Smile Politely

Avant Drag: A Review of Kronos Quartet

Krannert Center, 4/3/08

William: For over 35 years, Kronos Quartet has performed and commissioned unusual works, sometimes receiving criticism from the general direction of the stodgy, black-tie classical music establishment. With their striking fashions and eclectic repertoire — including Black Angels, a piece of music based on the Vietnam War, and their much-cited Hendrix cover/arrangement — their music is undeniably transgressive in the sense of crossing boundaries.

But is it progressive in the sense of yearning, leaning toward a fairer world? Tonight’s program suggested that the quartet was responding to the new resurgence of U.S. militarism by including music from Iraq, Iran, Serbia, Armenia and India. I thought this would be a bold refutation of the elitist hegemony of U.S. culture and highbrow, “classical” art music. After the concert, I’m less convinced.

Cristy: I have an avant-garde chip on my shoulder. But I went to Kronos with an open mind, although I had many questions: If you attend an “avant-garde” concert, what are you supposed to look for? Is weirder better? Does abrasive dissonance make for a good performance? To me, this music sounds like Thanksgiving at my grandma’s when all the kids pound annoyingly on the piano.

W: Avant-garde refers to the army scouts who secure new ground so that the masses of troops may advance in their footsteps. Art’s like an organism that we assume is mutating into increasingly sophisticated forms, more highly evolved than our ears — trained on obsolete harmonic codes — can understand. A corrupt, violent and decadent social structure is reinforced by traditional music, and perhaps new forms of art can shatter habits and help society to evolve into better forms.

Unfortunately, the masses whom it behooves to instigate social change likely couldn’t afford $30 tickets for the incomprehensible music Kronos offered that night.

At first, Kronos Quartet appeared to tune, but it slowly became clear that this was the piece. Then it became clear that the piece was on tape, and their bows weren’t touching the instruments. The sound built to a roaring noise as they mimed flailing their bows. Then silence — and the stage went black.

C: Why didn’t they tune before the show? I thought. A few audience members tittered knowingly. I rolled my eyes. (It reminded me of Shakespeare performances, when an obscure joke causes snickers among the insecure who want their fellow audience members to know they get it, when they really don’t.) The quartet writhed in their seats like robots and the music swirled, louder and louder. So it’s performance, I surmised. Okay, I can appreciate this.

The second piece was a combination of twisty film noir and a horrifying sci-fi movie. Kronos could make their simple string instruments sound like organs from outer space.They placed gracefully, with needle precision.The dynamics put emo’s quiet-loud-quiet trademark sound to shame!

W: This was Nomatophobis (2005) by J.G. Thirlwell. With intense looping, it reminded me of a freight train rushing past, moaning off quietly into the night, then backing up. While remaining repetitive, it morphed from section to section through transitions both smooth and inexplicable.

C: The next piece, by John Zorn (The Dead Man, 1990), was dedicated to artist/photographer Robert Mapplethorpe. Maybe — but it should’ve been Mel Blanc. It sounded like the soundtrack to a Warner Bros. cartoon with harsh, staccato beats tailor-made for Wile E. Coyote chasing after the Roadrunner.

At the same time, I did appreciate the way the instruments talked, argued, debated and fought for dominance. That was cool.

W: Your take on the Zorn piece is prescient, Cristy. The soundtrack music for the Bugs Bunny/Roadrunner cartoons was written by Carl Stalling. Zorn, who wrote liner notes to the CD release of Carl Stalling’s music, has openly confessed that Stalling was a big influence on him.

C: A-ha!

W: The next piece, a composition by the German industrial noise band Einstărzende Neubauten (Armenia, 1983), consisted of a grating tape loop and the four quartet members banging on the trash their roadies had assembled around the stage. I was reminded of Fat Albert and the Cosby Kids> when the characters performed songs on debris from the junkyard.

C: See? That’s what I find grating! The music pretends to be elite and highbrow, not the music of the masses. Total B.S. I could’ve stayed at work tonight listening to the construction dudes hammering in the building next door, and it would have sounded the same as Kronos. At least then I’d be able to catch the strains of Van Halen twofers wafting from the workers’ boombox.

W: Cellist Jeffrey Ziegler used a circular saw on some metal, creating a shower of sparks and plumes of smoke. I had to laugh. The theater smelled like a burning tire when the piece was over and they all ridiculously bowed, pleased that the audience would eat anything they served.

C: The raga was slow and droning, as I find many ragas to be. The next piece sounded like racecars circling an Indy track, Doppler effect and all. During Requiem for a Dream Suite (Clint Mansell, 2000), the stage was bathed in a sickly, ectoplasm green. At intermission, I staggered into the light of the lobby, relieved and exhausted.

W: I loved the raga, “Alap” from Raga Mishra Bhairavi by Ram Narayan. They played it pure, without hokey staging or postmodern rearrangement. The groovy lightshow was reasonably subtle, and my critical acumen relaxed.

C: The traditional Iranian piece was beautiful — pleasing to the ear, with haunting, beautiful chord combinations. However, by the end of the concert I was so tired of the repetition and the constant assault of dissonant hammering that my mind started drifting far from the Krannert Center.

W: The Iraqi folk song (“Oh Mother, the Handsome Man Tortures Me”) disappointed me when I heard tape behind the ensemble. Their use of ubiquitous tape backing here bothered me. A pure arrangement of Iraqi folk music for Western string instruments would have constituted a translation — some kind of connection between the two cultures. My frustration grew with the Serbian piece (…hold me, neighbor, in this storm… by Aleksandra Vrebalov, 2007). The music is loaded with cultural messages lost on us, I thought. Must all this traditional music be shredded through the filter of avant-gardism? All this diversity is starting to seem like a way of dismissing, not embracing, a variety of cultures by knowingly feeding bits of them into the postmodern blender without sympathy, without reverence, without surrendering to their beauty.

C: I’m a pop chick. I like harmony, not dissonance. Hell, even the few pieces of classical music I like are wimpy, sugary stuff: Beethoven’s 7th, Saint-Saens’ Danse Macabre, Tschaikovsky’s Peter and the Wolf. Kronos is far from pop, but I believe it’s important for us “avant-garde” novices to expand our horizons and check it out—even if it simply reinforces why we don’t like it!

W: For their encore, they performed “Night of the Vampires” by Joe Meek and a Sigur Rós composition — both excellent. Maybe this is what Kronos is best at, I thought — schlock and pop.

C: I enjoyed the encore. When you see members of our community — everyone from grandparents to high school students — mouths agape during Sigur Rós, then Kronos accomplished what they aim for: shattering musical boundaries.

But I was still glad when it was over.

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