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…