This preview has been provided by Carolina Performing Arts.

The Kronos Quartet presents a new work for quartet and film on Thursday, February 12, 2015 at 7:30 pm in Memorial Hall on the campus of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

  David Harrington, violin
  John Sherba, violin
  Hank Dutt, viola
  Sunny Yang, cello

Program: Prelude to a Black Hole

Eternal Memory to the Virtuous+
  Byzantine Chant
    arr. Aleksandra Vrebalov

Three Pieces for String Quartet
  Igor Stravinsky  (1882-1971)

Last Kind Words+
  Geeshie Wiley  (ca. 1906-1939)
    arr. Jacob Garchik

Evic Taksim+
  Tanburi Cemil Bey  (1873-1916)
    arr. Stephen Prutsman

Trois beaux oiseaux du Paradis+
  Maurice Ravel  (1875-1937)
    arr. JJ Hollingsworth

Smyrneiko Minore+
    arr. Jacob Garchik

Six Bagatelles, Op. 9
  Anton Webern  (1883-1945)
      Leicht bewegt
      Ziemlich fließend
      Sehr langsam
      Äußerst langsam

They Are There! Fighting for the People’s New Free World
  Charles Ives (1874-1954)

Nunc Dimittis from All-Night Vigil+
  Sergei Rachmaninov  (1874-1954)
    arr. Kronos Quartet

Beyond Zero: 1914-1918*
  Aleksandra Vrebalov  (b. 1970)
      A new work for quartet with film

* Written for Kronos / + Arranged for Kronos

Aleksandra Vrebalov, composer
Bill Morrison, filmmaker
David Harrington and Drew Cameron, creative consultants
Janet Cowperthwaite, producer

The Great War, a monumental blunder of a handful of monarchs and ministers… “When we’re through this cursed war / All started by a sneaking gouger / making slaves of men” [Charles Ives] contains, and sometimes conceals, the stories of millions.

The bombast of newspapers, the war mongers’ whoop all too often drowned out private meditations, acts of remembrance, and moments of innocent joy. “In these great times, which I knew when they were small, and which shall be small again should they live long enough” [Karl Kraus]

Kronos Quartet’s Prelude to a Black Hole weaves together these quiet voices… “Who would Kronos have been working with in 1914?” [David Harrington] with a collage (sometimes a barrage) of 78 rpm records, piano rolls and antique musical instruments culled from around the world.

“Most wars are made by small stupid / selfish bossing groups / while the people have no say.” [Charles Ives] The monumental blunder began in Sarajevo, when one man shot another. Ninety-nine years later, near the historical seat of Serb Orthodoxy, Aleksandra Vrebalov discussed the century’s wars with Father Jerotej of the Kovilj Monastery. He sang: “In everlasting remembrance shall the righteous be, he shall not be afraid of evil tidings.” … a Byzantine verse performed regularly at the feasts of martyrs, always sung right at the point of communion with the divine.

Others, too, gazed towards the heavens. Rachmaninoff’s Vespers, a choral orchestration of Kievan and Russian znamenniy chant, were written quickly and with conviction during the first two months of 1915. “Nyne otpushchayeshi” – in Latin, “Nunc dimittis” – depicts the enraptured Symeon, who had sworn not to die until he had beheld the Messiah. “Lord, now you let your servant go in peace / Your word has been fulfilled / My eyes have seen the salvation / You have prepared in the sight of every people…”

As Symeon the God-Receiver utters his last, “A light to reveal you to the nations and the glory of your people, Israel.” the serenely radiant harmony gradually darkens, until it is finally entombed in sepulchral B-flats for the basses. “Danilin shook his head, saying, ‘Now where on earth are we to find such basses?’ …Nevertheless, he did find them. I knew the voices of my countrymen…” [Sergei Rachmaninoff] This descent into death was also to be Rachmaninoff’s own: the composer so loved this work he chose it for his funeral.

The last of Stravinsky’s Three Pieces for String Quartet, with its call-and-response pattern, echoes the Litanies of the Russian Orthodox church. The deacon makes petition of God: “In peace let us pray to the Lord, for the peace that is from above, and for the salvation of our souls, let us pray unto the Lord.” [The Great Litany] To which the congregation’s reply is almost always the same: “подГоси, помилуй – Gospodi pomiluj – Lord, have mercy.”

At the end, the viola issues a heartfelt “Amen.”

If Stravinsky’s third piece addresses the soul, the other two attend to the body. The first movement offers a cubist perspective on a Russian peasant dance. The cello digs into a seven-beat ostinato, while the first violinist capers to a dizzying, circular melody of twenty-three beats. From an identical point of departure, each instrument proceeds on its merry way. The second piece, according to Stravinsky, was a portrait of “Little Tich, a harlequin no more than four feet in his shoes, but as full of humor as a fraternal order funeral.” [H.L. Mencken, et al] though Ernst Ansermet was certain that Stravinsky’s clown must be a sad one. Some were less sad to see the war come. “I can hardly wait any longer to be called up … It is the struggle of the angels with devils.” [Anton Webern]

Yet Webern’s music contains none of this chest-beating. It demands that the listener respect the smallest, quietest utterance of the individual, that the listener respect music which “expresses a novel with a single gesture, a joy in a single breath.” [Arnold Schoenberg] The intensely spiritual composer sought to portray earthly transcendence. The lugubrious fifth bagatelle recollects the death of Webern’s mother, while the sixth captures “The angels in heaven. The incomprehensible state after death.” [Anton Webern] Ravel, too, vacillated between the roles of poet and warrior. The Oiseaux du Paradis are figures from Persian myth, rare birds who appear to heroes as auspicious omens. The gentle, modal harmonies and frequent melodic repetitions call to mind the courtly medieval rondeau. The three birds themselves, emissaries from a friend who has gone off to war, are “more blue than the sky …. as white as snow … bright, bright red.”

Displaying these patriotic colors, they bestow upon the poet (in this case, Ravel himself) “a blue-eyed glance … the purest kiss … a crimson heart” instilling in him both fear and a desire for reunion. The work was dedicated to Paul Painlevé, mathematician, minister and aeronautic engineer. The composer yearned to fly for France and, against the advice of horrified friends and colleagues, used his connection with Painlevé in an attempt to enroll in the country’s air corps.

“What you do to me baby it never gets outta me / I may not see you after I cross the deep blue sea.” Three 78s, made years after the war in Grafton, Wisconsin, are virtually all that is left of blues guitarist and singer Geeshie Wiley. The “Last Kind Words” may or may not have been those her father said before going off to fight. “If I die, if I die in the German war, I want you to send my body, send it to my mother, lord.”

We can search for knowledge, winding our way through the spiral labyrinth of this record – its distinctive guitar work, its atmosphere of foreboding (expressed in the minor mode, peculiar for the period), Wiley’s deadpan singing – but there will always be a hole at the center, a perpetual reminder of absence.

“The Mississippi river, you know it’s deep and wide, I can stand right here, see my babe from the other side.”

The Greek men of New York, economic migrants or refugees from Ottoman depredations, knew this longing as well. When Marika Papagika sang to them “If you love me and it’s a dream, may I never wake up,” the lonely could forget abandoned homes and absent lovers. Born on the eastern Greek isle of Kos, Papagika performed (it is thought) throughout the Levant before settling in America. She brought with her the smyrneiko, the popular, polyglot cabaret style that originated in the cafes of cosmopolitan Smyrna.

“In the sweetness of dawn, God should take my soul away.”

War did not end in 1919, the year Papagika made her recording. Greek forces wrested Smyrna from the collapsing Ottoman empire. Kemal Atatürk retook the city in 1922. Three days later, the Great Fire reduced much of Smyrna to ash. “The Eviç makam still spoke through his thoughts with the ambience it had gathered from now-lost lands of the Balkans, serving up beautiful facets of Nuran’s attributes, of the bitterness of human fate, and of the memories of long-forgotten cities …” [Ahmet Hamdi Tanpinar] Eviç is one of the modes of classical Turkish music, classified centuries before the Ottomans by the great philosopher al-Farabi of Baghdad and Damascus. According to one music dictionary, other modes one might evoke within Eviç are Müsteâr, Hicâz, Nikrîz or Segâh.

“Written on all the rakı bottles were an array of honorary dedications: ‘To my master, my esteemed master, the venerated Cemil…’” [Ahmet Hamdi Tanpinar]

Tanburi Cemil Bey, the virtuoso of many instruments, was revered for the intricacy of his melodies, the fluidity of his modulations, the complexity of his preludes, his taksimler. All were performed with an unruffled smile. Many of his compositions survive, but the era’s notation was insufficient to cope with his improvisations. Were it not for the dozens of records made by the German-Jewish brothers Hermann and Julius Blumenthal, much of Cemil’s most personal, most spontaneous art would have died with him.

“If I get killed, if I get killed, please don’t bury my soul / I p’fer just leave me out, let the buzzards eat me whole.” [Geeshie Wiley]

“Hip hip hooray you’ll hear them say / as they go to the fighting front.” [Charles Ives]

“For this is now a war for peace.” [H.G. Wells]


About Beyond Zero: 1914–1918

Unlike official histories, that have often romanticized and glorified the war, artists have typically been the keepers of sanity, showing its brutality, destruction, and ugliness. For many, across history, creating art in those circumstances served as a survival mechanism.

While working on Beyond Zero: 1914–1918, I was inspired by anti-war writings, music, and art created during and immediately after World War I, including, for example, the writings of Wilfred Owen and Siegfried Sassoon, the music of Satie and Debussy, and the Dada movement. The piece draws from their disillusionment about heroism and patriotism, summed up in Owen’s line from Dulce et Decorum, that to die for one’s country is the old lie.

Throughout the piece, there are several documentary recordings from different wars – from the horrific “Loyalty Speech” of James Watson Gerard who served as a U.S. Ambassador to Germany until 1917, to military commands of Serbian and Bosnian troupes during the conflicts that led to the brutal falling apart of Yugoslavia in 1990s, to the chilling sound of air-raid sirens during the bombing of London in World War II.

My intention was to juxtapose these historical accounts of war with the finest expressions of spirit and creativity occurring at the same time – therefore Béla Bartók’s own playing of his Piano Suite written in 1916, and Huelsenbeck’s reading of his Chorus Sanctus, also written in 1916. A girl calling her cats is a symbolic reminder of suffering of women and children, and of longing for lost safety and domesticity. Beyond Zero: 1914–1918 ends with fragments of a dark Byzantine hymn “Eternal Memory to the Virtuous,” chanted by the monks from the Kovilj monastery in Serbia, in remembrance to all who lost their lives in the Great War and every war since then.

– Aleksandra Vrebalov

The film portion of Beyond Zero: 1914–1918 is comprised of films that have never been seen by modern audiences. I searched archives for rare 35 mm nitrate films shot during the Great War, and made new brand new HD scans from the originals. In many cases this is the last expression of these films – some original copies were determined to not be worth preserving beyond this transfer to digital media.

What we are left with is a glimpse of a war fought in fields, in trenches, and in the air. Most of the footage shows some emulsion deterioration – the by-product of a history stored on an unstable base for 100 years. Through a veil of physical degradation and original film dyes, we see training exercises, parades, and troop movement. Some of the battle footage was re-enacted for the camera, and some depicts actual live rounds. All of it was shot on film at the time of the conflict.

We see a record of a war as a series of documents passed along to us like a message in a bottle. None is more powerful than the record of the film itself, made visible by its own deterioration. We are constantly reminded of its materiality: this film was out on these same fields with these soldiers 100 years ago, a collaborator, and a survivor. It is being seen now as a digital image for the first time.

If these are images that we, as viewers, were once intended to see, to convince us of the necessity and valor of war, they now read as images that have fought to remain on the screen. They are threatened on all sides by the unstable nitrate base they were recorded on, and the prism of nearly one hundred uninterrupted years of war, through which we now view them.

– Bill Morrison

Beyond Zero: 1914–1918 was commissioned for the Kronos Quartet by Cal Performances; National World War I Museum at Liberty Memorial and Harriman-Jewell Series, Kansas City, Missouri; and Hopkins Center, Dartmouth College.