Monday, July 18, 2011

The Fleshquartet (Sweden) performs Steve Reich's "Different Trains" and their own composition "Tears Apart" at the Tower of David Museum of Jerusalem

As the sun was setting over the Old City of Jerusalem, we entered the Tower of David Museum via the Jaffa Gate on July 16th, 2011. The banalities of daily life were suddenly left way behind as we negotiated Jerusalem’s Citadel, the imposing walls of the city’s medieval fortress looming above, below and around us as we descended and mounted the wooden castle moat steps in awe-struck silence on our way to the recently opened Kishle Prison. Jerusalem’s long and eventful history was paramount. The Kishle Prison was built by Ottoman Turks in the mid 1800’s; it later served as a British jail, housing Jewish- and Arab prisoners up to the establishment of the State of Israel in 1948. A decade ago, archeologists dug below the prison, finding important remains dating back three millennia that included walls built by King Herod and medieval facilities for dyeing fabrics. The infamous Kishle landmark was especially renovated and reopened in July 2011 to serve as the venue of an unusual and extraordinary artistic event of the Jerusalem Season of Culture.

Entering the minimally lit, rectangular hall, the audience is seated around the walls. Islands of large glass vessels are visible, many of the tear-shaped glass vessels also hanging from the ceiling. A podium for the players is positioned between the islands of glass. The glass installation was created by Ann Wåhlström (b.1957, Stockholm). Film screens are situated on the two far walls. We were to hear two works performed by the award-winning Fleshquartet (Sweden), an (often) electric quartet whose musical styles range from classical string music to experimental rock; members of the quartet are Christian Olsson-sampled violin, Örjan Högberg-viola, Mattias Helldén-‘cello and Sebastien Öberg-‘cello.

The first work was Steve Reich’s “Different Trains”. One of America’s greatest living composers, Reich (b.1936, New York) has been a leading pioneer of Minimalism, in his youth breaking away from the “establishment” (serialism). He studied, among a variety of other disciplines, the Gamelan, African drumming and the chanting of the Hebrew scriptures, embracing non-western harmonies and American vernacular music. Composed in 1988, “Different Trains” evolved from the sound and rhythm of trains, familiar to Reich from an early age. The work is semi-autobiographical, the speech overlay being phrases taken from Reich’s interviews with Virginia (the composer’s governess, who had taken him on the many train trips between his divorced parents), Lawrence Davis (a retired Pullman porter) and three Holocaust survivors. The direction, concept and set design for the “Different Trains” performances at the Tower of David Museum is by Pia Forsgen of The Jewish Theater, Stockholm. The production’s state-of-the-art synchronization includes computer screen music stands.

Constructed of repetitive fragments, this is the first work in which Reich uses music extracted from speech-melody patterns that are woven into a continuous musical texture of live and pre-recorded string quartets, over-layered with harsh, metallic train noise. In three concise movements, the composer contrasts the cross-continent trains of his childhood with the cattle trucks to Auschwitz. On the screens, we view black-and-white slides of trains and of people crowding to alight them in the Holocaust. Specially designed lighting units bring out refractions of different colors in the glass vessels, which light up according to the work’s content – red, when, for example, when the text talks about the Nazi camps.
‘Flames going up to the sky – it was smoking.’
Each audience member is obliged to grapple alone with the intense and urgent musical score and effects in a hall basically plunged into eerie darkness, the various lighting effects attracting one’s eye to the glistening, icy, motionless tear-drop glass pieces at least as often as to the screens. Suddenly the recorded audial effects cease and the quartet is left to play on alone:
‘…and the war was over.
“Are you sure?”
“The war is over.” ’
The railway rhythms then commence once more, this time to describe lively train movement in post-war America. The screen now shows slides in color. The work ends with the poignant reminder of a Jewish girl with a beautiful singing voice:
‘and they loved to listen to the singing, the Germans
And when she stopped they said
“more, more” and they applauded.’
In this dark and compelling piece, Reich concludes by reminding us that the Germans’ artistic awareness constituted a haunting and horrific contrast to their actions.

“Different Trains” was immediately followed by the Fleshquartet’s own recently composed work “Tears Apart”, a commentary and reflection on Reich’s “Different Trains”. Utilizing the glass installation, the instrumentalists leave their podium to produce sound effects, such as that of the rubbing of rims of water-filled glasses, the playing of a set of chimes mounted on hanging glass vessels, a percussive maracas effect from shaking a glass piece filled with stones, etc. Colors and simple designs were projected onto the screens. With the players gradually returning to the podium, the water glass drone was eventually replaced by a low electronic synthesized ‘cello throbbing buzz. Then, unexpectedly, we suddenly find ourselves floating together with an inebriating and nostalgic melody. This is followed by many rapid mood- and style changes: jazzy, cool moments and zingy percussion, music reflecting a gentle, vulnerable mood, rock music, and more. In a conversation with Swedish writer Aris Fioretos, Pia Forsgen says “It was important that Different Trains be followed by Tears Apart. I wanted to let go of the high tension that Reich maintains… I also wanted them (members of the Fleshquartet) to restore a strong sense of joy to the audience – sensualism, hope, playfulness.”

The Fleshquartet is a highly intelligent and versatile ensemble, its performance breathing accuracy deep searching into the meaning of music and art. The program was unique, creative and superbly performed. It was powerful - a moving and unforgettable experience.

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