Christopher Bernard reviews the Kronos Quartet at Zellerbach Hall

Wu Man performs with the Kronos Quartet (without cellist Paul Wiancko) (Photo by Stephen Kahn)

The Ghosts of Space and Time

Kronos Quartet and Wu Man (pipa)

Zellerbach Hall


After a winter of bomb cyclones and atmospheric rivers, the Kronos Quartet – the legendary San Francisco ensemble that reinvented the string quartet for our time – gave one of its most satisfying concerts in memory on a blissfully rainless first of April at Zellerbach Hall in Berkeley as part of Cal Performances. April Fool’s Day and the feast of Hilaria were soon forgotten in a concert that sent at least one person in the audience home wrapped in the mystery of other times and places.

It’s only fair to say that not all of the quartet’s many and various experiments in making the string quartet “relevant” come off. And sometimes my faith in new music has been tested. But tonight there were fewer distractions than revelations, all of the latter involving, and often led by, the quartet’s collaborator, Wu Man, a winsome, deeply gifted musician who makes difficulty seem as easy as dreaming.

Wu Man, it’s fair, if paradoxical, to say, is the world’s most renowned performer on an instrument almost nobody knows – the pipa. This lute-like instrument from China, with a long, thick neck and a pear-shaped belly, has a history going back two millennia. Both strummed and plucked, it added delicious bite and spice to the woody rosin and catgut of the western strings. Two of the concert’s revelations were composed Wu Man, working with American composer Danny Clay to transpose her musical inspirations into legible scores.

Glimpses of Muquam Chebiyat is adapted from the traditional Uyghur Muqam Chebiyat, which Wu Man discovered through the musicians Sanubar Tursun and Abdullah Majnun, members of this persecuted minority in China.

Awareness of the oppression of the Uyghur population makes the music even more poignant, but the political dimension is by no means needed to focus one’s attention. A soft and intensely lyrical melody, played with profound sensitivity by the quartet’s remarkable violist Hank Dutt, sets the tone for the first half of the piece and is passed and varied delicately between the five instruments. The second half is a dance, curiously in the classic western three-quarter’s meter, charged with the sharp plucking of the gleeful pipa.

Wu Man’s second piece was titled Two Chinese Paintings. The first short movement, called “Ancient Echo,” is graced with delicate arpeggios based on a pipa scale from ninth century China. The second is a variation of “Joy Song” (Huanlege) from a classic collection called “Silk and Bamboo” – a clattering, happy piece that, making few concessions to western scales and harmonies, drew out the most compelling, and totally unpredictable, joys.

The concert’s greatest revelation was saved for the second half, though perhaps I shouldn’t call it a revelation for myself, because I first heard it, with the same instrumentalists, many years ago in San Francisco, in a concert about which I now can say definitively that I will never forget it.  And yet, seeing and hearing it again was, if anything, a new revelation – of the ghosts of time and space, which seemed almost to vanish as I felt as though I were reliving the remarkable experience I had then.

The piece was one of the earliest works presented to American audiences by a composer who has become, if not a household name, at least a name to conjure with in contemporary music: Tan Dun, winner of too many awards to mention, and a leading conductor as well as composer. For me, Ghost Opera is one of the unquestionable masterpieces of contemporary music – a work of profoundly satisfying audacity.

The work is fully, yet economically, produced, on a stage that is almost completely dark, for string quartet, pipa, water, stones, paper (including a long swooping drape-like scroll, brightly lit, like the broken piece of a Chinese ideogram), metallic instruments including Chinese cymbals, watergongs, and a large pendent gong, and Chinse vocalizations from the instrumentalists, like wailing cries of the dead, the living, and the unborn.

There is no story as such, except for a set of variations, begun on David Harrington’s haunting violin, of a melody from Bach that is rendered both malleable and ghostlike as it winds through a gamut of transformations based on both western and Chinese scales, harmonies, and rhythms as it passes from player to player.

The stage is, as mentioned, almost entirely dark throughout, with pools of light above large glass bowls of water, where the water is performed in rituals of the cleansing of hands, and elsewhere lighting individual players, later in groups, then returning to individuals as they disperse and disband back into darkness and silence, “under the rule of Heaven.”

A tall narrow, translucent scrim stands in front of a riser, where, first, the cellist (a fine Paul Wiancko) is shown in dramatic shadow cast by a brilliant light at the back of the stage, and, later, where Wu Man stands, like a ghost just visible as she performs, sometimes responding to, sometimes leading, the more-earthbound quartet.

There is much imaginative use of space both onstage and off – for instance, in the first of the five seamless movements, the violist performs in the audience in response to solo violinist and pipa player at different corners of the stage like distant stars in a moonless night.

Tan Dun has stated that his inspiration for the piece was the “ghost operas” of China, a 4,000-year-old tradition in which the living, the dead and the unborn speak to each other across the boundaries of time and space.

The result was, again, an experience, both dramatic and musical, of unique intensity and beauty and of a profundity that lies at the far end of words – though Tan Dun uses, along with Bach’s music, the words of Shakespeare (famous lines from The Tempest: “We are such stuff / As dreams are made on. . . .”) – words that seemed almost unnecessarily specific, as the work as a whole both expresses them and contests them: if those works speak true, not even a ghost will survive – and yet we have just seen their power.

The concert began with a rousing work by the inventor of minimalism in music, Terry Riley: the first movement of The Cusp of Magic, where David Harrington plays a peyote rattle and second violinist John Sherpa plays pedal bass drum while grinding grandly away at his fiddle, and Wu Man keeps everyone sharp with her pipa. The piece was performed against a background of electronic music and sound sampling compiled by David Dvorin.

The first half of the program ended with the one piece in which Wu Man did not perform: Steve Reich’s Different Trains, a piece I felt overstayed its welcome and has not aged well, though the original concept was of interest.

The enthusiastic audience was provided a delightful encore after Tan Dun’s transcendent achievement: an arrangement for the evening’s ad-hoc quintet of Rahul Dev Burman’s Mehbooba Mehbooba (Beloved, O Beloved).

The audience left for home with the strange but striking sense of being deeply moved – and yet feeling very merry indeed.


Christopher Bernard is a co-editor and founder of Caveat Lector. He is also a novelist, poet and critic as well as essayist. His books include the novels A Spy in the Ruins, Voyage to a Phantom City, and Meditations on Love and Catastrophe at The Liars’ Café, and the poetry collections Chien Lunatique, The Rose Shipwreck, and the award-winning The Socialist’s Garden of Verses, as well as collections of short fiction In the American Night and Dangerous Stories for Boys.