- Uniko by Kimmo Pohjonen and Samuli Kosminen
If any group in the Classical firmament has the cache and hipster cool of acts in the popular music realm, it would be the Kronos Quartet. For forty years, Kronos has redefined the string quartet by focusing on newly composed works and cultivating a more relaxed image, the antithesis of most buttoned-downed and tuxedoed-up string quartets. Their style and curiosity about the world of music has influenced countless younger groups, from Ethel to the JACK Quartet, and has resulted in collaborations with everyone from Terry Riley to pipa virtuoso Wu Man to Azeri vocalist Alim Qasimov and even to Trent Reznor’s industrial rock project Nine Inch Nails.
Uniko is the result of just such a collaboration. As David Harrington tells the story in the fifteen-minute “Making of Uniko” included with the DVD, Kronos was playing in Finland when a reporter asked if they knew the accordionist Kimmo Pohjonen. After admitting they did not, recordings of Pohjonen’s music appeared backstage of their concert, and the quartet began listening with growing curiosity. They were fascinated with the way Pohjonen stretched conventional accordion boundaries through the addition of experimental compositional processes and digital technologies, and ultimately decided to commission a work. At the time, Pohjonen was enthralled by his Kluster project, working with sampling masters Samuli Kosminen and Jusso Hannukainen to create music described by one critic “like being inside an accordion tornado.” He began working with Kosminen on the Kronos commission, ultimately composing/crafting eight interconnected works under the umbrella title Uniko, a generic title that means variously, “unique” and “master of dreams.”
The music of Uniko is certainly dreamlike. Kosminen took samples of Kronos and Pohjonen and used them to create cycles of percussive sounds that he performs live on an electronic drum pad. He also live processes the instruments and Pohjonen’s voice during the performance to sculpt a massive sound, swelling the five instruments until they ring more powerfully than an orchestra. The musical material builds off the minimalistic repetitive processes Kosminen lays out through fragmented harmonies and lilting melodies reminiscent of Finnish folk music. Uniko is a hypnotic musical composition that succeeds in matching its prodigious ambition.
Fortunately, the best part of C Major’s DVD of the September 2004 Helsinki premiere is the sound. It reproduces the music’s overwhelming presence in a deep and clear 5.1 DTS mix that places the viewer at the concert. However, the visuals occasionally undermine that “you are there” feeling. In keeping with Kronos’s aesthetic, Pohjonen dresses and performs like a rock star, with a Mohawk and long leather kilt. Christian Kurt Weisz, the film’s director, took his cue from that look and created a music video for Uniko complete with fast zooms in and out, images that fade in and out of focus, and off-kilter camera angles. Since Uniko is multimedia in concert, with a carefully choreographed lighting scheme and projections on five screens behind the [End Page 169] musicians, the camera work keeps you from experiencing the entire stage picture. It also creates lags between the musician’s movements and the sounds you hear, causing a bit of discomfort for musicians watching the film.
These are minor complaints. Uniko is meant to be experienced in surround sound, making this DVD release far superior to the Ondine’s CD release in sound quality. As added bonuses, it also includes the movement “Liuos,” expanded versions of many other movements, and the “Making of Uniko” feature. Uniko is a path-breaking work, and experiencing it through the DVD is a welcome treat.