Visual Bombshells Overwhelm Music In Tribute to WWI

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The Kronos Quartet continued its four decades of exploration with the premiere of 'Beyond Zero: 1914-1918.'
The Kronos Quartet  continued four decades of exploration with the multimedia premiere of ‘Beyond Zero: 1914-1918.’
Current members are David Harrington, Sunny Yang, Hank Dutt and John Sherba. (Jay Blakesberg)
By Jeff Dunn

BERKELEY, Cal. – The gravity of World War I, the Jupiter of the solar system of modern wars, certainly deserves commemoration during the centenary of its onset. Helmets off to the Kronos Quartet, celebrating its own 40th anniversary, for producing a concert devoted to the war’s remembrance on April 6 at the University of California Berkeley’s Hertz Hall. Why the concert was not more successful, given the considerable thought and effort put into it, is best explained by a story:

Samuel Barber’s classic Adagio for Strings, which has officially graced the passing of notables such as Franklin D. Roosevelt, Albert Einstein, and John F. Kennedy, is a major elegiac element in the soundtrack of Platoon, which won the Academy Award for Best Film in 1986. But when I asked a good friend how he liked the music after seeing the film, he replied, “Was there music?” The film was so dramatic, the fact that there was accompanying music – however recognizable and powerful – was psychologically undetectable.

Composer Aleksandra Vrebalov and filmmaker Bill Morrison teamed up on the new work.
‘Beyond Zero’ has music of Aleksandra Vrebalov, film of Bill Morrison.

The pièce de résistance of the Kronos evening faced a similar perceptual difficulty. The quartet’s commissioned world premiere of Beyond Zero: 1914-1918 was a collaboration between composer Aleksandra Vrebalov and filmmaker Bill Morrison. From the audience perspective, would the visual medium drown out the aural, even to insensibility?

Morrison’s 40-plus-minute film utilizes snippets selected from deteriorating 1914-18 reels housed in the National Audio-Visual Conservation Center in Culpepper, Va. None were shot during battles. Some were reenactments for the camera; most were training films or records of ceremonial occasions. Seeing variously preserved film cels pass by on the screen can be hypnotic for some, but it is nothing new. Morrison’s 67-minute film Decasia has much the same effect from different deteriorating source material. When I saw it 11 years ago, it put Michael Gordon’s music as much into the background as Vrebalov’s. A difference is that in Beyond Zero, a thin thread of meaning follows the chronology of the war–from vast numbers of troops going off on ships to war; to Tank No. 418 demonstrating how it can bowl over trees; to biplanes, with one crashing; and, finally, to a haunting image of a lone soldier swaying slowly down in a parachute: a faded offering to surviving generations.

Deteriorated film cel from Morrison's film in 'Beyond Zero 1914-1918' with cannon at left.
Deteriorated film cel, ‘Beyond Zero 1914-1918,’ with cannon at left.

As it turned out, the fascination of the film made the music seem almost irrelevant, despite a lack of inherent drama in the film and the well-modulated construction of Vrebalov’s music. The film prevailed due to its striking images and its hints of elusive meanings, and also to the lack of distinction in Vrebalov’s minimalistic approach to composition. How ironic: Morrison produced a film to accompany Vrebalov’s pre-composed music, but the music ended up accompanying the film.

Some of the sound effects had more import than the live music, though they were very difficult to discern in the mélange of media. Not all were vintage: There were the sounds of the film reel flitting through a projector; the sounds of Bosnian and Serbian military commands from the 1990s, and of air raid sirens from the London blitz. There was the 1917 speech by James Watson Gerard declaring that there were 501,000 lampposts to hang every traitor in the U.S. who took up arms with Germany.

Vrebalov’s music for the string quartet was sincere, mostly tonal, and sculpted to increase gradually in intensity along with the war footage, mainly via pedal points, tremolos, and glissandos. I found little to recommend it on its own: Like the belligerents, its goal was to come, saw (away), and conquer. Neither it nor the film does proper justice to the cause of the rest of the century’s tragedies. Other composers, authors, and poets should be consulted instead.

Charles Ives made an appearance via recording.
Charles Ives, in a recorded rant, made a concert appearance.

Fortunately, the first 45 minutes of the concert had more depth. Entitled “Prelude to a Black Hole,” the Kronos organized a series of short works and excerpts to characterize the foment in art preceding and continuing into the war. They included Stravinsky’s Three Pieces for String Quartet (1914), Ravel’s Trois beaux oiseaux du Paradis (1914-5), Anton Webern’s Six Bagatelles, Op. 9 (1911-13), an arrangement of a Byzantine chant, a piece on the Turkish eviç mode by Tanburi Cemil Bey (1873-1916), traditional Balkan music, a recorded rant by Charles Ives trying to sing his 1943 song “They Are There!”, and a final blessing by Rachmaninoff, the Nunc Dimittis from his 1915 All Night Vigil. The idiomatically rendered result, if hardly representative of everything that was going on – and lost – prior to the war, at least gave a flavor, and invited more acquaintance. Such could be had during an extensive seminar two days earlier and available for replay.

Jeff Dunn writes regularly for San Francisco Classical Voice.