Friday, March 23 , 2018, 4:42 am | A Few Clouds 48º


Jeff Moehlis: Kronos Quartet Plays the Music of Steve Reich

Stellar performance at Campbell Hall features pieces for quartet and pre-recorded tapes

When I saw on the schedule that the Kronos Quartet would be playing an all-Steve-Reich program at Campbell Hall as part of this year’s UCSB Arts & Lectures series, I was stoked.

Reich is one of the most important figures in minimal music and was influential on some of my favorite rock musicians, such as Brian Eno, King Crimson and David Bowie. In fact, the first time I heard Reich’s groundbreaking tape phase experiment “It’s Gonna Rain” was at a lecture by Eno. Certainly a treat was coming — the acclaimed Kronos Quartet playing the music of Reich, including pieces written specifically for them!

Imagine my disappointment when I heard that Radiohead would be performing at the Santa Barbara Bowl at exactly the same time on the same day. I mean, even Reich is a fan of Radiohead — he is currently working on a piece called “Radio Rewrite” based on Radiohead’s music. (Click here for more information.) What to do?

Well, my choice became easy when the Radiohead show sold out in seconds, with no ticket for me. But rest assured, the Kronos/Steve Reich show was great! And it was inside, out of the rain. Perhaps Reich’s “It’s Gonna Rain” showed an odd sort of prescience.

Kronos — founder David Harrington and John Sherba on violin, Hank Dutt on viola and Jeffrey Zeigler on cello — started the evening with Triple Quartet, for which they played live over tapes of two other quartets, actually the Kronos Quartet of yesteryear with Jennifer Culp on cello. This has three movements, following Reich’s common fast-slow-fast structure, with a particularly dramatic transition into the last one. An interesting piece with a full sound and lots going on, it was a great start to the show.

Next up were three selections from Reich’s opera The Cave, which refers to the Cave of the Patriarchs in Hebron, the final resting place of Abraham, Sarah and their descendants. The first included tapes of voices doubled with instruments while a changing pulse held things together. For the others, the quartet accompanied chanting and sounds of the cave with a peaceful but somewhat ominous drone.

The centerpiece of the evening was the haunting “WTC 9/11,” Reich’s recent response to the World Trade Center attacks on Sept. 11, 2001. On that fateful day, Reich’s son, daughter-in-law and grandchild were in Reich’s apartment four blocks from the WTC site, so this was literally in his neighborhood. The first movement begins with the sound that a landline makes when it is off the hook, providing a pulse for the piece, then captures the chaotic events as they transpire with taped clips of the air traffic controllers and firemen doubled with instruments.

For the second movement, Reich uses tapes of the reminiscences about that day — for example, “I knew it wasn’t an accident,” “Then the second plane hit,” “You could not see in front of you” — with held sounds at the end of some phrases giving a surreal audio freeze-frame effect.

The last movement recalls a part of that day’s aftermath that I either was unaware of or had forgotten — the observance of the Jewish tradition of having someone stay with dead bodies until burial, here the bodies being those recovered from the World Trade Center site. There are tapes of the prayers and singing from this tradition mixed in with the quartet’s music, which takes a more heavenly tone.

The piece ends poignantly with another possible interpretation of WTC — the “World To Come,” followed by “I don’t really know what that means.” The final word is, “And there’s the world right here,” and the sound of the phone returns. In my opinion, Reich and Kronos have created a masterpiece with this one.

After an intermission, Kronos returned with “Different Trains,” with more voice samples doubled by the instruments. In the first movement, the samples concern the train from New York to Los Angeles that Reich rode as a child traveling between his divorced parents. The second movement is based on the contemporaneous trains that took people to concentration camps during World War II, a profound juxtaposition.

The final movement is inspired by the war’s aftermath. This is an epic piece, with frequent tempo changes and pulsing instrumentation that nicely captures the relentless chugging of the train. Incidentally, this included a recording of backing sounds by Kronos from back when Joan Jeanrenaud was their cellist.

After the performance, the Kronos Quartet stuck around for a fascinating question-and-answer session that covered the mechanics of the performance, such as the use of a click track for “Different Trains,” working intimately with Reich on the realization of the pieces, and the marathon six-hour quartet by Morton Feldman that Kronos has performed eight times and probably never will again because of the physical challenge of playing such a long piece.

Maybe next time they come to town, the Kronos Quartet and Radiohead will at least play on different nights, giving us — well, those lucky enough to get tickets to the latter — the chance to see two stellar acts at the top of their respective genres.

Noozhawk contributing writer Jeff Moehlis is a professor of mechanical engineering at UCSB. Upcoming show recommendations, advice from musicians, interviews and more are available on his Web site,

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