, and clarinet that somehow evokes a sense of tranquility and peace in addition to a modern rhythmic drive that belies the dreadful circumstances of its creation. “Akoka” refers to Henri Akoka, the original clarinetist of the work, who was Jewish, and who, unlike Messaien, did not survive the camp. The idea for this concert was developed by cellist Matt Haimovitz and clarinetist David Krakauer, and the idea was to “re-imagine” the Quartet from the perspective of Akoka.

Appropriately, the first piece was written just last year by clarinetist David Krakauer and is called Akoka. It begins with a series of extended glissandi on the cello and soon turns to mournful wailing of the clarinet somewhere between Klezmer and free jazz. All the instruments were slightly amplified, which better enabled some of the effects and also allowed the extreme quiet passages to permeate the dead spots of the hall. There was no break of any kind as the “Liturgie de cristal,” the first of the eight movements of the Quartet, immediately cast its spell. Joining Haimovitz and Krakauer was pianist Geoff Burleson and Todd Reynolds, violinist with the string quartet Ethel. Also joining in, in a sense, was the lighting, which played an integral part and was for the most part tastefully done.

The four elements of the quartet take part in various permutations including a movement for unaccompanied clarinet. Being a cellist, I am partial to the fifth movement (“Praise to the eternity of Jesus”) which, in addition to its sublime beauty and sense of timelessness, is a model for developing the “unending bow” of continuous, uninterrupted sound. A similar movement ends the work, only this time for violin and piano. As profound as any prayer or theological text, this is as good a description of eternity as ever expressed. Imagining the horrible proximity of the monstrosity of acts taking place within feet of the serenity of this closing nearly stilled the breathing of the audience… — and then it began. Like a huge Hummer with blackened windows and with a throbbing bass that vibrates your windows, the start of Meanwhile(A Messiaen Remix) intruded on us like an unannounced visit from bad relatives….

All the publicity for this concert touted the appearance of so-called DJ SoCalled as the special guest for this “staggeringly ambitious meditiation on Olivier Messiaen’s 1941 Masterpiece.” This composition showed itself to be a staggeringly derivative and uninspiring collection of electronic effects, used up musical/spoken collages, and even a dash of rap. Mr. SoCalled (Josh Dolgin to those of us over 30), perched at a podium behind clarinetist Krakauer, played some sort of electronic box that featured tape loops, snippets of the Messaien Quartet and a collage of spoken voices from World War II that had already been done before in a much more effective manner in Steve Reich’s Different Trains. The four musicians noodled around in a seemingly aleatoric manner that had a lot of energy but ultimately not much substance.

Am I just not understanding all of this? Does the relative newness of this type of composition pre-prejudice me? Have I become my parents, yelling at me to shut off that “noise” that all sounds the same? No. This is an audacious attempt to kidnap one of the most significant compositions of the 20th century and to associate it with a hodgepodge of barren and worn-out hip clichés. Mr. SoCalled, if you truly respect Messiaen’s work and legacy, please put this to rest!