Music from 4 Fences
the kronos fence
Download David Harrington on MUSIC FROM 4 FENCES. Interview by US film maker Steve Elkins.
When I started to play concerts on fences in 1983, I saw fences purely in terms of sonic material. Indeed, that was the conceit: Australia was not covered with millions of miles of fences - it was criss-crossed with a network of string instruments waiting to be bowed.
However, the metaphorical significance of fence music soon became evident. As symbol and tool of division, conquest, ownership, hegemony, and paranoia, you cannot find a better exemplar of the species problem. As the earth's resources collapse under our imposed weight, new fences are required, and old ones need to be reinforced.
To find music in such inherently ugly and unlikely artefacts can be a powerful experience. Fence music often encapsulates the vastness of border country; it is the music of distance. The fence also challenges our perceptions of what a musical instrument can be.
For some years now, I have been looking to expand the project and convince other string players to get involved. It is a risky business playing a fence. Apart from the possibility that a border guard might try to shorten your life, classically trained musicians are not usually game enough to exchange a tried and tested violin for the unreliable response of fence wire or even barbed wire. If you think about it, there is only one group in the world who would be willing to put themselves on the line for a project utilising industrial strength wire. When David Harrington said that he wanted Kronos involved, I was delighted.
Making fence music happen for the Kronos String Quartet presented some interesting practical problems that I previously never had to contend with. Normally my partner Hollis Taylor and I play fences in situ or build a fence in a public space where it is installed for several weeks. The Kronos fence would have to function on a concert stage (no drilling of holes), be self supporting, be erected and dismantled for one night only, and, in a world of increasingly expensive air travel, be as light as possible. It would, however, still have to contain the sonic essence of an outback or border fence. The solution is a modular one: Music from 4 Fences with each member of Kronos playing their own personal fence.
A fence comes with its own innate theatre - everyone knows what a fence is and what it is for - ordinarily not for concert music! Music for 4 Fences takes advantage of the unique set of images available from the wire and metal fence posts being played live on stage. Barbed wire is iconic and overwhelming in its host of received associations. Invented in the 1860s, barbed wire is as old as the music of Brahms. Further images for the composition derive from archetypal border fences that entwine and entangle our world - a smorgasbord of political and imperial screw-ups.
Playing music on fences will not get rid of them or the causes for their existence. The fence, after all, is considered a practical success story. The future of fences is assured, as new technology is harnessed. Witness the new invisible fences, that deliver a sharp shock to hapless human or cow.
Currently there are many debates about the origins of music - what is it for? Does it still have a function? Those who hear Music from 4 Fences will never look at a fence in quite the same way again.
Jon Rose 2008
When I first heard a recording of Jon Rose bowing the barbed wire rabbit fences of Australia six years ago, I could not believe my ears. The variety of sounds and range of musical color that a bass bow can get out of a barbed wire fence, combined with the intensity and expressiveness of those sounds, led me to conclude that Jon had uncovered a new and widely prevalent musical instrument. I determined that Kronos needed to learn to play this instrument, and that we had to bring it into our concerts.
The idea that musicians can turn objects of confinement, detainment and violence into musical instruments has inspired me since I first heard the fence music of Jon Rose. Through our concerts, Kronos attempts to make statements about our world. That we are surrounded by fences seems to be an essential part of the time we live in. There might be a way to transform the nature of fences, by bowing them. We will try.
David Harrington 2008
World Premiere at The Sydney Opera House 5th June 2009.
Just LOVED last night's performance at Sydney Opera House. The Rose premiere with the fences was wild. If you ever re-do Visual Music, include this!
Last night in Melbourne was a truly awesome experience. You guys blow everything else out of the water. The fence segment was one of the most exciting concert experiences I've ever had the pleasure of witnessing. I sincerely hope that there is a recording being made of The Music for 4 Fences. They sound like synthesizers! Amazing. I wish I had a fence instrument. I hope to see you guys in Melbourne again soon. Keep up the good work.
The fences performance was outstanding - the best innovation in music performance I've seen since Tan Dun's water and paper concertos.
Thank you so much for the spectacular performance in Sydney last night. The fence playing was an incredible mind explosion of utterly sublime sounds! kudos Jon Rose xxxxx
You were amazing last night. your back must hurt though from all that bowing
The concert was fantastic, and the Music for 4 Fences a completely overwhelming experience. I just had no idea how powerful it would be. That first plucked string! Better not hear fence music on CD or on-line; it has about the same relationship to the real thing as listening to an organ CD and hearing it played in situ in a cathedral. You known, from where I was sitting, I could actually see that string vibrating from the nodal point? And the percussive aspect, was so great to see that, rather than just hear it in the abstract. I had thought of the fence as a one-stringed instrument. Wrong again. To hear four fences, vertically strung, multi-stringed, was an experience of a lifetime. Are Kronos recording the piece?
Jon Rose is the Jascha Heifetz of fence music!