Kronos Quartet – Mỹ Lai (CD Review)

My Lai

Kronos Quartet

Smithsonian Folkways

In one of their most ambitious projects to date, the Kronos Quartet has recorded My Lai, an opera by composer Jonathan Berger (a professor at Stanford University) and librettist Harriet Scott Chessman, who has also written a libretto for Georg Friedrich Haas’ next opera. Singer Rinde Eckerdt and multi-instrumentalist Vân-Ánh Vanessa Vo ̃ have joined Kronos to create an East/West musical hybrid, with t’rưng, ​​​​đàn bầu and đàn tranh, traditional Vietnamese instruments, added to the instrumentation of the string Quartet.

The story of Mỹ Lai is one of brutality against civilians, over 500 killed by the US military in one village, and of an officer who sought to stem the massacre. Warrant Officer Hugh Thompson placed his helicopter between the disbelieving soldiers and non-combatants, to no avail. Later, he refused to remain silent about the massacre, leaving him an outcast for much of his life. Today we witness the bombing of civilians in Ukraine and call it what it is, a war crime. During the post-Vietnam era, there was enormous conflict over whether the United States was justified for its involvement in the war. Mỹ Lai became Exhibit A for those who felt that war crimes were never justifiable and that there had been a significant number of atrocities committed by Americans.

It’s a real operatic subject, and Berger integrates the different musical forces to accentuate the dramatic tension inherent in the story. The string quartet is provided with post-minimal figurations reminiscent of one of their works with Steve Reich. The strings often break off in plaintive counterpoint. Most compelling are the interludes in which Kronos and Vo ̃ play together, integrating their two technical skills into fascinating texture combinations. It should be noted that the quartet bridges the gap between West and East. Their considerable background in non-Western music is on display in their relentless display of slippery tones and strummed passages.

Eckerdt’s performance is gripping, with faithful reporting of unfolding events, aching high notes in passages urging his fellow soldiers to stop the slaughter, and sensitive piano vocals in thoughtful sections. Adding sequences of spoken words supports the narrative and adds another multimedia component to the piece.

Four decades later, collective memory is fading regarding the controversy over the atrocities of the conflict in Vietnam. Art can serve as a reminder, an exhortation not to forget the lives lost and the brutality committed. Berger and Chessman have created an opera that is as much about today as it is a valuable history lesson. Once again, Kronos has assumed a piece with great resonance for our society.

-Christian Carey

Jack L. Goldstein