Photo by Sidney Chen, courtesy Walker Art Center
One measure by which to judge a Kronos Quartet performance is the degree to which it challenges your notion of classical music. Yes, Kronos comprises two violinists (David Harrington and John Sherba), a violist (Hank Dutt), and a cellist (Jeffrey Ziegler), which is the standard orchestral quartet; Kronos, however, is anything but standard. For over 30 years Kronos have been pushing the definition of classical music with astounding success, having commissioned over 700 works and arrangements and released more than 45 recordings.
On February 4 and 5, Kronos Quartet performed at the Walker Art Center, their first visit in nearly eight years. Friday's program, "Music without Borders," comprised eight pieces and an encore with a selection of composers from the far away places of Azerbaijan, India, Iran, Iraq, Palestine, and Serbia, as well as the much closer Canada and California. In spite of the varied sources, there were common threads clearly woven through the program. The quartet's signature use of tapes to augment and add complexity to the live performance was one of those threads. Saturday's program, which comprised nine works and two encore pieces, was titled, "Sonic Edge: Indie, Rock, Jazz, Beyond..." and also made use of prerecorded music and sounds. Although nearly all of the composers were from the U.S., the program did not lack musical diversity.
Friday's program opened with Derek Charke's Cercle du Nord III, a piece written for Kronos that begins with the sounds of the Canadian far north: sled dogs barking, wind howling, boots crunching on snow, and then the sounds of civilization: truck tires on snow, a car door slamming. As the quartet began to play, a driving pace was established that continued throughout the work. I often find it difficult to visualize what instrumental music may be trying to suggest, even after reading the program notes, but as Cercle du Nord III took off, my mind was flooded with images of sled dogs racing across a vast frozen landscape, their panting and the sound of the paws breaking the crust on the snow the only noises to interrupt the frozen landscape. Even in this world the sounds of humanity were never far away; I was pulled from my imagined world by Inuit throat singing also featured prominently in the work. I had never heard throat singing before and was struck by the depth and intensity of the music.
There were other highlights from the evening including the second work, Raga Mishra Bhairavi: Alap, composed by Ram Narayan, arranged by Kronos, and transcribed by Ljova, whicha was a mesmerizing piece due to the use of the shruti box, played by David Harrington, and the electric sitar, played by John Sherba. It was an unusual treat to experience a work that featured not only two unique Indian instruments, but also the viola as the instrument that carried the melody for the duration of the piece.
Another stimulating work was Tashweesh, composed by the Palestinian group Ramallah Underground and arranged by Jacob Garchik; it did not involve additional instruments on stage. The tape used for the work was raw and electronic. It sounded intentionally lo-fi and messy, which set off the crisp plucking and bowing of Kronos. It was also one of a handful of pieces that featured voices—in this case speaking, not singing.
The extensive program notes gave some background on the relationships between Kronos and the composers, but I was hoping David Harrington would elaborate in between works. Instead, he took the microphone only to announce each work and provide, at most, a sentence regarding its origin. It was unclear why and how the group chose the nine works for Friday's program and the title for the evening did nothing to clarify the choices. Some of the composers no longer live in their native countries, but others do. Some of the works were obviously inspired by and included elements of the cultures from which the composers came, but the title for the program seemed to only loosely tie everything together.
Saturday's performance, although also ambiguously titled, was much more musically coherent across the entire set of works. All but a few of the works played on Saturday were commissioned by or written for Kronos. The program notes for most of the works offered useful glimpses into their creation. The notes for Eremikophobia, composed by JG Thirlwell, described the journey he took to the desserts of Oman to record the sounds of the sand, which he described as "singing sands [or] booming dunes." The tape as well as the music played by the quartet successfully invoked the sensation of being transported to a hot, windy dessert.
Another work that created a strong atmosphere was Flow, composed by Laurie Anderson and arranged for Kronos by Jacob Garchik It was a literally breathtaking piece that seemed so delicate it would fall apart at any moment, like the flapping of the wings of a hummingbird made of glass. The sound was precise and clear, but so fragile I found myself holding my breath through much of the work as though my exhalation could shatter the sound.
The two encore works were crowd definite crowd-pleasers, but for totally different reasons. The first was an arrangement by Stephen Prutsman of Flugufresarinn, which is a work by the Icelandic experimental rock group Sigur Rós. Of all of the works from both evenings, this was the most cinematic and sweeping. It seemed like there might have been an entire orchestra on stage as Kronos filled the theater with crashing waves of sound.
The second piece was introduced by David Hamrrington as "something we've never done before," which immediately piqued my interest. As the four members lined up at the front of the stage and then turned their backs to the audience, the room tensed with anticipation. The curtains were pulled back to reveal a screen and then a red line was projected vertically through the middle of the screen. A chuckle of recognition rippled through the audience as the score for Krzysztof Penderecki's String Quartet No. 1 (1960) began to move across the screen from right to left, in a fashion amusingly similar to the video game Rock Band.
The piece itself was an odd assortment of sounds with no discernible melody or chords, which was a perfect choice of music for the audience to see as Kronos played. It wasn't until the second encore that my question, "Are they going to do something really cool, crazy, or off the wall?" was answered. I realized as the four of them turned their backs to us, that I had been waiting since the opening notes of Friday's concert for Kronos to truly surprise me. And they did.
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