REVIEW: Beyond Zero: 1914-1918 (Edinburgh International Festival)

*****

As distorted film footage from the First World War melts and warps on a cinema-sized screen at the back of the Edinburgh Festival Theatre’s stage, Aleksandra Vrebalov’s composition swells, increasing in intensity until it becomes a hypnotic trance of strings, played live by the Kronos Quartet.

Bill Morrison’s film contains barely surviving footage captured on decaying nitrate stock, depicting fleeting glimpses of the impact of war upon humanity and the earth. Often featuring training exercises or footage staged specifically for the camera, the scenes are not harrowing, but – through their summoning of long-vanished spirits of the time – no less moving. Vrebalov’s composition is interspersed with contemporary recordings, adding yet more haunting layers to Beyond Zero: 1914-1918‘s sensory experience. With Kronos Quartet’s precision yet impassioned performance, the overall effect is at once unsettling and mesmerising.

Preceding Beyond Zero: 1914-1918 is Prelude To A Black Hole, Kronos Quartet’s recital of a series of pieces composed during and in response to the Great War. As with Vrebalov’s piece, the music is woven around recordings from the time, blending together into a symphony which commemorates the conflict. Ranging from compositions by Ravel and Rachmaninov to the jarring eccentricity of Stravinsky’s Three Pieces For Quartet, Kronos Quartet also demonstrate their redoubtable versatility by including traditional pieces plucked on their instruments and one emotive segment where they accompany a scratchy 78rpm recording.

Beyond Zero: 1914-1918 ends with the fading chimes of a pair of gongs as flitting images of biplanes melt into the darkness. What has preceded the departure of these century-old ghosts is a moving evocation of all the complexities of war: of how conflict affects us all, and – through Kronos Quartet’s elegiac performance of Vrebalov’s moving composition – how humanity responds.

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