Live at the LSU Union Theatre, Baton Rouge, LA 4/4/2005
In a rare rift in the culture/backwater barrier, I had an opportunity to see the famed Kronos Quartet but a mere two miles from my humble abode. Back in the day, my music elitism took the form of Classical Music Aficionado-ism (the most heinous kind, short of Jazz Snobbery), with a specialization in fertilizing minimalists and obscure American composers, so the Kronos Quartet took up considerable shelf space on my CD rack, being that they seemed to be the on-call string quartet service providers for the likes of Terry Riley and Steve Reich. And, since they probably one of the only classical groups people buy on a whim in any kind of quantity, so they ended up at used CD stores a lot.
Kronos sits at an interesting junction of classical and popular music. One one hand, they are one of the more rigorously experimental units out there, forgoing the usual fare of Beethoven and and Brahms for contemporary composers and reinterpretation of a worldwide range of folk music with delicacy, respect and undeniable talent. On the other hand, their sheer accessibility is almost an affront to the standards of High Culture. They show up on the boards in what can best be described as "stage casual" - slacks, untucked comfortable shirts and in lead violinist David Harrington's case, a less than stylish sports coat and a bird's nest up on his head. He takes to the mic between pieces to calmly and warmly introduces and synopsizes each piece before thy play it, which I think is a nice humanizing touch for a classical performance, instead of having an audience trying to scour their programs in the dark and keep track of which movement of which arithmetically named piece they are on. Phillip Glass did the same thing at a piano recital of his I attended about 10 years ago. They have dramatic, shifting lighting throughout their performance, as opposed to the usually static presentation of chamber music. And for all their experimentation, they manage to put together a program of legitimately interesting and non-pandering music that is welcome enough for their audience, who I suspect a large percentage of which are attending their first classical performance ever.
The performance opened with contemporary Australian composer Peter Sculthorpe's "Jabiru Dreaming", a polyrhythimc clockwork of mantra-like strings accented by shifting seagull-like sounds emanating from each player dragging their fingers up the neck, to follow it with an excellent droney piece from the Ottoman Empire's most famous composer Tanburi Celim Bey. In the past, the classical Music Aficionado in me had written off Kronos for all this armchair tourism, deeming them the concert hall equivalent of Pier 1 Imports, but seeing them live, I humbly retract these opinions. They approached both of these pieces, composed nearly a century apart with the same dedication and truly made them come uniquely alive.
The first half included a brace of pieces using an electronic accompaniment to great effect. With Azerbaijani composer Franghiz Ali-Zadeh's "Oasis," the group played against a tape of water dripping, mimicking it with plucked strings. As the tape built up to gasping voices their intensity built along with it. The second was a suite from the score they provided for the haunting film "Requiem for a Dream." Clint Mansell's techno-esque backing tape was a platform for the quartet to brilliantly recreate the devastating anxiety and gravity of the film. I had a hard time not picturing Ellen Burstyn's circuits finally blowing out, or that flashlight scene while listening to it.
As a relief, they closed their first set with a rendition of Icelandic critical darlings (and favorites-of-Radiohead-members) Sigur R??s' "Flugufrelsarinn" from their breakthrough album ?Åg?¶tis Byrjun. (If you haven't heard that album, go get it now. Its the one with the alien baby graphic on the cover.) They captured the glacial and majestic grandeur of the band superbly, giving it possibly even more depth than the original. Also, in an ironic twist, the scoring of a rock band's music was the most "string quartet-y" sounding piece of the evening. Just beautiful.
The second half opened with the crowd favorite, the alternately grating and hilarious "Cat O' Nine Tails (Tex Avery Directs the Marquis De Sade)" by new York Free Jazz-racket icon John Zorn. This was a particular treat for me, since, like many music nrrds, I am a big fan of John Zorn's erratic blender concoctions of jazz, noise, cartoon revelry and insane fury, and this was my first time to hear something by him performed live. The recorded versions don't hold a candle to the furious live version, where each popped bow-string (Harrington had three that I counted) and goofy fart sound dragged out of the viola is given its momentary spotlight. They returned to tape backing for the final two program pieces, one being an over the top tabla and cheesy synth tornado form Indian film composer Utthchhe Dhnoa . The ended the evening's program with a stellar performance of on of their signature pieces, Steve Reich's "Triple Quartet", featuring the group playing against two recordings of themselves playing parts 1 through 8. Kronos has been a brilliant interpreter of Reich's stellar romantic minimalism, like their mutual 1989 recording of "Different Trains." Triple Quartet managed to fill every square inch of the auditorium with vibrating pulsing sound, making one feel like he or she was sitting on the nucleus of an atom and observing the interplay of electrons orbiting around you.
I saw some people I knew behind me, and knowing Kronos' penchant for scoring popular rock favorites (Their rendition of Purple Haze" was a favorite back in my college radio days.) I tried to get them to join me in yelling "Freebird!" at the end, but they wouldn't budge. But the group must have heard my inner cal, because they returned for an encore of Jimi Hendrix's Woodstock rendition of "The Star Spangled Banner" replete with imitating the feedback, detuned wails and fiery explosions. Sure, doing things like this is a softball to the peanut gallery in usual classical concert terms, but their softball packs a wallop. It was undeniably feral, recreating that exorcism of ironic patriotism present in the original. I still think they should work up a version of "Free Bird" but that's just me. They came back one more time for a somber middle eastern song they heard on a recording trip, bringing it all back down to earth. Overall, it was maybe the most entertaining and engaging classical performances I have attended, so if you are looking to get your well-heeled feet wet, Kronos is great place to start.
P.S. Thanks to Rob for getting us these tickets, and I hope you are feeling better soon.
Alex V. Cook listens to everything and writes about most of it. His latest book, the snappily titled Louisiana Saturday Night: Looking for a Good Time in South Louisiana's Juke Joints, Honky-Tonks, and Dance Halls is an odyssey from the backwoods bars and small-town dives to the swampside dance halls and converted clapboard barns of a Louisiana Saturday Night. Don't leave Heathrow without it. His first book Darkness Racket and Twang is available from SideCartel. The full effect can be had at alex v cook.com
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