What the Kronos quartet represents is less the genuinely new than the literally recent. But it may be our only great vehicle for experimental musicby Erik Tarloff / March 20, 2003 / Leave a comment
When the members of the Kronos quartet step on to the stage of the Barbican on the 21st and 22nd March, they will be celebrating the ensemble’s 30th anniversary with two programmes that, in their heterodox weirdness, are entirely characteristic. The first concert, a music-and-video melange, contains pieces with titles like ‘Cat O’ Nine Tails’ and ‘Boogie Woogie 3A’. No composer represented on this programme was born before the turn of the 20th century. The oldest, Hollywood’s Bernard Herrmann (in an arrangement of his score for the sci-fi movie, ‘The Day the Earth Stood Still’), was born in 1911, while the youngest was born in 1978. Not a single piece on the bill could be described as belonging to the standard repertoire. Indeed, it is likely that none has ever been publicly performed by another string quartet.
The second concert consists of the European premiere of ‘Sun Rings’, an hour-long piece by the American avant-garde composer Terry Riley to a commission from Nasa. It is written for string quartet, a vocal choir 60 voices strong and miscellaneous sounds from outer space recorded by astrophysicist Donald Gurnett, accompanied by images sent back to earth by the Voyager spacecraft during its fly-bys of Mars and Jupiter.
The San Francisco-based Kronos is not your standard conservatory product. Its website lists all the composers whose work it has ever played, on it you will search in vain for the names Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert, Schumann or Brahms. You will, on the other hand, find the likes of Rabih Abou-Khalil, Hamza El Din, Michaelangelo Lupone and Giya Kancheli; not to mention Bo Diddley, Willy Dixon and a joke pop group called Mr Bungle. The ensemble’s most conventional offerings?works by composers such as Bart?k, Shostakovich, and Sch?nberg?would be the most outr? excursions in the repertoire of any other chamber group.
The classical world has long had its new-music specialists. But traditionally, these have occupied a rather lonely niche, sacrificing conventional popularity to their sense of mission. The Kronos quartet breaks this mould by being, as Newsweek judged, “the world’s most successful chamber group.” At a time when classical music?even reassuringly familiar music from the 18th and 19th centuries?has difficulty finding an audience, Kronos CDs are frequently crossover bestsellers (since its 1992 release, ‘Pieces of Africa’ has sold over 300,000 copies?an extremely impressive figure in this market). The Kronos attracts a younger following than other ensembles and occasionally performs film music, such as the score composed by Philip Glass for a re-release of the classic 1931 ‘Dracula’, starring B?la Lugosi. Kronos concerts tend to sell out.
The cynical explanation for this success would be image. From the start, and long before Nigel Kennedy discarded his dinner suit, members of the Kronos favoured an outlaw presentation (leather, spandex and spiky, punk-inspired hair-dos). Its original cellist, Joan Jeanrenaud, is a beautiful, leggy blonde. When she left the group in 1999, her replacement was Jennifer Culp, a beautiful, leggy brunette. In the early years, its most popular encore was a hair-raising arrangement of Jimi Hendrix’s ‘Purple Haze’.
No doubt this aspect of the group’s personality helped put it on the map. But that does not begin to explain its longevity. As a mere PR stunt, it would have worn thin long ago (second violinist John Sherba no longer has enough hair left to spike). Nor, even, is the quality of the group’s playing the essential determinant. Which is not to deny that it is very good. Performances of the less obscure items in its repertoire are usually irreproachable, if not always the best available. Nevertheless, if performance quality were the main issue, we would be celebrating a group like the Emerson quartet rather than the Kronos. (The Kronos benefits in this regard by mostly playing music for which comparisons are difficult, if only because no one else will go near it.)
Even the group’s apparent commitment to a single musical style is not the reason. That commitment is deceptive: semantic rather than musical. While its repertoire is unarguably dominated by contemporary music?very contemporary music?the Kronos seems, at bottom, to value contemporaneity for its own sake, not as an expression of a musical philosophy or taste.
Nowhere is this more evident than in the group’s commissioning history. The Kronos quartet has commissioned, or had commissioned on its behalf, over 400 new pieces?a staggering number. Its entire repertoire contains approximately 600 pieces, which means that fully two thirds of the music it plays was written specifically for the ensemble. But what a hodge-podge this repertoire represents: the gnarly, east European post-serialism of composers like Henryk G?recki and Krysztof Penderecki; the abstruse, muscular modernism of Americans like Elliott Carter and Morton Feldman; the sophisticated, bouncily approachable dance music of Astor Piazzolla; but also the euphonious minimalism of composers like Steve Reich and Philip Glass; the jazz and pop sensibility of David Grisman and Frank Zappa, plus a wide range of African, Latin American and middle eastern musicians, most of them performers on exotic instruments (and many of them musically illiterate), whose style is conventionally tuneful, folk-inflected and harmonically limited.
Despite its avant-garde reputation, Kronos’s passion is less for the genuinely new than simply for the recent. It’s a buffet-table approach: try a bit of this and, if you don’t like it, help yourself to a bit of that. At a time when no single style or manner dominates respectable compositional praxis, and when no two opposing styles contend, as they did in the musical cold war that dominated much of the previous century, this openness to a wide variety of styles may be a defensible, and sensible, approach. It certainly demonstrates an appealing relativist spirit; and this spirit?this implicit notion that all sorts of music are equally valid and perhaps equally valuable?has played a decisive role in the group’s popularity.
Nevertheless, does this also represent an abdication of authority? The Kronos quartet has become, for much of its audience, a filter through which modern music?and perhaps modernism itself?is experienced and judged. The ensemble’s refusal to maintain any hierarchy, to draw any distinctions, to adhere to any credo, may also limit its potentially boundless influence on 21st-century music. The broader ambitions of the group can be summed up by Kronos first violinist David Harrington: “I’ve always wanted the string quartet to be vital and energetic and alive and cool and not afraid to kick ass.” Perhaps this does amount to an artistic credo. Certainly, no one can deny that Harrington has got his wish.