Wednesday, July 25, 2012

'Kronos Quartet & Vân-Ánh Võ', Battersea Park, 22nd July 2012

The River of Music

When I saw that the Kronos Quartet, possibly the most critically praised string quartet in the world, were performing at the ‘River of Music’, and that tickets were free, I was filled with excitement.  I figured that this would be booked up almost immediately and frantically refreshed the website as the tickets became available.  Having got them, I inwardly congratulated myself on getting what I assumed was the hot ticket of the summer.  My friends didn't seem quite as enthused as I was.  Maybe I overestimated the appetite of Londoners for cool string quartets.   My suspicious were confirmed later, and I was dismayed to find out that even the day before the concert there were free tickets still available.  C'mon London, it's Kronos, get with it.

I’m a big fan of the director Darren Aronofsky, especially The Fountain, which I consider to be a hugely under-rated gem.  One of the primary reasons the film works so well is the epic score by composer Clint Mansell, and played by the Kronos Quartet.  My knowledge of classical and world music is pretty limited, but I know what I like – and I was sorely tempted to fork out money to see them play at the Barbican earlier in the year.

And so I found myself on a beautifully baking day in Battersea, lying on the grass and enjoying some deeply weird yet melodic music.  The River of Music took place on the weekend of the 21st and 22nd of July, and consisted of six stages up and down the Thames playing music from different corners of the world.   These were: the Africa Stage at the London Pleasure Gardens, the Americas Stage at the Tower of London, the Europe stages at Trafalgar Square and Somerset House, the Oceania Stage down in Greenwich and the Asia Stage, which I was at, in Battersea Park

This was a very well-organised event, although possibly one that was not exactly over-subscribed.  Even turning up a few hours after it opened on a gorgeous day, there didn’t seem to be that many people there.  Right near the stage there were large empty green patches of grass to lie upon, there was no queue for the bar and there were enough Portaloos for five times the amount of people around.  I can hardly complain about this, from a punters perspective it’s nice to be able to wander around and not have to wait for anything, but after taking a wander past innumerable food vans filled with bored looking staff while unwanted burgers sizzled beyond edibility you couldn’t help but get the feeling they were expecting bigger crowds.  Hopefully the place filled up after I’d left, and the event was judged as worthwhile.

Arun Ghosh
I arrived in the middle of Arun Ghosh’s set.  His Arkestra Makara was in full swing, and it was a pretty damn pounding swing.  He danced around at the front of stage, playing wildly on what I assume was a clarinet.  Looking across the stage, with its panoply of members from around the world it’s a fun game to try and work out how many instruments you can identify – and the answer was not much.  Looking at the lineup afterwards, you realise just how eclectic this orchestra is, containing bizarre sounding instruments like the kulintang, the sarunay, the drangyen, the morsing and (my favourite) the geomungo. Reading lists like this makes you realise that the label of world music is so mind-boggling diverse that putting it all under the same umbrella seems like a childish oversimplification.  Still, the park seemed to contain a large proportion of London’s world music fans who were presumably buzzing in anticipation of a blistering geomungo solo. 

A geomungo
Also on stage with Ghosh’s orchestra was the Morpeth School big band, ‘Urban Playground’ from Tower Hamlets, further adding to the huge amount of people playing this dizzying variety of instruments.  This music is very hard to categorise, sounding like a cross between really intense jazz and big, dance music style beats, among other styles.  All of this was a bit of a (not unpleasant) sensory overload as the sun raged overhead.

Before I talk about Kronos Quartet, I have to briefly mention Hardeep Singh Kohli, who, with Nikki Bedi was acting as host of the event.  Being told to improvise jokes about different types of world music is a tough proposition for anyone, but Kolhi rose to the occasion with aplomb, and was very, very funny.  I particularly liked his joke about zithers:

“Vân-Ánh Võ is up next, and she’s brought along her big zither for this performance!  She’s left her baby zither looking after the kids.”

Cheesy?  Yes.  But you try thinking of a joke about zithers on the spot.

Kronos Quartet
What was I expecting from the Kronos Quartet?  I’d pre-emptively listened to some of their contemporary work online before I came, so I didn’t have expectations that they’d be doing a Clint Mansell greatest hits session. This being an Asia themed music event I expected a set of modern classical music, and considering this was billed as a collaboration with Vân-Ánh Võ, that it’d be mainly Vietnamese in origin.  I was quite pleased that they began on stage as just the quartet, playing songs with quite scary sounding names like ‘Oh Mother, the Handsome Man Tortures Me’, and even playing some of the epic and ominous sounding music that had put them on my radar in the first place.  Their methodical and almost mathematically precise style seems to automatically imbue everything they do with a sense of importance, if you had to choose a string quartet to play out the end of the world, I think you could do a lot worse than the Kronos Quartet.  Much of their music is melodic and fairly calming, but conversely they’re not afraid to make a bonkers sounding, dissonant racket at times.  One song was so loud and crazily over the top I couldn’t help but wonder if the families sitting around eating picnics were starting to wonder if they’d made a terrible mistake.

They were so enjoyable that I was almost wishing that Vân-Ánh Võ would be unavoidably delayed, and we’d get a set of pure Kronos.  In retrospect, this wouldn’t have been half as good as what we got. Vân-Ánh Võ is a mesmerisingly awesome, and Emmy award winning zither player (among other instruments), and someone who is not only fascinating to hear, but fun to watch.  My entire exposure to zithers up to this point was the soundtrack to The Third Man, so I associated zithers with laid-back cool. Vân-Ánh takes  it to a whole other level.  She moves about that zither with the crazy self-confidence of someone who’s completely mastered an instrument, it’s pretty inspiring stuff.

Van-Anh Vo with zither
She later moves onto various other instruments, at one point banging a huge drum with big sticks while a pot of change dances crazily on top.  Kronos, being a string quartet are somewhat static on stage, it’s hard to dance while playing a cello after all. Vân-Ánh, on the other hand is energetic, striking poses behind them, focussed, iconic looking and always giving it her all.  The music has a strange psychedelic trancey quality to it, and dotted around the field were hippie looking girls showing off some blissed out loose limbed dancing.  The lovely weather and the tripped out music had a cool ‘Summer of Love’ style sixties feel to it.  People were meandering around in kaftans, Vân-Ánh was going mental on a zither, someone was blowing bubbles that glinted in the clear sunlight!  These are the kinds of times that you want to remember – I lay back, closed my eyes and soaked up the sun, deeply enjoying myself.

They closed, somewhat unexpectedly, with a Bob Dylan cover, ‘Don’t Think Twice It’s Alright’.  This was a little confusing, what they played sounded nothing like any version of that song I’d ever heard.  Vân-Ánh was playing what appeared to be some exotic variety of Theremin to the gently modulating Phillip Glass sounding strings of Kronos.  It was a little distracting trying to figure out exactly what part of the song they were playing, and how it bore any resemblance to the original.  I eventually gave up trying to identify it as a Dylan piece and just enjoyed the music gently drifting my way.

I had a prior commitment on the South Bank that I had to zoom off for after this, so I didn’t get to see how the rest of the night panned out.  I would have liked to have seen Zakir Hussein (the best tabla player in the world!), but I can live without it.  Well done the organisers for putting such a nice, free and varied concert on.  A perfect way to spend a sunny Sunday afternoon in London.

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