Saturday, May 12, 2012

Van-Anh Vanessa Vo shines in concert with Kronos Quartet

I had the wonderful opportunity last night of attending the first of two performances of a new Kronos Quartet program entitled "Women's Voices", featuring female performers and/or composers.

The concert opened with Nicole Lizée's "Death to Kosmische" (the latter apparently being a type of German electronic music that was highly popular there in the 60s).  Ms Lizée is based in Montreal and is known for composing pieces that combine "normal" instruments with, for example, Atari video game consoles, karaoke tapes, handheld video games, solo turntables, and omnichords. "Death to Kosmische" employed many of those ideas, and it was visually entertaining to watch the renowned Kronos members take their individual turns at playing deliberately noisy hand-held gaming devices between their bravura music passages. The primary impression that remained from this work, though, was just how tightly together the Kronos ensemble really is - one had the impression that it must have taken hours of rehearsal to get both of the musical and extraneous motifs timed exactly together but they made it look confident and casual at the same time. 

The next piece on the program - "Flow" by Laurie Anderson (arranged by Jacob Garchik, born 1976) was stunningly, simply and hauntingly beautiful; perfectly performed, and perfectly framed by the two works on either side of it. The problem was, one wanted it to go on much longer than it did, and after the following piece on the program, one wanted to come back to it and hear it again. The soundscape of "Flow" teetered just slightly on the edge of "New Age acupuncture music" but it only teetered, tantalizingly - it never fell. Rather it left the listener with a genuine sense of being calmed, cleansed and healed of something, just through the sound colors and beautiful chords that shimmered, somehow, inside of the hearer, because Jacob Garchik's arrangement for Kronos utilized each instrument perfectly. Here's hoping a recording of this one comes out soon....

Two larger works on the program, Mosaic (from music of Delia Derbyshire) and Tundra Songs (2007) by Derek Charke, did not leave a strong impression on me, personally, but some audience members could be heard voicing their enthusiasm. The purpose for creating the Mosaic was laudable and made sense, when Kronos founder David Harrington explained it, but the end result seemed uncharacteristically bland and disjointed somehow - more to do perhaps with the ingredients than the cook(s).
The Tundra Songs featured Nunavut-born singer Tanya Tagaq who has won numerous awards in both music and film circles, toured with Bjork, and is known for her "throat singing" techniques. For this new work, composer Derek Charke traveled several times throughout the Arctic, in different seasons, while capturing a myriad of sounds from the nature, sea, and people of the region - and he shared the riveting story of his travels in the program notes for the concert. On paper it sounded absolutely fascinating. But in performance, the sounds got lost in the jumble of string quartet parts combined with Ms Tagaq's rhythmic sound effects (meant to portray animals and nature, if I'm not mistaken). One didn't hear a lot of "singing" at all, in fact, but it was obvious that Tanya Tagaq is very popular with SF audiences, having performed other works with Kronos and had residencies at the Yerba Buena Center in previous years. We'll have to check out some of her recordings online so we can hear her highly-awarded singing voice, because she is definitely a warm and expressive performer. 

Vân-Ánh Vanessa Võ (photo by Nguyen Hong Vinh)
The centerpiece and star of the evening was multi-faceted, Emmy-award winning Vietnamese musician Vân-Ánh Vanessa Võ. Born to a family of musicians, she has been studying, performing and preserving the traditions of her native culture and instruments since the age of four, and it is so gratifying to see her recognition skyrocketing, particularly here in the USA, during the past year. She has been a featured performer/speaker at a TedX conference and also appeared as soloist at Carnegie Hall this past January, but her commission to compose for the Kronos Quartet has been a tremendous highlight and catalyst for her continued expressive development as well.

About the resulting piece, entitled "All Clear", she has said "I want the audience to feel the suffering of women and children who bear the brunt of war, and of the many innocent people who are caught in the middle....{but also} through my music I hope to share a thousand years of Viet cultural history, which was overshadowed by the war. My instruments - the dan tranh, dan bau, k'ni and artillery gongs - represent the Viet cultural legacy. These instruments may have been drowned out by the sound of war, but they survive. "

And indeed Ms Vo's evocative performance of her stunning composition, graced by the heartfelt involvement of each member of Kronos, not only succeeded in preserving those instruments of the culture but allowed all members of the audience to experience and share her imagined memories, as if they had been there as well. The theater-piece is a consummate vehicle for Vanessa to employ so many of her talents and she was gracefully everywhere - moving from one area of the brilliantly designed stage set to another, singing, drumming, playing the instruments, acting, speaking, against electronically delivered sounds that she had recorded on research trips throughout her native country.......and all the while exhibiting quiet confidence and matchless technique. Particularly in the emotive but rapid passages that she has written for herself on the dan bau, she manages to find notes literally "in the air" with mystifying accuracy and speed, creating entirely new playing techniques for this ancient instrument.

The piece wove a story and led the audience on a deeply felt experience; tonight's performance will thankfully be recorded and filmed, so we hope that even a portion of its power will come across for those who cannot be there. Kudos to Vanessa and the Kronos Quartet for this new gift to humanity. As Ms Vo has written, "The sound at the end of All Clear is a bridge between the past and present. "....but here's to future collaborations between Kronos and Vân-Ánh Vanessa Võ as well! -----------------------------------------------------------------

Monday, May 7, 2012

Kronos Quartet (with LFL Artist Van-Anh Vanessa Vo) Fri & Sat May 11-12th

Listen for Life strongly recommends:
World Premiere

Yerba Buena Center for the Arts and Kronos Performing Arts Association present

Kronos Quartet 
with Special Guests Tanya Tagaq and Vân-Ánh Vanessa Võ

"Women's Voices"

Fri & Sat, May 11–12, 2012  •  8 pm
Novellus Theater, Yerba Buena Center for the Arts

Vân-Ánh Vanessa Võ (b. 1975)
All Clear (2012)
I.          Winter
II.        At the Cemetery
III.       Christmas Storm
IV.       Fallen
V.        Patching Up

About All Clear, Võ writes:

“I was born right after the war ended. I remember the suffering of the people around me who went through it. In All Clear, I want the audience to feel the suffering of women and children who bear the brunt of war, and of the many innocent people who are caught in the middle. My perspective is that of someone who was not on any side.

“David Harrington encouraged me to weave together the distinctive sounds of Vietnamese language, culture, and history. Together, we explored Vietnamese instruments and musical traditions. I searched for many sounds to use in All Clear and I had the chance to travel to many provinces in Vietnam to record the sound and thoughts of local people.

“Through my music, I hope to share a thousand years of Viet cultural history, which was overshadowed by the war. My instruments – the đàn Tranh, đàn Bầu, k’ni, and artillery gongs – represent the Viet cultural legacy. These instruments may have been drowned out by the sound of war but they survive.

“The sound at the end of All Clear is a bridge between the past and present. The past already happened, and there were wounds in our hearts that have healed over time. The past now has taken a new form that reminds us of how painful those wounds were.

“In working with David for a year and a half, I might say that All Clear was composed by the two of us.”

David Harrington writes:

“I have long wanted Kronos to explore the world of Vietnamese musical culture, but the intricacies of this vibrant culture and the immense instrumental variety to be found in Vietnamese musical life have been overwhelming. I learned of Vân-Ánh Vanessa Võ’s work when she introduced herself after one of Kronos’ recent concerts at Stanford University. Van-Anh is a multi-instrumentalist, singer, and composer, and possesses an enormous amount of knowledge about Vietnamese traditions. I felt I had found an expert guide to Vietnamese life, history and music. Together we started to explore making a concert piece.

“Like many Americans of my generation, I knew about Vietnam mostly through the evening news reports about the war in the 1960s and early ’70s. I remember the horror of seeing people dying on TV – both Vietnamese and American. The North Vietnamese were demonized in our society at that time. I recall my spiritual confusion growing up in a mad-warrior society that was bent on its own ruin, and at the time I often wondered what I could do to help change this.

“I found a moment of sanity one August night in 1973, when on the radio I heard George Crumb's Black Angels for the first time, performed by the New York String Quartet. In my opinion Black Angels (1970) is the great American musical masterpiece to have resulted from the ‘Vietnam’ War (known in Vietnam as the ‘American’ War). This was a time when, as Crumb later said to me, ‘There were strange things in the air.’ I formed Kronos the next month, in order to play that piece.

“As time passed, my collection of recordings from Vietnam has grown and my appreciation for the varieties of music and instruments to be found there has increased immeasurably. I’ve long felt that much remains to be done to atone artistically for an American-made war that brought much suffering and ruin to so many innocent people. I hope to help create a musical experience that will explore some of the inner reaches of Vietnamese music.

“Van-Anh and I began by listening together to Vietnamese music of mourning. It seemed to me that the sound of the đàn Bầu, a one-stringed plucked instrument with a buffalo-horn whammy bar, was created especially for mourning. We want to tell a story through music using a variety of instruments from Vietnam and the West, connected by several poems by Hồ Xuân Hương (1772–1822). She was a 19th century woman with 21st century sensibilities. There are multiple dimensions of meaning expressed at the same time in her poetry – poems within poems – which contain images of female desire and longing coupled with scenes of everyday life. Van-Anh recorded and collected sounds from Vietnam, which we use to weave a web of sound, providing windows into Vietnamese culture and society. The music was built over this sonic ‘ground.’”

**Vân-Ánh Vanessa Võ’s All Clear was commissioned for the Kronos Quartet by the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, the Kronos Performing Arts Association, and the David Harrington Research & Development Fund.

Vân-Ánh Vanessa Võ comes from a family of musicians, and began studying traditional Vietnamese music and the đàn Tranh zither at the age of four. She graduated with distinction from and subsequently taught at the Vietnam Academy of Music in Hanoi. In 1995, Võ won the Vietnam National Đàn Tranh Competition, along with first prize for best solo performance of modern folk music. In Hanoi, Võ was an ensemble member of Vietnam National Music Theatre as well as a member of the traditional music group Đồng Nội Ensemble, which she founded and directed. She has performed throughout Vietnam and many other countries.

Living in the San Francisco Bay Area since 2000, Võ has focused her career on collaborating with musicians across different music genres to create new works, bringing Vietnamese traditional music to a wider audience, and preserving Vietnamese cultural legacy through teaching. Among her compositions are the 2009 Emmy® Award-winning soundtrack for the documentary Bolinao 52, which she co-composed and recorded, and the soundtrack for the 2003 Academy Awards® nominee Daughter from Danang. Võ also co-composed and recorded for the recent documentary A Village Called Versailles, winner of the New Orleans Film Festival Audience Award. She performs with Kronos on the recording of “Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right,” released on the CD collection Chimes of Freedom: Songs of Bob Dylan Honoring 50 Years of Amnesty International.