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Review: In defiance of Trump, Kronos Quartet plays music from banned countries

Review: In defiance of Trump, Kronos Quartet plays music from banned countries
Mahsa Vahdat, center, with the Kronos Quartet (left to right, David Harrington, John Sherba, Hank Dutt and Sunny Yang) performing its "Music for Change: The Banned Countries" program at UC Santa Barbara's Campbell Hall on Tuesday night (David Bazemore /Arts & Lectures, UCSB)

Have you ever had the experience of being in the car, tuning into a radio station and coming across music you’ve never heard before that starts to take over your being? Your attention is intriguingly focused in your own enclosed bubble. You never find out what it was you were listening to. It is music only of the moment but somehow a timeless experience.

The Kronos Quartet’s program “Music for Change: The Banned Countries,” Tuesday night at Campbell Hall at UC Santa Barbara, felt like that, with the added attraction of driving in distant lands.

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The political context of the program, part of UCSB’s Arts & Lectures series, was the quartet’s reaction to the 2017 executive orders restricting entry to the U.S. from certain Muslim-majority countries. Among the victims have been touring artists. “Music,” to quote a statement in the program note, “provides an irrefutable response to those seeking to divide and demonize peoples.”

And yet pieces from Middle Eastern and African nations, along with a set of songs sung by the Iranian vocalist Mahsa Vahdat (and the manner in which they were presented) offered no overt political message. Rather, this was a journey of discovery for which the audience couldn’t quite be prepared.

With the house lights down, it was not possible to read the program and thus keep track of what came from Syria, Egypt, Afghanistan, Somalia, Palestine or elsewhere. The arrangements of traditional material for string quartet tended to be imaginative, thus changing the context further. The meaning of the songs in Vahdat’s half-hour set with Kronos accompaniment was indecipherable to non-Arabic speakers.

One, therefore, listened lost but with wonderment easily replacing bewilderment. However counterintuitive this may seem, listening without immediate cultural context makes borders meaningless, which, when you think about it, couldn’t be more shrewdly political.

The program itself had a ritualistic feel. A quiet mixtape of street sounds and music from the regions was background before the concert and between pieces created the sensation of being there, as though these were distant sounds coming from an open window. The quartet’s cellist, Sunny Yang, entered the empty darkened stage barely seen, like a shadow. She played a barely audible drone that got raspier as it got louder, allowing the others (violinists David Harrington and John Sherba and violist Hank Dutt) to make their own stealthy entrances.

Combine all that sneaking around with the very fact that when something is banned it automatically becomes interesting and pretty much grabs the attention of any audience.

As the most far-ranging ensemble geographically, nationally and stylistically the world has known, the Kronos was easily within its comfort zone. All the works were either written for or arranged for the quartet, and it has been playing some of the composers and pieces for years. But others were new. Ban a country, and the Kronos’ first response has always been to book a plane ticket and find a composer to entice to write the group a piece.

Yang’s subterranean cello drone introduced the purring, pleading, longing cello opening of Azerbaijani composer Franghiz Ali-Zadeh’s “Mugam Sayagi,” which was written for the Kronos 25 years ago and is the title track of the quartet’s 2005 Ali-Zadeh CD. Soon the whole the quartet was purring and pleading until things got powerfully dramatic and then sensual.

More commonly secular and the spiritual remained in separate compartments. At one extreme there was Stephen Prutsman’s luscious arrangement of the traditional Lebanese Arab-Christian Easter hymn “Wa Habibi.”

At the other, scouring Cairo’s underground Arab rock scene led to Islam Chipsy’s Cairo band, EEK, and his “Zaghlala,” written for the quartet’s ongoing “50 for the Future” project. That consists of commissioning 50 works from composers, famed and emerging, from all around the world to write music designed to teach student quartets new techniques. So far 25 of the scores are available to download for free from the Kronos website, and thousands have done so from 81 countries and four territories.

The ritual continued with the likes of works from Ramallah Underground, a Palestinian musical collective; the Syrian folk-pop star Omar Souleyman; the Somali Dur-Dur Band; Iranian violinist Aftab Darvishi’s “Winds From South”; and the late Nubian composer Hamza El Din’s “Water Wheel,” long a Kronos favorite. Styles changed, piece to piece. String instruments were played every which way. Gongs were stuck. Drums and tambourines employed.

There was music made for dancing, made for praying, made for the ardor of romance and its pain, for mourning, for the Arab Spring. There were intricacies and meanings here we all surely missed. In that regard, music is not the international language it is so often claimed to be. But create the right atmosphere, play with the fervor of the Kronos and make arrangements that serve as something at least approaching the equivalent of Google Translate, and banned countries don’t seem threatening.

More meaning was missed with Vahdat’s numbers. She is an alluring, descriptive singer. Her manner suggested strong expression of each word. Still, the sheer seductiveness of her voice and style proved compelling. The question arises, how was she able to perform here? From Tehran, she’s now lives in the Bay Area.

An answer to the bigger question — how does the Kronos, which has premiered more than 1,000 pieces over the last 45 years, do it? — may come from the “A Thousand Thoughts,” an interactive documentary film about the ensemble. UCLA’s Center for the Art of Performance presents it Friday night at the Theatre at Ace Hotel with Kronos performing live.

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