About seven and a half minutes into the ten-minute "Mother," the final piece on the Balanescu Quartet's 1994 CD Luminitza, violinist Alexander Balanescu almost inaudibly murmurs the word mother several times under the sound of the quartet's gently cradling strings. His voice provides a peaceful catharsis, both child and man letting go. Simultaneously mournful and beautiful, that passage deftly encapsulates Luminitza, an ambitious and challenging 50-minute new-music concept album that examines the dramatic changes that have washed over string quartet founder Alexander Balanescu's native Romania since the country's abrupt revolution in December of 1989.
Part lament, part celebration, Luminitza, which means "small light" in Romanian, taps into various Eastern European folk musics, Philip Glass-like repetitions, and contemporary rock instrumentation and techniques (spare keyboards and percussion, Balanescu's occasional pod-people spoken-word "vocals," even a sampled snippet of a speech by deposed Romanian communist leader Nicolae Ceausescu) to convey the nation's sometimes painful start-stop transformation from stagnated socialist satellite to confused consumerist democracy. It also stretches and morphs the concept of the traditional string quartet, a process Balanescu and his collaborator, violinist Clare Connors, initiated several years ago. (The quartet will perform most of Luminitza during its Subtropics New Music Festival appearance at Miami-Dade Community College.)
"Because I felt so strongly about some of the issues, I felt I had to exorcise something," says Balanescu, laughing heartily during a phone interview from his home in London. Now 40 years old, Balanescu spent his first fourteen years living in Romania, leaving in 1969, when his family moved to Israel. In 1971 he relocated to London to study violin, and except for the four years he attended the Juilliard School in New York City in the late Seventies, he has resided in London ever since. In 1992 he returned to Romania's capital, Bucharest, to perform with his quartet. "This visit left a very strong impression on me," he explains, his English filtered through a distinct Romanian accent. "The idea began to grow to make an album to reconnect myself to that culture. I realized more and more how important that background A both cultural background and musical background A was when I grew up. And I wanted to make something commenting on my feelings about the changes in Eastern Europe in general, and in Romania in particular."
Those comments sometimes come across as critical and cynical, most notably during Balanecsu's spoken-word segments on "Democracy" and "Revolution." Set against his and Connors's keening violins, Balanescu, drained of emotion, chants on the former, "We want to change the name/We have to change the name/It can't be too new/Or they won't know who," and then later, "We want to change the name/We have to change the name/It can't be too much the same/Or we'll have to take the blame." In effect, "Meet the new boss/Same as the old boss." On the mechanistic "Revolution," accompanied by beats, chirping piano, sawing strings, and industrial whirs, buzzes, and hisses, Balanescu blithely chants, "Revolution is great/It's fun/It gives us something to look forward to/Finally, something exciting to watch on telly."
"My feeling going there was that, in fact, not much had changed," notes Balanescu. "People are able to talk about things now, which is very important, very positive. But there were the same people in power in a way. And a feeling that the revolution hasn't happened yet, that it needs another. Although the album seems quite cynical and sad, I came away optimistic, because I felt there is a tremendous humanity in the people, which is also very positive."
That hope, that luminitza, seeps through elsewhere on the album, particularly on the deeply affecting sixteen-minute title song and the whispering, phased eight-minute "Still With Me," which adapt various Eastern European folk musics (Hungarian, Albanian, Romanian) and the sounds of Transylvanian string bands as rhythmic and melodic elements. Balanescu says that he and Connors incorporated these elements into their compositions after listening extensively to field recordings. As for Connors's three short, looplike "oompah" pieces A "Chain," "Link," "Link Again" A they function as bridges between the longer works, imparting a sense of time passing, as Romania moves from workaday Eastern bloc nation to its current ball-of-confusion state. "It's complete chaos," sighs Balanescu. "It's everyone for himself or herself. In a way, there have been too many freedoms at once, and people don't know how to use these freedoms."
In addition to the self-exorcism he hoped Luminitza would provide, Balanescu points out that the work "was also an attempt to make people aware of Romania again, because it was very much in the news around the time of the revolution, but then people forgot about it completely."
The project also marks the first time his quartet has recorded an entire album of original material. "I've always been aiming to be a more complete musician," Balanescu explains, "not just a performer but also writing." Accordingly, he formed his own quartet in 1987 after playing violin with the Arditti Quartet. Since that time, Balanescu and Connors have rethought the nature of the string quartet, writing and performing their own material while occasionally recasting the instrumentation in somewhat rockist terms by using the violins as guitars, the viola for keyboardlike texture, and the cello for rhythm. "There are many really good string quartets around," says Balanescu, "so we have to establish a very particular identity, something which nobody else does."
Beyond recording their own compositions and works by twentieth-century new music composers John Cage, Luigi Nono, and Michael Nyman, the Balanescu Quartet has played with prog-pop deity Kate Bush and the droll Pet Shop Boys, as well as with a bevy of jazz musicians, including saxophonists John Surman and John Lurie, pianist Keith Tippett, and drummer Jack DeJohnette.
Three years ago, Balanescu and Connors broke completely with convention by recording Possessed, a collection of three original Balanescu compositions and avant-pop covers (five songs by German electro-rockers Kraftwerk, one by David Byrne). "I just got this crazy idea," Balanescu remembers, referring to the Kraftwerk covers. "Somehow I had a feeling that it might work, because their music has a classical quality to it, not very overproduced like techno music is nowadays. Very simple, very compelling melody, a strong bass line. I had a feeling it would translate in an interesting way to a string quartet."
Well, sort of. While the covers of Kraftwerk's "hits" A"Autobahn," "Model," "Pocket Calculator" A radiate a certain perverse charm at first, ultimately they sound a bit like novelty tunes, recalling several similar pop experiments from the 1960s, such as the Aranbee Pop Symphony Orchestra (a bizarre Keith Richards side project) and The Man From U.N.C.L.E. actor David McCallum's Music A A Part of Me, both from 1966. Still, Kraftwerk liked them well enough. "We got a fax from them, which is very typical," Balanescu laughs, alluding to the Germans' well-documented fondness for electronic gizmos. "They wrote they really liked what we did, which was very lucky."
Along with the bulk of Luminitza, the Balanescu Quartet will perform some of those Kraftwerk songs and, very likely, David Byrne's "Hanging Upside-Down" during its Subtropics concert. While Connors won't haul along her keyboards, Balanescu says he will speak the aforementioned text on "Democracy" and "Revolution." The quartet also will be augmented by some prerecorded percussion.
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After this five-city U.S. minitour, Balanescu and Connors will begin writing the quartet's next album of original material, which has been delayed owing to recent commissions to compose music for a contemporary dance piece by an Italian company and to score Angels and Insects, the new film by American indie director Philip Haas, who made 1993's quirky and unsettling The Music of Chance. "Perhaps it will have again a kind of political theme to it," says Balanescu. "I'm not sure yet exactly."
As for the quartet's restless evolution from strictly new music performers to composers working in a variety of disciplines and collaborating with avant-garde, jazz, and pop musicians, Balanescu says with an aural shrug, "I've always been interested in areas of music which are in-between categories, which try to stretch one category or another. I don't want to give that up. And I like very much the idea that, really, these categories are a little bit artificial. What's important is whether the music is good or not, especially if it communicates, if it's expressive. I think our music is expressive."
The Balanescu Quartet performs at 8:00 p.m. Saturday at Miami-Dade Community College's Wolfson campus auditorium, 300 NE Second Ave; 758-6676. Admission is free.