Thursday, May 15, 2014

Kronos at 40

The Guardian has a review up of the Kronos Quartet's 40th anniversary concert at the Barbican in London.
The Kronos Quartet has packed a lot into 40 years. It has redefined what a quartet might look like – Rio-era Duran Duran, for part of the 1980s. It has met Big Bird. Most importantly, it has commissioned two new works for every month of its 40 years. This concert added two more.
Kronos was formed by violinist David Harrington after he heard George Crumb's Black Angels. But there was no music as wild as that here; indeed, what was striking about this programme was how conservative much of it seemed.
I am a bit ambivalent about a lot of modernism, but that just means that I pick and choose between what seems to have been genuinely innovative and valuable (the Beatles, Steve Reich, Arvo Pärt) and what was more superficial and trivial (Led Zeppelin, Andy Warhol, George Crumb). The Kronos Quartet have consistently over the years been one of the most creative ensembles working in the area of modernism (and post-modernism, however we define that). I have been a fan of theirs ever since buying one of their early albums in the late 1980s:

This came out in 1986 and was preceded by three other albums, one released in 1982 and the others in 1985. This one was particularly interesting to me because, while it had music by Philip Glass, the Australian Peter Sculthorpe, the American but resident in Mexico Conlon Nancarrow and the Finn Aulis Sallinen, it also had a piece by one Jimi Hendrix and as a musician who had myself passed from rock to classical, I was fascinated to hear how a string quartet would handle that kind of music.

But first, let's have a listen to some of the other music on the album. Here is the String Quartet No. 8 by Peter Sculthorpe, written in 1969:

You should probably ignore the images on the video because, as we learn from the liner notes to the album, this music was not at all inspired by the Aborigines of Australia, but rather by the music of Bali.

The piece by Philip Glass on the album was composed in 1983 and began as incidental music to the play Company by Samuel Beckett. Here is a performance, not by Kronos, but by the ReDo Quartet:

So that gives you a bit of a sense of the album. Placed at the end, as a sort of encore, is the piece by Jimi Hendrix, Purple Haze from the album The Jimi Hendrix Experience, recorded and released in 1967. Should we listen to the two versions side by side? Well, sure, why not. Here is the original:

And here is Kronos:

Incidentally, that is a concert performance, not the one from the album, which was a bit quicker.

I loved this when I first heard it and I still love it. I'm not sure exactly why. Perhaps because it suggests to me that powerful musical expression is something that transcends genre and style. Coming to the string quartet from rock music and doing a lot of listening to the Beethoven late quartets in my early 20s, I certainly didn't need for a string quartet to be "cool". But on the other hand, if you decided to be cool with the integrity shown by Kronos, then that was fine by me.

I suppose the real message I take from this Kronos album is that there is some remarkable and unusual music out there that remains to be discovered. I hope that this will always be the case.

To end with, here is a piece by the South African composer Kevin Volans, from a later album:

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