Uniko: A Disappointing Work that Fails to Gel

United KingdomUnited Kingdom  Pohjonen/Kosminen Uniko The Kronos Quartet (David Carrington, John Sherba (violins), Hank Dutt (viola), Sunny Yong (cello)); Kimmo Pohjonen (accordion/voice); Samuli Kosminen (sampler). Barbican Hall, London 18.09.2013 (CC)


The Kronos Quartet will forever be known for its innovation and its staunch belief in the music of our time. It is inevitable that the music it plays is not always of the top rank, however, and here is the perfect example. This was the UK première of Uniko (2004) by Kimmo Pohjonen and Samuli Kosminen, a piece scored for string quartet, voice, accordion (played with primal force by Pohjonen) and sampler (Kosminen). There is a screen at the back, onto which are projected a series of screen savers. I’m as sure that we were not intended to experience them as screen savers as I am that that’s exactly what they looked like.

There is plenty of imagination to this seven-movement work in terms of sound and texture. Plenty of blowing, for example, and primal energy in spades from the imposing Wildman-of-the-forest-with-an-accordion that is Kimmo Pohjonen. Minimalist elements suddenly came into focus, and there were plenty of imaginative touches – the glassy sound of the quartet morphing into that of the accordion, for example. The second part, “Liuos”, seemed to home in on folk music, and provided a plateau from which the more strenuous sections could take off. After a while, though, the harmonic sameness became wearing and the only real entertainment was Pohjonen’s acrobatics with his instrument – at one point it really did look like he was going to take off.

Watching the video of another performance of this piece, some of Kosminen’s effects seemed to only half work. It was a notable moment when Pohjonen started singing as well as playing, his voice outlining melodies that seemed to stretch across the ages back to some pre-civilisation, like some sort of Cantus Firmus reaching across the aeons. Folk music informed, too, some of David Harrington’s impressive violin breaks. But over its span of some 75 minutes, it all failed to gel. The visceral effect of the sheer noise of the climaxes paled after a while, as did the nods to minimalism and, even, the sheer unremitting excellence of the performers themselves.

The programme booklet, if you can call it that, was risible, a photocopied sheet of A4 folded in half that stated that Uniko is scored for, and I quote, “accordion, voice, string quartet, and accordion and string quartet”. I’m not sure if that is code for something, whether it reflects some sort of sonic partitioning, or whether it’s just plain wrong. Probably the latter. Uniko is available on both compact disc (review) and on DVD, but home listening will inevitably lessen the visceral impact upon which the work so heavily relies. Disappointing.

Colin Clarke